Abraham Maslow nailed it. In 1943, the American psychology professor came up with this pyramid called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:
Back in the 40’s, psychologists focused their time on figuring out how to fix people’s problems, or in other words, minimize the negatives. Maslow believed more time should rather be spent figuring out how to maximize the positive qualities of healthy people, and thus the chart was born. Without getting in to too much detail about it, basically you develop as a human as you move up the pyramid.
You start out at the bottom with basic human needs: breathing, food, shelter. Then as you meet those needs you rise to the next level of needs, those being health, prosperity, safety, and so on. Once those are met you search for love and belonging, followed by self-esteem, confidence and respect, then finally the highest (but most fulfilling) level: self-actualization, and though not shown on this chart, self-transcendence, or enlightenment (if you haven’t made it there yet, keep trying! Or just ask the Dalai-Lama what it’s like, he’s one of the few who’s made it to the top.)
From a happiness perspective, the general consensus is that true happiness and a sense of well being are found if you spend a large portion of your time in-and-above the middle level of “love and belonging.” We all experience every level of the pyramid to some degree, it just varies on how much. The issue though is thanks to modern day advertising and lifestyle, where we often try to reach higher levels like self-esteem, respect and even friendship by acquiring bottom level material goods like clothes, cars and a big house.
It’s impossible to reach those upper tiers by focusing your time and energy into the basics. A nice car will never fully provide self-esteem and belonging. We all want to experience these higher levels, but it takes time to get there, which is why we try and take the short-cut to happiness by buying more stuff, leaving us feeling unfulfilled.
Advertising works on this psychological fact, telling us “it’s easy to have confidence, you just need these name brand clothes.” So by freeing up your mind from focusing on acquiring trivial goods, we can direct our time and energy on moving up the pyramid to the more important, lifelong needs.
OKAY. So that said, I want to throw in my personal twist on this concept. I call it Brady’s Problem-Solving Pyramid. (Patent-pending):
It’s the same concept as Maslow’s Hierarchy but applied to a person’s focus on solving problems on a daily basis.
For instance, I rode my bike past a group of homeless people and I thought to myself: “those guys’ primary concern is the location of their next meal and where they’re going to sleep tonight.” They focus a significant amount of their time in the bottom level of Maslow’s pyramid, working to fulfill the basic human needs. “I’m sure the last thing on their minds is the effects of climate change, obesity epidemics and GMO crops. They’re just hoping to wake up safe and warm and full.”
I went on to think: “okay, so if those guys are at the bottom of this problem-solving pyramid (that being the problem of food and shelter) where does the average middle-class person sit?” And I realized that we sometimes get stuck in the middle level, concerning ourselves with the trivial problems of acquiring more stuff. Doing so holds us back from reaching the top level of problems greater than our own: poverty, climate-change, political-corruption etc. This might be why we see widespread apathy at the voting booths: we are overly concerned about ourselves, and therefore we’re distracted from the bigger picture.
By learning to be content with what we have, it will allow us to move up the pyramid. The human mind is always searching for a problem to solve, whether it be ‘where will I sleep tonight?’, ‘What make of car should I buy?’ or ‘How can I reduce my impact on the earth?’ By reducing our focus on the lower levels, the further up the pyramid we can go, and the faster we can tackle the big-picture issues.