The base of Maslow’s pyramid contains our most basic biological needs, while safety, love, and self-esteem form the next three levels, respectively. The textbook capstone of the pyramid is a desire for self-actualization, or self-fulfillment. Without meeting one’s basic needs at the bottom, said Maslow, one cannot have those more evolved, uniquely human needs at the top. Thus self-actualization, according to Maslow’s first model, is what all people ultimately strive toward—it’s the purpose of life.
But a new article in the Review of General Psychology revisits Maslow’s theory. According to its author, Mark Koltko-Rivera, Maslow’s reasoning shifted over the course of his career. The shift occurred while he was studying peak experiences, which are “mystical experiences, aesthetic experiences, [and] emotional experiences involving nature.” Maslow posited that a separate cognitive activity occurs during these experiences. Unlike the egocentrism of everyday thought patterns, the cognitive activity experienced during peak experience “[goes] beyond or above selfhood;” he called this “Being-cognition.”
At first, Maslow assumed “Being-cognition” was a characteristic of the self-actualized individual. He reasoned that as an individual becomes self-actualized, “he is more able to fuse with the world, with what was formally not-self.” However, Maslow soon found his attempt to conflate self-actualization with Being-cognition presented a paradox. Many people he earlier described as being self-actualized, like President Eisenhower, clearly do not engage in “Being-cognition.” Others, like Mother Teresa, do.
In order to account for people like Mother Teresa, who were clearly self-actualized but also held an apparent desire to “identify with something greater than the individual self,” Maslow set a higher motivational level above self-actualization. He named this motivational level “self-transcendence.”
By renaming self-transcendence as the new capstone, Maslow revered the profound human capacity to “[go] beyond or above self-hood.” The implication of Maslow’s revision is eloquently stated in Koltko-Rivera’s final analysis:
At the level of self-actualization, the individual works to actualize the individual’s own potential [whereas] at the level of transcendence, the individual’s own needs are put aside, to a great extent, in favor of service to others... Certainly the image of the best developed human being that emerges from Maslow’s hierarchy is very different depending on which of these two stages is placed at the top of the motivational hierarchy.
Indeed, according to Maslow’s final theory, the purpose of life is not to perfect oneself, but to transcend oneself by connecting with others. This is a radical new understanding of one of the dominant theories in modern psychology.