Human Needs and Meaning of
According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, the priorities in human needs can
be visualized in a pyramid. At its base are the physiological needs, such as
food and water, followed by the safety needs, such as physical protection and a
'decent' level of survival resources. In the third and fourth levels are,
respectively, the need of belonging to groups, such as family and friends, and
the need of esteem, which aims at self-respect and the desire to be valued by others.
At the top of the pyramid are the needs associated with the meaning of
life. The fifth level is self-actualization, the realization of personal
fulfillment and the individual potential. And, at the very top, it appears
self-transcendence, that is, the fulfillment of goals associated with altruism
and spirituality. Are self-actualization and self-transcendence intrinsic
requirements of human nature that generate meaning to our lives? There is no
consensus on the answer.
Philosophers, religious folks, novelists, poets, psychologists and
biologists, alike and from ever, have sought for the meaning of existence. The
very question could contain part of the answer. Because the prodigy of
consciousness, that open room to introspection, is the exclusive quality of
us, humans. We are the only known creature that wonders about the purpose of
Other organisms cannot scrutinize existential issues. Neither can the smart
machines. The portentous software programs that know everything or that learn
by themselves any video game, or that are defeating the champions in every
intellectual skill competition (chess, the 'go' oriental game,
the Jeopardy! TV show of questions-and-answers) lack any level
of introspective skill. It is our consciousness that allows us
self-observation, not intelligence, what sets us apart from supercomputers. In
its mystery we could perhaps find the meaning of existence.
Many biologists have already made up their minds: We are here, like all
living beings, to ensure the permanence of the species and, I add, not
necessarily through reproduction. Many people choose not to leave offspring but
we all, fertile and infertile, need to protect the conditions to make life to
keep on, whether human, animal or plant.
The need of belonging, of being part of small groups (partner, family,
friends...) or large associations (clubs, churches, political parties)
originated in what this columnist calls 'grego', the genetic herding instinct.
Animals generally have zero ego and high grego.
Let us go down two levels on Maslow's needs and talk about self-esteem and belonging that, in some way, are related to our "vital mission". Self-esteem, the need for achievement, this is excelling in some way and receiving recognition, comes from our ego, the sense of self, encoded in our brains, by the conditionings that society sowed in us: "The others have got money, power, knowledge, distinctions, fame... Then I should also have some of that". The need of belonging, of being part of small groups (partner, family, friends...) or large associations (clubs, churches, political parties) originated in what this columnist calls 'grego', the genetic herding instinct. Animals generally have zero ego and high grego.
The dualism between self-esteem/belonging is interesting because of the
paradox it implies. The ego (I'm different) and the grego (I'm alike) create us
different needs that are at cross purposes; we all suffer the tension generated
by such dualism. Says anthropologist Ernest Becker: "Individuation
(the ego) means that the human creature has to oppose itself to the rest of
nature (the grego). It creates precisely the isolation that one can’t stand—and
yet it needs in order to develop distinctively”.
Is there a purpose for existing? And, if so, what is my purpose? According
to Krishnamurti, highly philosophical and barely scientific, when people
insist seeking purpose to life it is because they find their own
existence empty. The Indian sage asks: "Has life a purpose?
Is it not living by itself a clear goal? Why do we want
Twenty-five centuries ago the Buddha would have responded to
Krishnamurti that what we aspire in our passing through this world is not
having more of an unlimited something--more wealth, more fame, more power--but
having less of something different, also abundant, that is afflicting us--less
suffering, less anxiety, less stress. And also less need for self-esteem,
self-actualization or self-transcendence.
Absent the loose wheels of suffering, anxiety and
stress, we spontaneously reach inner harmony and balance with our surroundings.
Unintentionally and without chasing it, we end up doing just what we need to do
in our lives. Similarly, it also leads to the disappearance of the distressing
concern for the meaning of existence: For those seeking nothing, whatever they
find is right.