Don’t take it slow, take it Maslow

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If you are a student nowadays it won’t be news for you that pressure can often be high. A recent study by the Dutch Student Union (De Landelijke Studentenvakbond/LSVB) even shows that 74 percent of the student population is emotionally exhausted and 34.6 percent has a higher than normal chance of developing a burnout. The exact cause of these elevated risks is hard to pin-point, but it most likely has to do with the obvious: the pressure on students to do a lot at once. There’s an underlying pressure to finish your studies as soon as possible, get amazing grades and while you’re at it, take on as many extracurricular activities as you can to make up for the lack of working experience that you will likely have after receiving your diploma. After listing all these factors, it might seem needless to mention anything that has to do with your personal needs like self-care and having a social life. However, maybe we should. Since the emphasis in modern day society clearly lies somewhere else, it’s important not to take these needs for granted. One of the oldest and most well-known theories in the domain of social sciences will help explain why.

Let’s start by taking a look at the theory in question: Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow, a humanistic psychologist, proposed the theory in 1943 and it essentially became his life’s work, as he kept expanding and optimizing it over the course of his lifespan. However, we will stick to the basics considering the fact that those have barely changed since the theory’s first appearance and don’t require a whole life of publications to read. That being said, it’s also interesting to note that in the research that Maslow conducted while working on the theory, Maslow focused on studying highly successful people like Jane Addams and Albert Einstein, people whom he coined ‘’exemplary people’’. This positive approach to researching is typical for the field of humanistic psychology, where the emphasis lies on fulfilling the potential of the self and development instead of searching for underlying problems, which in turn was deemed a pessimistic way of research.

So now that we know how the theory came to be, you might already feel the fear of being compared to Albert Einstein creeping up on you and your status as a special snowflake to melt away quicker than the icecaps under Trump’s presidency. There is no need to worry however, as Maslow devised the hierarchy of needs not as a stimulant for comparison but as one for growth; to suggest a theory on how potential can be fulfilled and goals can be achieved. Interested yet?
The hierarchy of needs is often pictured as a pyramid divided into different sections. These five sections are hierarchically ordered with the bottom section containing the most basic needs and the sections above each becoming ‘’higher’’ needs, with the need for self-actualization at the top. Exploring the needs further leads to discovering the following structure and meanings:

  • The bottom four needs are the most basic needs. And no, they don’t include pumpkin spice lattes from Starbucks, which might be hard to believe for the average milennial student of social sciences. In fact, Maslow called these needs the deficiency or d-needs and downwards-up they are as follows:
  • Physiological needs are the basic needs for a human to survive. The most important among these are food, water, air, and protection from the elements (for example clothes to keep you warm). An often criticized part of the theory is that sex is also placed under these needs, which is obviously strange because sex is only essential for the survivability of the human race as a whole and not for that of individual humans. It might seemingly hold up for some of the student population though, especially fraternity members.
  • Safety needs come in play once the physiological needs are generally satisfied. All kinds of security, including personal, financial and health security become the next thing the individual wants to achieve.
  • Love/belonging needs get the upper hand once the physiological and safety needs have been relatively satisfied. These concern the need to belong and have interpersonal relationships of different kinds with others.
  • Esteem needs are the needs to have self-esteem, which can be achieved by both being valued by others and getting recognition and/or by gaining self-respect through establishing inner competence through experience. The latter is considered a higher version of esteem needs by Maslow.

The highest need is the need for self-actualization, fulfilling one’s true potential in order to become the best one can be. This can only be acquired by mastering all of the previous deficiency needs.

Lastly, the theory takes into account individual differences and explains that every single person has their own unique hierarchy. For example, elderly people tend to prioritize safety needs while adolescents tend to want to jump straight to self-actualization. Maslow later stated that different levels of the hierarchy are interrelated instead of strictly separated, which makes sense. A good example of this would be hazing: students sacrificing their physiological and safety needs for their need to belong to a fraternity.

So how does this theory apply to the current situation among students sketched by recent research and explain why it’s important not to take personal needs for granted? Well, it seems that there is a lot of pressure on students to self-actualize and prove themselves, which would only take into account the upper two needs of the hierarchy. However, these are needs that need a foundation that can be built upon. For instance, a burnout could be the result of your physiological needs not properly being tended to and the inability to find proper housing for a lot of international students could disrupt their safety needs, both of which would damage their possibilities of fulfilling their true potential. This might seem like a no-brainer to some, but the widespread emotional exhaustion among students proves otherwise. It might be argued that we know what’s good for us, but we let the pressure get to us in a way that makes us do something else. The hierarchy of needs can help as a reminder that even if you try to ignore your basic needs in order to be able to achieve more, it’s an unstable structure you’re building which most likely will eventually fall out from under you, as recent research could be seen as proof of.
Now does this mean that you should sleep as long as you possibly can, spend hours on studying nutrition and only start studying if everything else is perfect? The simple answer: No. Maslow measured satisfaction of needs in terms like ‘relatively’ and ‘generally’, suggesting that satisfactory, not the absolute maximum, amounts of the need allow another need to dominate your behavior. In other words: Don’t take it slow, take it Maslow.

By Bilal Errazki

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