Becoming a Mensch: “Self-actualization”


Abe Maslow

The other day, I compared Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to the chakras in Indian philosophy, and I promised to expound a bit on the highest need/chakra, which we might call, to use Maslow’s word, self-actualization.

It’s an ugly term, born out of Esalen in the late sixties, when hyphens, Latin roots and the noun form of verbs were considered good things because they bestowed credibility in between naked massages in the Esalen hot tubs which I myself once had to endure as part of my journalistic research.

So let’s just call it something else. To self-actualize is–to use the technical Jewish-Buddhist term ;)–to be a Mensch. I consider it perhaps the highest form of success, and it thus becomes relevant in the penultimate chapter of my book. According to Maslow, only about 2% of the human population self-actualizes!

In the rest of this post, I want to flesh out what self-actualization might entail, with help from an excellent summary by Dr. C. George Boeree.

Needs you fill and forget & needs that grow as you fill them

Take another look at Maslow’s famous pyramid, which I showed you in the previous post on the subject. There is one difference between the top of the pyramid and all the lower rungs. At the bottom (breathing, eating, feeling safe etc), we feel needs only when we lack something. We cease to feel them as soon as we have what we crave. So, if I am suffocating, all I care about is air. But once I have air again and can breathe, the obsession is gone. Maslow called these cravings deficit needs.


Self-actualization is different. When we feel that we are fulfilling our potential–by being creative, for example–the need to self-actualize does not go away but grows. Fulfilling our potential makes us feel alive and satisfies us. So Maslow called these motivations being needs to distinguish them from the deficit needs.

Character sketch of a Mensch

So what kind of person reaches the highest stage and becomes a Mensch?

Maslow studied biographies.  (That happens also to be my approach in my forthcoming book; among the people Maslow studied are even some that are characters in my book.) From his studies Maslow concluded (we can debate whether he was right) that the Menschen shared certain traits that are actually quite rare. In this group of self-actualizers were:

  • Abraham Lincoln,
  • Thomas Jefferson,
  • Albert Einstein, (in my book)
  • Eleanor Roosevelt, (in my book)
  • Jane Adams,
  • William James,
  • Albert Schweitzer,
  • Benedict Spinoza,
  • Alduous Huxley, and
  • 12 unnamed people.

The traits they shared, according to Maslow, were the following. They:

  • were able to discriminate between what is fake and what is genuine,
  • were able to treat life’s challenges as problems demanding solutions rather than personal affronts to be angry or depressed about,
  • felt that the ends don’t necessarily justify the means, that the means could be ends themselves (this is the opposite of strategic thinking),
  • enjoyed solitude,
  • had deep and intimate bonds with a few people rather than shallow relationships with many people,
  • felt “autonomous” from society (I think this means that they were non-conformist),
  • had an unhostile sense of humor–preferring to joke at their own expense, or at the human condition, and never directing their humor at others (which comes close to my definition of irony),
  • accepted themselves and others, enjoying harmless flaws as personal quirks,
  • were spontaneous and simple,
  • respected other people and treasured ethnic and individual diversity,
  • were ethical and spiritual but not usually “religious”,
  • were able to feel wonderment,
  • were original, inventive and creative, and
  • tended to have “peak experiences“, which we might call episodes of rapture or ecstasy–mystical feelings of merging into an infinitely large and eternal whole.

Normally I don’t like lists (as opposed to one single and large insight), but in this case a sort of composite personality emerges, which becomes stronger when Maslow adds to these positive qualities a few flaws that he found common among self-actualizers. They:

  • often suffered from anxiety,
  • were often absent-minded,
  • were occasionally ruthless and cold.

In short, they were, as Walt Whitman might say, “large”: they contradicted themselves and were fine with that.

And so…

Frankly, Maslow is a lot of work, and I have been pondering whether it has been worth it. I can’t decide whether the character sketch, and even his hierarcy of needs, is too obvious and thus banal, or whether it is helpful. For now I lean toward the latter.

Since I began this meditation by comparing his thoughts to ancient Indian philosophy, let me also conclude that way. It does strike me that self-actualization is strikingly similar to some visions of what “enlightenment” might be like.

First, I happen to believe that the yoga taught by Patanjali and his contemporary, the Buddha, leads to fleeting instances of samadhi (enlightenment, ecstasy), rather as it overcame St Teresa, instead of lasting bliss. “Peak experiences,” in other words.

Second, the “method” is similar: The simplicity, love of solitude, humor (think of Zen monks), non-conformism, withdrawal and even the occasional coldness of the self-actualizers resembles that of the Eastern yogis and Zen masters. They are really Einsteins in the Lotus position.

In short, I think that Maslow’s contribution is to humanize “enlightenment” for us Westerners.

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PS: After reading these two posts on Abe Maslow, do you think he belongs into my pantheon of the world’s greatest thinkers?