TLDR : I don’t think I can summarise this one. Feel free to skip to the section that seems most interesting.
Everyone has heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It is typically shown as below as a pyramid that one ascends through.
Transcend is a book exploring Maslow’s hierarchy of needs written by the psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman. I would say it is an expansion of Maslow’s theory, and one of those books that has improved my understanding of the area significantly.
We all know Maslow’s theory as a pyramid. But Kaufman explains that Maslow never created a pyramid of needs. This was an interpretation of his work when it became popularised in other books. Instead of ‘levels’ or a hierarchy, Maslow’s instead recognised that each need is like a ‘nesting doll’ - each is distinct and when deprived is associated with its own outlook, but each encompasses the previous. For example : the needs for safety and connection don’t vanish when you are working on higher ideals of ‘purpose’, but you can’t work on a sense of purpose without having safety.
Kaufman proposes another vision of Maslow’s theory, one that deeply resonated with me, describing the needs in the form of a boat. This is my interpretation using his book as a source.
warning : this is a map, not the actuality
I want to explore and summarise each of the components of this metaphorical boat Kaufman proposes. Remember this is a map, not the territory. This is a model, not the actuality of life. It is a finger pointing to the moon, rather than the moon itself. Use it as a framework to understand , but don’t hold onto it too tightly.
I do not accept any absolute formulas for living. No preconceived code can see ahead to everything that can happen in a man’s life. As we live, we grow and our beliefs change. They must change. So I think that we should live with this constant discovery. We should be open to this adventure in heightened awareness of living. We should stake our whole existence on our willingness to explore and experience' - Martin Buber: An Intimate Portrait 1971
Your life is a boat
Picture yourself on a boat. You’re born alone, you’re going to die alone, all your experiences are alone. You wake up and find yourself on this ocean. A seemingly endless expanse is infront of you. For any of you who play RPG’s - it’s like you’ve created a new character. This is your vessel. What do you do now? What choices do you make? How do you make sense of any of this?
The boat is a better analogy than a mountain or a hierarchy, because life is typically not about ‘getting’ somewhere, or ascending through stages. It is NOT a series of levels that one must progress through.
Instead it is more of an exploration of a terrain.
life isn’t a trek up a summit, but a journey to travel through- a vast blue ocean, full of opportunities for meaning and discovery, but also danger and uncertainty
What does this boat consist of? What needs do you ‘level up’ to explore this terrain well?
There is a hull. This is the secure base on which one weather the waves of the ocean. But a hull cannot move. To explore the territory, you then have a sail. The more you ‘open your sail’, but more you move across the terrain.
The hull represents security. :
The sail represents ‘growth values’. These include
This analogy deeply resonated with me. Life is mostly an exploration, rather than a stepwise progression. The good life is not something you achieve, but it is a way of living- a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination.
the good life is not something you achieve, it is a state of being
Like all great truths, it is paradoxical. We need security- a firm base, and we need growth- the ability to explore. Both need to co-exist in harmony.
It’s a paradox we need to reconcile. Our need for security, in an inherently insecure world. Yalom mentions other paradox’s one encounters.
boats on an ocean
You are not alone on this ocean of experience. Everyone is on their boat, making their own trajectory.
I find this analogy of sailing on an ocean of life beautiful. It’s as if each individual human is on this journey, exploring the contents of consciousness. We’re all alone in our own boat and trajectory, but surrounded by other boats.
We may sail together for a while, and say farewell, to meet at a later time.
Some friends are for a night, others for a season, others for a life, but all are welcome
We are all sailing the vast unknown of the sea, but it is comforting to know that we are all exploring the same terrain. “Even though you’re alone in your boat, it is always comforting to see the light of other boats bobbing nearby”.
This is the framing of Maslow’s hierarchy that Kaufman proposes. Let’s explore the components of the boat. (I’m not going to go into anywhere near the detail in the book- which references several studies, and explores related concepts- this is an overview).
Life is best organised as a series of daring ventures from a secure base John Bowlby
Our need for safety encompasses both physical and psychological safety. In terms of the physical - we need food, shelter, warmth, no violence, a level of predictability and stability in life. Our brain is a prediction machine that infers from past experiences. As a child, your brain is wiring in certain ways and constructs the way you make predictions about the world.
