by Alexander Green
Throughout the 20th century, most psychological research focused on the dark and destructive side of human nature, the abnormal, the psychotic.
Abraham Maslow changed that.
Rather than focusing on phobias, neuroses, obsessions and other mental disorders, the pioneering psychologist studied individuals who lived abundant lives, making the best use of their qualities and capacities and exhibiting the highest levels of mental health.
He called these men and women self-actualizers.
Maslow believed that human beings have a hierarchy of needs. Higher needs are only met when lower ones have been fulfilled.
At the bottom, for example, we have physiological needs like oxygen, food, water, and sleep.
Next we have safety and security needs. These include things like a safe neighborhood, a secure and comfortable home, and a regular source of income. Beyond these, we all require love and belonging. We seek friends, a romantic partner, an affectionate family, social groups and a sense of community.
Once these needs are met, we look to fulfill our esteem. People everywhere crave freedom, attention, recognition, appreciation, and status. At this point, however, many individuals stop. Things are pretty comfortable. Life is good. Yet real satisfaction is often lacking for a very specific reason.
"A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy," said Maslow. "What a man can be, he must be. This need we call self-actualization."
What is it exactly?
Using a qualitative method called "biographical analysis," Maslow chose an elite group of highly functioning people, interviewed them and the people around them, or studied their words, acts, and letters.
His group included such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Walt Whitman, William James, Albert Schweitzer, Benedict Spinoza, and Thomas Jefferson. From his research, Maslow distilled 16 characteristics that define the self-actualizing individual:
1. Openness to experience. Self-actualizers are eager to undergo new experiences and rethink old ideas.
2. An efficient perception of reality. Self-actualizers see things as they really are, not as they imagine or wish them to be.
3. Acceptance of self, nature and others. Self-actualizers rarely feel anxious, guilty or ashamed. They are confident in themselves and their ability to solve problems.
4. Spontaneity and naturalness. Self-actualizers are genuine in their relationships. They do not wear masks or play roles.
5. Focus on outside problems. Self-actualizers are not self-obsessed. Their focus is on a general "mission" to which they devote their lives.
6. Detachment and privacy. Self-actualizers crave solitude and time for quiet reflection.
7. Continued freshness or appreciation. The self-actualizing man or woman experiences joy in simple, everyday things: sunsets, starry nights, children laughing, autumn leaves.
8. Peak experiences. Self-actualizers experience strong, positive emotions akin to ecstasy. This may include a deep sense of peacefulness or tranquility.
9. Empathy. Self-actualizers are more willing to listen to and learn from people of any class, race, religion or ideology.
10 Interpersonal relations. Self-actualizing people tend to have relatively fewer friends, but those relationships are likely to be deep and meaningful.
11. Democratic character. The self-actualizer recognizes we all have strengths and weaknesses, but that we share a common humanity and equality.
12. Discrimination between ends and means. Self-actualizers work to achieve desirable ends, but avoid wrong or hurtful means to achieve them.
13. Philosophical sense of humor. Self-actualizers enjoy humor but not at the expense of others. (As Goethe said, "Men show their character in nothing more clearly than what they think laughable.")
14. Creativity. Self-actualizers enjoy using their creative abilities, whether it's writing, drawing, music or woodworking. (Maslow once remarked that a first-rate soup is better than a second-rate painting.
15. Resistance to inculturation. Self-actualizers are not dependent on the opinions of others or the conventions imposed by society. They have a keen sense of who and what they are.
16. Awareness of imperfections. Self-actualizers are not saints. They have weaknesses and shortcomings like everyone else. But they are aware of them.
Self-actualization is not a goal. It is a philosophy of life, a continual striving, a process of development.
"One's only rival is one's potentialities," said Maslow. "One's only failure is failing to live up to one's own possibilities. In this sense, every man can be a king."
This is achieved by shunning the safe, the comfortable, the routine - and instead seeking opportunities for growth.
"One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth," wrote Maslow. "Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again."
Essentially, self-actualization means seeing life as a series of choices - and choosing the growth choice each time.
According to Maslow, this uniquely human need is at the core of our nature. It creates meaning in our lives.
Throughout his lifetime, Maslow received numerous honors for his original thinking and his breakthroughs in human psychology. Toward the end of his career, however, he had an epiphany - and reversed himself. Self-actualization is essential. Yet there is another plateau: self-transcendence.
Self-transcendence, Maslow argued, is a meta-need, a higher state of consciousness where we transcend our ego and embrace a fundamental connection with the rest of the world. This transcendence is generally accompanied by intense happiness and well-being, the feeling that one is aware of "ultimate truth" and the unity of all things.
Maslow called self-transcendence the next step in human evolution.
Despite his reputation as a brilliant researcher - Maslow actually received the second-highest IQ score ever recorded - many of his colleagues were outraged. Critics argued that it is logically impossible for the self to transcend itself. Some referred to self-transcendence as "numinous nonsense," claiming Maslow had abandoned the practical for the mystical.
But perhaps he only fused the two.
In the second century B.C, the great Indian sage Pantanjali wrote, "When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds; Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be."
Maslow believed self-transcendence takes us beyond rational self-interest, beyond individual self-actualization - and allows us to do something more meaningful: help others reach their potential.
Until his death in 1970, Maslow encouraged individuals to develop their innate talents and abilities to their fullest extent. (The field of transpersonal psychology sprang up from his studies.) But he also believed he had discovered a higher wisdom, something greater than self-actualization.
"The true value of a human being," said Albert Einstein, "is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he has attained liberation from the self."
Sounds transcendent to me.
It's always easier to stick with the safe, the comfortable, the familiar.
Yet every time we choose safety we reinforce fear. We nurture it. Only when we overcome this debilitating emotion do we really begin to live.
"He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life," said Ralph Waldo Emerson.
How is fear conquered? By doing what we think you can't do, again and again.
When I was young, for example, public speaking made me nervous. Today I relish the opportunity.
After a particularly turbulent flight thirty years ago, I was a white-knuckle flier. Now I can't keep track of all the frequent flier miles.
Fear is the great barrier to success. It gives small things big shadows. It is the inverse of faith, trapping us between regret for the past and anxiety about the future.
Yet few things warrant the fear we grant them. We run not from genuine threats but imaginary bogeymen.
Perhaps that's why philosopher Bertrand Russell said, "to conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom."
And the rewards are many. Waiting for you on the other side of fear is freedom: Freedom from anxiety. Freedom from regret. Freedom from a life unlived.
Fortune, it turns out, really does favor the brave.
As Marianne Williamson writes, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? ...We are all meant to shine, as children do. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."
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Alexander Green is the Investment Director of The Oxford Club and Chairman of Investment U, a free, internet-based research service with over 350,000 readers. (The Oxford Club's Communiqué, whose portfolio he directs, is ranked third in the nation for risk-adjusted returns over the past five years by the independent Hulbert Financial Digest.) Alex is also the author of The New York Times bestselling book "The Gone Fishin' Portfolio: Get Wise, Get Wealthy... and Get on With Your Life." He's been featured on "The O'Reilly Factor," and has been profiled by Forbes, Kiplinger's Personal Finance, CNBC, and Marketwatch.com, among others. He lives in central Florida with his wife Karen and their children Hannah and David.