What Does it Mean to Be Self-Actualized in the 21st Century?

by Scott Barry Kaufman, November 7, 2018 in Blog

“There is now emerging over the horizon a new conception of human sickness and of human health, a psychology that I find so thrilling and so full of wonderful possibilities…” –Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being

On June 8, 1970, Abraham Maslow was writing furiously in his notebook by the pool at his home in Menlo Park, California. For the past few years, he had been working intensely on a new theory linking self-actualization to self-transcendence and spirituality. Suddenly his stopwatch went off, reminding him to do his daily exercising (after a recent heart attack, he had been on strict doctor orders to exercise daily to strengthen his heart). With annoyance at being disrupted, he threw down his notepad and started jogging by the side of the pool. His wife Bertha was lounging nearby, and noticed that he was moving in an odd fashion. Just as soon as she started to ask him if he was alright, Maslow collapsed. By the time she ran to his side, Maslow was dead at the age of 62, with a treasure trove of ideas and theories left behind and unrealized.

Many people are familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, in which he argued that basic needs such as safety, belonging, and self-esteem must be satisfied (to a reasonable healthy degree) before being able to fully realize one’s unique creative and humanitarian potential. What many people may not realize is that a strict hierarchy was not really the focus of his work (and in fact, he never represented his theory as a pyramid).

Especially later in his life, Maslow’s focus was much more on the paradoxical connections between self-actualization and self-transcendence, and the distinction between defense vs. growth motivation. Maslow’s emphasis was less on a rigid hierarchy of needs, and more on the notion that self-actualized people are motivated by health, growth, wholeness, integration, humanitarian purpose, and the “real problems of life.”

As I explored Maslow’s writings, I realized that the characteristics of self-actualizing people are even more relevant today than when they were first proposed nearly 70 years ago. It is clear that Maslow never conceptualized self-actualizing people as selfish or purely individualistic, despite such misrepresentation by some modern commentors. Instead, Maslow increasingly became convinced that self-actualization is healthy self-realization on the path to self-transcendence.

We live in times of increasing divides, selfish concerns, and individualistic pursuits of power. I fear Maslow’s conceptualization of self-actualization and the vision of humanity that was prevalent among the humanistic psychologists of the 60 and 70s has been lost in this generation.

To help bring back these seminal ideas, and integrate them into modern theory and research on well-being and personality, I combed through Maslow’s writings and put his characteristics of self-actualization to the scientific test.

The New Characteristics of Self-Actualization Scale

After combing through Maslow’s writings, I created an initial scale with 92 items, spanning 17 characteristics of self-actualizing people. After rigorous testing, I found that 10 of Maslow’s proposed characteristics of self-actualization stand up to scientific scrutiny. Not bad, considering his list was proposed nearly 70 years ago!* Without further ado, here are the ten characteristics of self-actualization:

10 Characteristics of Self-Actualization

(Find Out Your Own Score on the Characteristics of Self-Actualization Scale)

  • Continued Freshness of Appreciation (Sample item: “I can appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life, with awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy, however stale these experiences may have become to others.”)
  • Acceptance (Sample item: “I accept all of my quirks and desires without shame or apology.”)
  • Authenticity (Sample item: “I can maintain my dignity and integrity even in environments and situations that are undignified.”)
  • Equanimity (Sample item: “I tend to take life’s inevitable ups and downs with grace, acceptance, and equanimity.”)
  • Purpose (“I feel a great responsibility and duty to accomplish a particular mission in life.”)
  • Efficient Perception of Reality (“I am always trying to get at the real truth about people and nature.”)
  • Humanitarianism (“I have a genuine desire to help the human race.”)
  • Peak Experiences (“I often have experiences in which I feel new horizons and possibilities opening up for myself and others.”)
  • Good Moral Intuition (“I can tell ‘deep down’ right away when I’ve done something wrong.”)
  • Creative Spirit (“I have a generally creative spirit that touches everything I do.”)