For example : a war torn Syrian child refugee lacks safety. They are exposed to noise, violence, lack of stability. The stress systems are constantly activated, and this is the environment in which the brain creates a view of the world. They will be wired to see the world as unsafe, unpredictable and uncertain.
The other aspect is psychological security, which is related to physical safety.
As children we need secure models of other people. We develop mental representations ‘internal working models’ of the self and the other allowing us to predict the behaviour of others based on prior experience.
This is ‘John Bowlby’s attachment theory’- of which entire books are written on. In summary : the relationship you have to your primary care giver shapes your entire history of relationships and social interactions. If for example, your parent is capricious and abusive- that will shape the way you form relationships and the lens through which you view others. Trauma and abuse during development will wire the brain to view others in a certain light.
I don’t intend to deep dive into attachment theory here, but a summary: Attachment broadly on a spectrum of Anxious–Secure – Avoidant.
A useful question : What attachment style do you think you are? None of us are 100% secure- it exists on a spectrum of anxious-avoidant. How do you form and maintain relationships?
What is important to realise is that this is not fixed. By becoming aware of your own attachment style and habitual tendencies- you can change it as an adult. You can change the lens through which you view the world.
TLDR : We need physical security in terms of food, shelter, routine, predictability. We need psychological security in the form of secure attachments to our relationships
This is an important chapter, therefore I’m going to go into more depth here.
I’ve been thinking about connection deeply, mostly because coronavirus has led to increases in isolation and loneliness. The transition to adulthood has also made me realise that modern society makes it hard to prioritise relationships. I wrote an entire post on Friendships and Intimacy. This chapter expanded my view on this.
Our need for connection consists of 2 subneeds
- Need to belong- to be liked/accepted
- Need for intimacy, mutuality and relatedness
We are deeply social creatures. We’ve evolved in tribes, and we have a strong need to belong. Evolutionarily, the lone wolf did not survive. Ostracism for the group meant death. Therefore it makes sense that rejection produces negative emotion : hurt feelings/sadness, jealously. Infact, it is indistinguishable from physical pain, such that the body releases opioids to dampen the pain of loneliness (same in grief). Interestingly a theory for the opiod crisis- is use of the drugs to dampen feelings of loneliness.
Sebastian Junger talks about the communal nature of humans in his book Tribe. I read Tribe a while back, but one salient point that stayed with me was that WW2 led to improved mental health in Britain. Junger suggests that this was a result of a shared common goal providing a sense of belonging and community There are also countless studies (Robbers/Cave study) that show that we become more connected in groups.
Interestingly there are individual differences in need for belonging. Loneliness arises due to a mismatch/unmet need. “Those who report highest levels of loneliness are those who have the highest unmet need to belong'.
But important to remember, we all have need to belong.
Intimacy, Mutuality and Relatedness
We need ‘quality’ connection over ‘quantity’. What constitutes quality relationships?
- “Unconditional positive regard” - each person feels cared for and feels safe expressing thoughts and emotions - TLDR: Intimacy
- Mutuality : both engaging and participating
- TLDR: ‘Doing fun stuff together - laughing/kind acts/celebrating/expressing gratitude/admiring virtues
We have a strong need for physical touch as well (although there are again individual differences as an adult).
Physical touch is critical for infants though. Lack of physical touch has shown to lead to poor attachment styles and several negative outcomes.
40% of adults say they are lonely. This only increases as people age. I won’t go into detail : but loneliness literally kills. It’s associated with a huge range of physical health issues, including diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
No human is exempt from the dire consequences of loneliness and no other basic human need can substitute for a deep connection- not money, not fame, no power, not popularity…
The desire for fame is often based on a “dream of acceptance” (Leo Braudy). Similarly with power. Power is an attempt to create union through unilateral imposition.
The irony is that the most powerful tend to be the loneliness. Loneliness has been responsible for many celebrity and athlete suicides. Power is not the same love. It is not a replacement for community, belonging and intimacy.
My take : Rather than seek power – seek acceptance. See love. Seek mutuality, compassion and kindness. Intellectually too, I have no desire to ‘change the world’, but I do have a strong desire to understand it.
