A recent study from Gartner shows that just 13% of employees are satisfied with their lives at work. That means that almost 87% of us are just going through the motions.

Before you know it, five years have gone by and while you might be slightly more experienced and a little higher up on the corporate ladder, you still get that nagging feeling that something’s missing.

You might wonder whether this is all there is to life, maybe there’s something nagging at the back of your mind, perhaps it’s a lack of motivation to keep working on what seems like a fruitless project

Obviously not everyone’s situation is the same, but the first step to dealing with an issue is highlighting what the problem is. That’s where Maslow’s hierarchy of needs enters the stage.

Use Maslow’s hierarchy as a framework to identify areas of your life that you think you need to work on.

What is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?

At its core, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a humanist theory founded in psychology that deals with motivation. At its core, it splits the drivers of human behavior into a five-tier model, with the most-pressing needs related to human survival forming the base with psychological needs forming the upper tiers.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has evolved over the years and has been the subject of much academic debate, but still remains a useful framework for evaluating the sources for one’s motivations (or lack thereof). 

Let’s examine each tier and how it might apply in your daily life. While the original theory was grounded in scientific discourse, we’ll relate them to how most average Americans might experience them.

Physiological needs

Physiological needs pertain to life functions that must be met. These include critical basic functions like sustenance and shelter. While it sounds basic in concept, these needs may be challenged more often than most people think. 

Things like unexpected medical bills, car repairs, and job loss can threaten one’s financial security. A couple of missed rental or mortgage payments, and families might run the risk of losing their shelter. These all represent basic challenges to an average individual’s physiological needs.

In fact, according to a 2020 study conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, over a quarter of all Americans had difficulty paying for housing, showing that meeting this need isn’t as easy as you might think.

Left unchecked, difficulty meeting physiological needs can threaten your health, relationships, psychological well-being and any hope of meeting your other life goals. If you find difficulty in meeting this need, you will likely need to make some tough decisions in your life, largely involving austerity measures and personal sacrifices, but it’s a necessity before you can tackle other motivators. 

Consider taking on a part-time job or cutting down on spending that’s not vital to your health. If recurring debts are the root of the problem, consider setting a concrete financial plan to ensure those debts get paid off over time. You might even want to think about downsizing to a more affordable home or giving up an expensive car in favor of a reliable beater.

Safety needs

Safety needs relate to security, but also relate to the need for stability in one’s life. These might include worrying about the future, avoiding injury or having enough saved up for a rainy day fund.

Uncertainty about the future can set the best of us on edge. There’s no shortage of doomsday stories that keep us up at night. Is the stock market going to crash and wipe out my retirement fund? Will social security still be there by the time I retire? How will my family be cared for if something happens to me?

You’re not alone in this worry; in fact, in a 2020 study conducted by the Federal Reserve, over a quarter of Americans aged 30 – 44 were found to have no retirement savings to speak of. This number rose to as much as 42% for those 18 – 29 year old.  

Safety needs don’t have to involve physical danger. Ambivalence about the future is a stressor that can breed anxiety which might lead to detrimental mental and physical impacts if not addressed quickly. It will take conscious time and effort to adapt and learn how to relax.

If you’re faced with this need, try creating plans of attack when facing some of your worst fears. That’s not to say every disaster will occur, but peace of mind comes from contingencies and knowing exactly what to do when the worst comes to pass. If the future is what you’re worried about, focus on starting or ramping up your retirement contributions until you hit the cap and make sure you have six month’s worth of living expenses saved for a rainy day.

Love and belonging needs

The need for love and belonging largely pertains to human relationships and our desire to be accepted. This includes wanting to fit in and be accepted for who you are and can involve friends, your workplace, and the communities you live in.

Most of us have a friend’s circle, a family circle, and a workplace circle. Among all of these, ask yourself if you feel like you belong or connect with any of these individuals. While it might be tempting for us to “go it alone,” at our core, humans are social creatures.

According to the American Psychiatric Association Foundation, isolation can lead to depression, increased risk of heart disease, and weakened immune systems. Statistically it can also lead to a shorter life span.

If you find yourself lacking in this need, try to take advantage of workplace outings whenever possible, take time to bond with your colleagues and establish connections. Don’t let yourself devolve into a working machine, remember to take time off to spend with family and friends. If you’re a young professional in a new city, check out the community and find some classes, activities, or social groups that you can partake in. Remember you’re not the only one who’s starved for social connection.

Esteem needs

Esteem involves the desire to be recognized, feel accomplished, and respected. It can take the form of pride in one’s achievements, feeling that one’s making a difference, and recognition of one’s accomplishments. 

Both psychologists and workplace experts agree that a lack of recognition in one’s achievements is a major motivational killer. In an office setting, this leads to subpar performance and high turnover. In your daily life, it can contribute to depression and serve as a major impediment to living your best life.

If you find that you’re wanting in this need, try addressing it at its source. If that’s the workplace, while this might not be an easy conversation to have with your boss, it’s a conversation that may need to be had, as it isn’t likely to get easier if you leave it alone.

Think about any hobbies or interests you have or can pick up that give you joy in your life. While not everyone can control who their boss is, we still have the power to influence what we do on our own time. Scope out your schedule and try dedicating regular time towards an activity you enjoy and feel particularly good at. If you can, join groups of like minded individuals who share your interests and can help you grow.

Self-actualization needs

Self-actualization is the highest tier of Maslow’s hierarchy and involves achieving one’s full potential. While this sounds lofty, in practice, the need for self-actualization depends on the individual and what they care about most; whether that means being the star performer in the office, mastering a skill, or being the best parent one can be.

Self-actualization is difficult to define but involves self-awareness, the maturity to avoid comparing one’s achievements to others, and a singular focus on growth. 

Regardless of what you’re doing, ask yourself if you’re doing it for the right reasons. Are you dead set on perfecting every aspect of this activity or do you find yourself constantly comparing yourself to your peers? Do you find yourself accepting your shortcomings and living carefree or do you constantly worry about what others might think?   

Understand that self-actualization is a need that individuals have to continually strive for rather than be fully achieved. This is because self-actualization is more of a mental state than something that can actually be fulfilled. 

If you’re striving to achieve this need, try seeking out mentors, friends, colleagues and family that you respect and learning about how they perceive the world. Take a conscious note of your mindset and reflect on how you react when faced with challenges. Learn how to be ok with yourself and live comfortably in your own skin. Expanding your worldview can take many forms, including traveling, picking up new skills, and even quiet meditation.

In conclusion:

While easier said than done, it’s a good idea to take a step back from the daily grind of things and observe what we really might be missing in life. Maslow’s framework is one tool we can use to help put things in perspective and pinpoint what we might be missing in our lives.

Also recognize that Maslow’s hierarchy is not as rigid as it seems. During a moment of self-reflection, you may find that one component of this pyramid matters more to you than others. Do your best to strive to fill the need that matters most to you. What ultimately drives us is what matters to us most as individuals.