A theory of mental health
In Toward a psychology of being, the psychologist Abraham Maslow puts forward a theory of psychological health that is predicated on the fulfilment of human needs. Maslow believed that fellow psychologists tended to focus too heavily on the symptoms of people who are mentally unwell, and not enough on the qualities of healthy people. He suggested that we should study the lives of those who display positive mental health in an attempt to gather insight that can be used to heal those who are ill. Maslow referred to these healthy individuals as ‘self-actualizing’ people and suspected that they had particular traits which granted them optimal psychological health and functioning.
“Contemporary psychology has mostly studied not-having rather than having, striving rather than fulfilment, frustration rather than gratification, seeking for joy rather than having attained joy, trying to get there rather than being there.”
Central to Maslow’s theory was the idea that all human beings are born with an essential intrinsic nature that is biologically determined. This inner nature is motivated to grow by fulfilling various needs. Maslow identified these specific needs in his now-famous hierarchy of needs (see below). The hierarchy is represented by a pyramid which has the five stages of growth generally observed in people. The most fundamental of human needs (which lie at the bottom of the pyramid) are those that allow a person to survive; such as needing water, food and safety. When this lower stage is satisfied, individuals then progress to the next stage where they desire emotional fulfilment. People at this stage of the hierarchy are motivated by social needs and seek love, satisfying relationships and self-esteem.
The fifth and final stage of growth is known as self-actualization. Maslow believed that very few people reach this stage and those that do do so because they have fulfilled all the other needs in the hierarchy. These individuals now desire to realise their full potential. They try to accomplish everything that they can and try to become everything that they can be. Individuals at this stage are motivated to seek a deeper understanding of the world, themself and others. They take part in activities that assist them in this such as creating art and exploring their psychology. This final stage of growth represents the full development of the innate nature of human beings. It is this complete development, this “full-humanness”, which Maslow suggests is the reason that self-actualizing people have optimal psychological health.
“Just as all trees need sun, water, and foods from the environment, so do all people need safety, love and status from their environment. However, in both cases this is just where real development of individuality can begin, for once satiated with these elementary, species-wide necessities, each tree and each person proceeds to develop in his own style, uniquely, using these necessities for his own private purposes. In a very meaningful sense, development then becomes determined from within rather than from without.”
Thus, to understand what factors contribute to mental illness, we must acknowledge our innate desire for growth. We must recognise that, amongst other things, the environment can help as well as hinder growth and plays a key role in psychological health. Contrary to other views at the time, Maslow believed that human beings should not be defined as how useful they are to society or how they are viewed by others. Instead, we should recognise that all people are individuals who have essential needs and when these needs are not met, mental illnesses can arise.
When an individual is deprived of certain needs, they yearn for gratification persistently. If the person is unable to gratify their deficiencies, sickness results. In some cases, they become victims of neurosis and negative personality disorders. Self-actualizing people, on the other hand, demonstrate none of the deficiencies of those who are mentally ill. In other words, satisfying deficiencies avoid illnesses; satisfying growth produces positive psychological health. For this reason, studying the psychology of such people provides a greater understanding of what ideal mental health may be.
“What makes people neurotic? My answer was, in brief, that neuroses seemed at its core, and in its beginning, to be a deficiency disease; that it was born out of being deprived of certain satisfactions which I called needs in the same sense that water and amino acids and calcium are needs, namely that their absence produces illnesses. Most neuroses involved, along with other complex determinants, ungratified wishes for safety, for belongingness and identification, for close love relationships and for respect and prestige.”
The study of self-actualizing people may also have wider implications on society. Maslow believed that because examining the psychological traits of self-actualizing people can be done scientifically, they will inevitably result in the discovery of objective values. While many poets, prophets, priests and artists throughout human history have provided insight on how to love, be creative and be joyful; their findings can not be seen as objective. Maslow believed that scientific observations of self-actualizing people overcome this issue and can help make mankind sure about how to live well.
When we look at how people choose to live their life, we see that most human beings generally seek a system of values to devote their life to. We want to understand what is bad and what is good, what is right and what is wrong. In most cases, a person finds this framework of values in their religion. But the need for a system of values that is both functioning as well as objectively true has seen a decline in religious belief. As a result, many have turned away from external values and instead look inwards for a value system which tells them how to be good, how to be happy, how to love and how to fulfil their potential.
Maslow believed that the study of those who are self-actualizing provides us with this naturalistic value system that many are seeking. If we understand what a self-actualizing person is like deep inside, we can teach the attitudes and tendencies they have to others in society. Indeed, scientific observation of such people may show us how people live well, which society may prefer over being told how one ought to live. The fact that we observe human beings strive for growth through the various stages of needs suggests that self-actualisation may be the ultimate goal for mankind.
“What is the good life? What is the good man? How can people be taught to desire and prefer the good life? how ought children to be bought up to be sound adults? etc…we think that a scientific ethic may be possible, and we think we know how to go about constructing it.”
The psychology of self-actualized people
Maslow states that according to his observations, there are substantial differences between the cognition of self-actualizing individuals and others. One such difference is in the way we perceive the world. When we look out into the world, most of what we perceive is categorised and classified by our brains. Our brains do this so that we can navigate through the world efficiently. Our perceptions, however, are influenced by our needs. Consequently, we may not be cognising the nature of the world as it is. Self-actualizing individuals have fewer needs and are less influenced by them. They are, therefore, more able to see the intrinsic nature of the world.