What has caused loneliness epidemic?
What has gone wrong in society such that loneliness has become so prevalent?
My hypothesis as well as Kaufman’s is that we are prioritising the wrong things. We are prioritising:
- Material goods/pleasures
- Financial advancement
- Social/status/career advancement
Instead, contentment comes from community and connection. Hyperlocalism as I’ve written about before.
It comes through prioritising
- Family/ Friends
- Social groups/ clubs/
- Religious / deep communion with nature / transcendence of self
Interestingly, life satisfaction in the Slums of Calcutta is higher than the average American (although not as high as the richest in India). The East has collectivist attitude where the above are prioritised (although it is becoming less so). The individualistic culture of the West prioritises the wrong things leading to loneliness.
I’ve thought about money before and what is important to take away is that
beyond a certain income - HOW you spend your money becomes more important than how much you have in the bank
Studies show that satisfaction tops off around $75,000 a year. Beyond this, HOW you spend money becomes more important. Spend money such that
you trade money for time
- pay others for labour you don’t enjoy (gardener)
- have the option to live close to family/community/friends
- reduce commute
Avoid hedonic treadmill
Experiences > Physical objects
Buying for others rather than the self
Automating such that you don’t think about it
Yuval Noah Harari put it brilliantly. The most valuable thing about having money- is the ability not to think about it. He says he can go into a supermarket and buy a Watermelon without looking at the price.
The trap is that the accumulation of more and more money becomes a prison.This is the stereotypical Wallstreet manager earning half a million yet still deeply discontent. Obsessed with the accumulation of more money. A hedonic treadmill. This is exactly what you want to avoid.
Social media is correlated with loneliness in two ways
- Encourages comparison
- Quantity - large amounts of poor quality relationships
“Social media mutually enlarges the possibility of forming loving relationships while also making it easier to avoid forming meaningful ones’.
So how should you use social media? I’ve thought about this topic in the past, and have come to a fairly health medium
- Interact mainly with people you see in real life (what early Facebook and web was like) - actual friends rather than acquittances
- Only parasocially follow people you find inspirational or interesting. We have not evolved to follow and develop relationships parasocially with strangers. It can become an engine of envy and wrong ideas.
- Actively engage rather than passively consume. Participate in conversation.
- Use it as a medium for creation rather than consumption
- Use it to catalog life (check out indie-web)
The Blue zones are areas that have the highest life expectancy (Okinawa, Ikaria etc). Part of it is a healthy lifestyle and diet. But a huge part is that they
- live in a communal environemtn
- frequent face-face contact rather than on social media
- little care about status and money (collectivism vs individualism) (love vs power/fame)
- they are never entirely alone- enmeshed in a hyperlocal community (large family/friends/neighbours)
- the elderly are celebrated and well integrated into the community - this is a topic I need to ensure for when my Dad gets old. How can you make it easy for the elderly to contribute and engage? We often shut the elderly away in the West (and increasingly in the East now)
- Ikigai / sense of purpose is pervasive
Self esteem is the relationship you have with yourself. The internal ‘self model’, and the internal self talk that is constantly on in the background. It is the story you are telling yourself.
Healthy self esteem is NOT A GOAL – it is a byproduct. A byproduct of genuine accomplishment, intimate connection with others and the world. It involves understanding that one can change and grow.
Self esteem is one of the strongest correlates of life satisfaction, and lack of self esteem is one of the biggest risk factors for depression
There are two components to self esteem
- Self worth
This is the evaluation of your overall self. You can have your own opinion, but for most, your self model incorporates the judgements of others. You become who you think others think you are. This is the Looking Glass theory of the self. Self worth is strongly correlated to belonging.
This makes evolutionary sense- we are wired to care what the tribe thinks of us. One of the problems of modern day, is that the tribe now involves ‘faceless strangers’ over the internet.
Another interesting aspect is that we tend to mimic the tribe, or adopt the values/belief systems of those around us. This is memetic theory.
Therefore, it is important to be around kind/compassionate/intelligent people. People essentially you want to become. You are the average of the 5 people you surround yourself with.