What interested me the most was the overall self-actualization factor. Any one of these characteristics viewed in isolation does not necessarily indicate a self-actualized person. But what do all these characteristics predict in the world real when viewed as a single unit?

Self-Actualization, Health, and Growth

The humanistic psychologists of the 50s and 60s– including Alfred Adler, Charlotte Bühler, Viktor Frankl, Erich Fromm, Karen Horney, Sidney Jourard, Rollo May, and Carl Rogers– were not focused on happiness or achievement (topics which receive so much attention in modern day psychology and in self-help books). Instead, they were interested in the determinants of health and growth. I found an overall pattern suggesting that the characteristics of self-actualization lead to optimal health and growth.

Overall, self-actualization was related to higher levels of stability and the ability to protect your highest level goals from disruption by distracting impulses and thoughts. Self-actualization was related to lower levels of disruptive impulsivity (“Get out of control”, “Am self-destructive”), nonconstructive thinking (“Have a dark outlook on the future”, “Often express doubts”), and a lack of authenticity and meaning (“Feel that my list lacks direction”, “Act or feel in a way that does not fit me”).

Just as Maslow predicted, those with higher self-actualization scores were much more motivated by growth, exploration, and love of humanity than the fulfillment of deficiencies in basic needs. What’s more, self-actualization scores were associated with multiple indicators of well-being, including greater life satisfaction, curiosity, self-acceptance, positive relationships, environmental mastery, personal growth, autonomy, and purpose in life.

There were also linkages to work performance and creativity– self-actualization predicted greater work satisfaction and work performance, as well as greater reports of talent, skill, and creative ability across a wide range of fields from the arts and sciences to business and sports. Interestingly, there was a significant (but small) correlation between self-actualization and humor ability, which Maslow predicted would be the case (he often viewed humor ability as one of the defining characteristics of self-actualization).

The relationship between self-actualization and self-transcendence was also very interesting. I used a scale developed by David Yaden and his colleagues, which measures two aspects of self-transcendence: decreased self-salience and increased feelings of connectedness.While self-actualization showed zero relationship to decreased self-salience, self-actualization did show a strong positive correlation with increased feelings of oneness with the world.

This helps reconcile a paradox that consumed Maslow the last few years of his life: Why is it that the most self-actualized people are those who are the most self-transcendent? As he wrote in his 1961 paper “Peak-Experiences as Acute Identity Experiences“:

“The goal of identity (self-actualization . . .) seems to be simultaneously an end-goal in itself, and also a transitional goal, a rite of passage, a step along the path to the transcendence of identity. This is like saying its function is to erase itself. Put the other way around, if our goal is the Eastern one of ego-transcendence and obliteration, of leaving behind self-consciousness and self-observation, . . . then it looks as if the best path to this goal for most people is via achieving identity, a strong real self, and via basic-need-gratification.”

Self-actualized people don’t sacrifice their potentialities in the service of others; rather, they use their full powers in the service of others (important distinction). You don’t have to choose either self-actualization or self-transcendence– the combination of both is essential to living a full and meaningful existence.

For more on the details of the study, including more finely grained linkages between self-actualization and the optimal functioning of a cybernetic, goal-directed system, as well as linkages with self-determination theory, read the full paper just published in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology here. And don’t forget to take the test!

* Maslow did get one thing very wrong, however. Maslow believed that self-actualization was extremely rare in the population, and he argued that it was virtually unattainable among young people. I found that this isn’t true. Self-actualization scores conformed to a normal distribution, much like IQ or height. What’s more, self-actualization was not correlated with age, education, race, ethnicity, college GPA, or childhood income, and there were no gender differences found in self-actualization. While there are certainly environmental barriers to self-actualization, and some environments can help bring out the best (or the worst) in us, I found no evidence that the characteristics of self-actualization are limited to a particular swath of humanity.


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