When the perception of the world is less determined by classification, the boundaries between different categories become more abstract. A self-actualizing person is more able to conceive simultaneously the opposites in an idea, object or person. In a world where concepts like good and bad, male and female, child and adult, right and wrong are seen as mutually exclusive, the self-actualizing person can interpret abstractions between the polarities. They can see the unselfish traits in selfish people and the childish characteristics in the adult. Self-actualizing people are thus more likely to have a non-judging attitude towards others. When they see an apparently “evil” person, they can also see the good inside them. Instead of condemnation, they feel pity, charity, understanding and forgiveness.
This superior perception of the world also extends to situations in their life. As self-actualizing people are more understanding, they become more accepting of the things that happen to them. Even though much of their growth needs are gratified, self-actualizing people are not exempt from the common problems in life such as guilt, fear, loneliness and anxiety. But because they know that such problems are inherent in the human condition, they turn to themselves to find some inner resolution to their conflicts. Instead of blaming the world and others, they take part in self-searching and the sources of their actions are more internal than reactive.
This detached perception of others means that self-actualizing people are much less likely to view those around them as tools and be less reliant on them. On the other hand, those are motivated by the need for safety, belongingness and love can only be satisfied with other people. A person in this position is considerably more dependent on others and the environment and because of this, they are less free. They must be flexible and adjust themself to behave in a way that is fit for the approval of others. Because of this, such individuals are less likely to be their authentic self.
“Such people become far more self-sufficient and self-contained. the determinants which govern them are now primarily inner ones, rather than social or environmental. They are the laws of their own inner nature, their potentialities and capacities, their talents, their latest resources, their creative impulses, their needs to know themselves and to become more and more integrated and unified, more and more aware of what they really are, of what they really want, of what their call or vocation or fate is to be.
Since they depend less on other people, they are less ambivalent about them, less anxious and also less hostile, less needful of their praise and their affection. They are less anxious for honors, prestige and rewards.”
In contrast, self-actualizing people are gratified of their basic needs and are, therefore, less dependent on others. Indeed, they frequently desire autonomy and privacy as solitude may help in their self-actualization. Because the self-actualizing individual is more self-determined and a greater master of his fate, they are more resistant to enculturation. Rather than being a person whose identity is tied to a nation, ideology or religion, they see themself as an individual in the human race. Self-actualising people, therefore, tend to look within themselves for rules to live by and more suspicious of any unjust laws in society.
One of Freud’s key discoveries was that the cause of psychological illnesses is the fear of knowledge of oneself. It can be observed that many people fear understanding their emotions, impulses and even potentialities. This kind of fear is defensive as resistance to such knowledge is the protection of our identity and our self-esteem. As Maslow writes, “we tend to be afraid of any knowledge that could cause us to despise ourselves or to make us feel inferior, weak, worthless, evil, shameful”. The self-actualizing individual, on the other hand, enjoys introspection and for this reason, is less fearful of knowledge about himself.
This courage to look at oneself honestly and critically enables self-actualising individuals to progress in their growth where others are unable to. Every human being has an innate nature to grow but we also have a desire to cling to safety. Both forces act within us with one impelling us forward toward individuality, and one pulling us backwards to protect us from the anxiety that comes with being unique and independent.
It is for these reasons that both growth and non-growth have advantages and disadvantages. Safety and non-growth can be delightful because we feel protected, but it can also be detrimental as we refuse to realise our full potential. Growth is delightful as we realise this potential but the territory is uncertain and so growth can cause anxiety. Self-actualising people find the anxieties of non-growth greater than the anxiety of growth and so enjoy the delights of growth. This courageous attitude towards the world contributes to self-actualizing individuals developing into more complete human beings.
A healthy culture
If self-actualization cultivates positive mental health, why so many people are unable reach the final stage of growth is worth exploring. As mentioned, fear is one reason as it pulls an individual backwards so that they prefer safety rather than growth. A further reason may be that the innate instinct for self-fulfilment is weak in contrast to the instinct to survive and socialise. Indeed, the impulse to realise one’s potential is weak enough to be overpowered by environmental factors such as education, traumatic experiences and cultural attitudes.
Culture and the environment is crucial as if one is to reach the stage of self-actualization, they must first fulfil their other needs. Our higher nature rests on our lower nature and it is therefore inconceivable to fulfil our higher nature without a foundation. If we are to gratify our lower needs first, our higher nature rests on the existence of a good environment. We can not expect people to reach their potential and to have positive mental health if they spend most of their time just trying to survive.
The society that we live in plays a part both in need-gratification as well as in causing frustration and deficiency. For there to be healthy individuals in a culture, the culture must also be healthy. The two are not mutually exclusive because the interests of the individual and the interests of the culture are the same and that interest is healthy functioning. For there to be healthy people in a society, the environment must permit individuals to actualize their potential by providing him with the ability to gratify all their needs.
“Sick people are made by a sick culture; healthy people are made possible by a healthy culture. But it is just as true that sick individuals make their culture more sick and that healthy individuals make their culture more healthy. Improving individual health is one approach to making a better world.”