But often the judgement of others can create suffering. As the Buddhists/Taoists advocate - you want to shift your self worth to a more internalised model such that other’s perception of you has less sway. You still want to take in the data, but never let others opinion throw you off balance completely
This is an overall sense of your agency : can you bring about your desired goals by exercising your will? Your past history of success and failure and more importantly- your reaction to them- will determine your feelings of being an intentional agent.
Those with high mastery in a skill often gain an internal satisfaction, combined with social status in a group, leading to belonging. Mastery is one of those topics that takes time, and a lot of it is finding the right areas such that it feels like play
High self esteem vs Narcissism
Those with high self esteem believe the are worthy and competence and strive for intimate meaningful connection with others, but they don’t necessarily view themselves as superior to others
High self esteem lacks comparison. It is a non-zero sum game. IF anything, you compare yourself to your past self. Even that, you should drop as it can lead to striving.
Narcissism is steeped in comparison. It views life as a zero-sum game. There are winners and losers.
We all have tendencies in one degree or another, and it exists on a spectrum
Interestingly, self esteem is lowest in adolescence and tends to rise, whereas narcissism is highest in adolescence and tends to fall over life.
Narcissism tends to develop with parental over-evaluation - where parents praise a child for innate skill (e.g. you are intelligent) vs praising effort (you have put in the work).
In contrast- high self esteem develops from parental warmth, affection and appreciation.
There are two types of Narcissism he discusses in the book. I don’t intend to go into detail - read the chapter. There is a quiz on his website that explores your tendencies.
- Vulnerable narcissism
- Grandiose narcissism
What is important to realise is that both forms involve a defence of an image
While we differ on our level on the spectrum- it is important to realise that power can be intoxicating for all. The way you react to complements matters.
Ways to develop self esteem
Confidence tends to come through competence. This is the mastery component.
Indifference to success and failure
Watch your internal self talk - realise that thoughts are not the truth
Radical honesty : Shed any perfectionistic self presentation. Authenticity leads to self esteem. “People who test their self-beliefs are often shocked to discover how accepting others are of their imperfections. In our society we learn “to put on a chameleon like cloak of false modesty or humility” (Maslow).
Periodically drop the self image. Life is a verb. You are a constantly changing entity (Anika). Do and let go. Create and let go.
Understanding of the lack of free will (this deserves a separate exploration) - we are products of our genes and environment. How can you take any credit? The way you ascribe blame radically changes too.
We are inherently interconnected. We stand on the shoulders of giants. You are a product of thousands. Humanity is in you.
The last two need a proper explanation- Exploring interconnectedness and free will. I will do this separately though as this post is already becoming way too long. There is a good book I’m planning to read on this topic.
Exploration is the desire to seek out novel experiences, people and places. IT consists of an external component (exploring the world and others), and an internal component (desire to understand oneself).
Exploration is a fundamental need. We need a level of security, but as the saying goes, a ship in the harbour is safe but that is not what is was made for. Exploration is necessary for growth. Particularly early in life - you are largely in an exploration phase
Kaufman talks about 5 subdomains
- Social exploration
- Adventure seeking
- Post traumatic growth
- Openness to experience
- Intellectual curiosity
I’ll briefly go over each, although the chapter goes into so much more detail.
This is the desire to learn about people, meet new people and understand why the behave the way they do. The underlying intention is the possibility of learning from the mistakes of others Socially curious people tend to have higher EQ’s, are more attentive to environments and the reaction of others, and are better judges of personality. It is a skill It’s correlated with gossip- but crucially the underlying intention is driven more by a desire to learn from others, rather than for entertainment.
exposure to novelty and stress leads to greater ability to tolerate novelty and stress
This is seeking novel physical experiences (paragliding) and also experiential (e.g. psychedelics). You train yourself to manage fear and uncertainty.
post traumatic growth
in some ways, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds meaning Victor Frankyl
This involves re-framing events such that one suffers less. We will all experience a level of trauma- be it serious physical/emotional abuse, or the inevitably of grief and loss. A popular Buddhist saying : pain exists, but suffering is optional. Suffering is the ‘second arrow’ - the interpretation/sense of meaning you take away from events.
One should be fluid. Tearing down old belief systems, and creating new structures of meaning and identity is important, because you want the ability to reframe events. The prison is never the place, but the perspective.
openness to experience
Openness to experience is related to a lack of imposing pre-determined conceptual categories onto the world. It involves dying to each moment - ‘continued freshness of experience’ as Maslow put it. This is in contrast to a staleness of experience- where it is easy to ignore a beautiful sunset or disregard a kind gesture. As K advocates- die to the past. Cease comparison. Otherwise you become rigid, you look at the beautiful sunset, and all the while are comparing it to a past sunset that you saw, saying it ‘wasn’t as good’.
This is internally being curious about how the world works. Questioning things deeply, exploring domains outside of your field and generally challenging the way you think.
Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence – Erich Fromm
This is such a huge topic and I don’t think I can do it justice
But clearly, we all know receiving love and giving love is part of a well lived life. But how do we define love?
My definition is what the Christians call ‘Agape’ or the Buddhists call ‘Metta’. It is an attitude of unconditional admiration and kindness.
Maslow talked about ‘needing love’ versus ‘un-needing love’. Needing love is from a place of expectation. You want something in return. I prefer to call this ‘attachment’. It is a striving. Reacting to an image of another, rather than the actuality.
Un-needing love is giving without expectation. It is unconditional. It is intrinsically enjoyable. It involves the dropping of any images or preconceived notions. It involves reacting to a person without any images of the past.
Kaufman brought up studies showing that those who love from this point- paradoxically do not need to receive much love, but are happy giving it out.
You can’t choose to receive love, but you can give it. You can’t expect to be invited, but you can always open your own door
Eric Fromm in his book writes “Infantile love follows the principle ‘I love because I am loved’. Mature love follows the principle ‘I am loved because I love’. Immature love says ‘I love you because I need you’. Mature love says ‘I need you because I love you’.
Kaufman also talks about the ‘dark triad’ and ‘light triad’ personality traits. I don’t intend to go into detail, but useful questions to ask is : What is your default view of humanity? Below is the light triad.
Love is from without a centre
When you look at the moments you truly ‘love unconditionally’, there is no self rumination.
There is no self or other. There is action without any expectation.
Krishnamurti puts this succinctly ‘in love there is no self’. There is no psychological dependence on anyone or anything. No images. No self rumination.
It’s not about ‘adding’, it’a about removing tendencies e.g. fear / anxiety. The place you get to is of internal silence, and from there you act without a centre. You have to deeply become aware of the process of thought, and the negative tendencies and brutality of the mind in each moment. This is all theoretical and may sound mystical, but one needs to investigate it alone. This is going into the ‘transcendence chapter’ of the book.
Compassion vs Empathy
Compassion is wishing others well. Empathy is feeling what others are feeling.
Empathy can be split into
- affective empathy- feeling what another person is feeling.
- Cognitive empathy : understanding and appreciating what another is feeling
Excessive empathy can lead to burnout- especially individuals high in ‘affective empathy.
It’s better for your own mental sanity - to start from a place of compassion laced with cognitive empathy. Sometimes when another person is drowning in suffering, you don’t want to jump in and both drown. You want to throw a buoy from the side lines.
Coping Mechanisms and burnout
Kaufman mentions George Vaillants 75 year study at Harvard- which involves studying how resilient individuals cope.
Anticipation of future discomfort. These individuals would prepare their expectations. They would expect pain and discomfort. They would visualise scenarios. This is similar to the stoic practice of -ve visualisation or Tim Ferriss ‘fear setting’
Suppression : this is intentionally avoiding thinking about a problem/feeling/desire until a later time. It is the voluntary directing of attention away - a skill one can train through meditation. This is not denial or suppression - but more of the ability to keep a problem out of the mind until you have time to deal with it and process it.
Humour : mature humour does not put others down. Easy way to gauge this : is how easily you relate to the statements :
- ‘I’m able to laugh at myself pretty easily’ or
- ‘I see the funny side in a painful predicament’
Sublimation : this is processing emotions through activities e.g. expressing aggression through other activities such as sport, martial arts, hobbies. Expressing frustration/guilt/regret / any mental states through creative expression - art/music/acting etc. They take one out of themselves
Altruism : getting pleasure from giving to others what you yourself would like to receive.
Another last point is that this is all a balance. You have to prioritise yourself at certain times, and others at different times. It is context dependent. Often to take care of others, you first need to ensure your needs are met. Popular saying is that ‘you shouldn’t set yourself on fire to keep others warm’.
self actualising people, are without single exception, involved in a cause outside their own skin, in something outside of themselves. They are devoted, working at something, something which is very precious to them- some calling or vocation in the old sense’ - Abraham Maslow
I’ve written about purpose before. It’s an overarching goal or story that you tell yourself. You locally create meaning in an inherently meaningless universe.
The meaning itself doesn’t necessarily matter. But you need to have one. It is individual and it is chosen.
For example : one person’s meaning might be bringing up their children well, another may gain meaning through a career, another meaning to locally contributing to their community.
People who viewed their job as a calling reported greater satisfaction with life.
People valued their striving and difficulties. The more effort they put into a task/activity - the more satisfaction they gained. We value things in which we sacrifice.
Maslow observed that many of the ‘self actualised’ people tended to sound much like mystics- “describing moments of heightened serenity, beauty, joy and wonder”.
These are experiences in which you lose yourself. For example : In a piece of music. When you see a beautiful star filled sky, and meld into it. The loss of a self narrative. We see these peak experiences in athletes, musicians and artists who lose themselves in their craft. You see it in sex, moments of insight, and religious or spiritual experiences.
Maslow observed that the greater a person’s psychological health, the more frequent these experiences were.
Many cultures have taken substances e.g psychedelics - to catch glimpses of these states.
Interestingly, these state changes lead to lasting traits- which Daniel Goleman wrote about in the ‘Science of Meditation’.
It’s actually hard to put this into words. It’s trying to describe the ineffable. A deep unity. A connection with the universe. ‘Non dual’ awareness. Many Eastern traditions have specific mental exercises to promote these ways of seeing the world- with awe, beauty and wonder.
It was interesting to find out that Maslow read widely - including from the Indian philosopher Krishnamurti- and Alan Watts (who have influenced me greatly).
Modern psychology research identifies ‘flow states’ (samadhi/concentration), where one becomes absorbed in an activity. ‘Timeless’. Intrinsically rewarding. The subject-object way of seeing falls away. There is loss of fears, anxiety, inhibitions and self rumination. There is acceptance. Heightened awe and surrender. A fusion of the world and the self.
Maslow argued that what distinguishes self actualising people is the frequency of these experiences. You can train the mind to become more receptive to this.
I’ve had these experiences. Modern neuroscience is even researching these states and seeing objective changes in the brain of ‘olympic level meditators’.
What is crucial is to keep a degree of humility about any conclusions you draw from them. It can be easy to create stories. I genuinely think many religious experiences are pointing to these same transcendent states of ego dissolution- but then the authors create a post-hoc narrative of an ineffable wordless experience.
These states certainly don’t lead to any ‘superior’ place, but they do change the way you relate to yourself and the world. Maybe TLDR : You take everything less seriously, especially yourself. Acceptance.
There is so much to write about here, but the writing about it actually doesn’t help. Theorising about something that is experiential doesn’t do much. So I’ll leave it here. Otherwise I’m just going to create post-hoc stories about experiences. Remembering it is not the same as going through it.
a fit body, a calm mind, a house full of love- these can’t be bought, but must be earned
We’ve explored briefly all the components of the boat.
What is left is to move through the ocean of experience. Make choices and learn. Think deeply about the direction you choose to sail in : what do you choose to prioritise in life? The present actions you take shape your reality. You can choose priorities and the way you want to live.
Maslow gives us a valuable framework for what we should value in life. The character traits we should aspire towards. Scott Barry Kaufman has done an excellent job of adding to Maslow. Genuinely one of those books that has had a lasting impact on me.
If you’ve made it this far through my incomprehensible and jumbled writing. Congratulations.
This blog post has turned out to be 5000 words somehow. But I’ve feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of the detail the book goes into. I highly recommend reading the book, as it explores much more than I’ve written about here.