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posted: 11/3/2013 7:00 AM

Deciding how much we really need can be tricky

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Editor's note: This is the second of two parts.

What -- and how much -- do we really need?

Last week we took a look at this question from the perspective of the Asian philosopher Lao Tzu. This week we're going to journey forward in time about 2,600 years and eastward a few thousand miles, and consider the same question from the perspective of American psychologist Abraham Maslow.

We can agree that there are certain things in life we all need: air, food, water, shelter, safety. There are also other, less tangible, things I think most of us would add to this list: love, affection, belonging, self-esteem, the opportunity to grow and develop.

When it comes right down to it, we probably spend most of our time trying to meet these needs. And, suggests Maslow, we address these needs in a certain order, or hierarchy.

For example, we generally look to our basic physiological needs (air, water, food, warmth) first. A hungry man is not all that concerned with self-esteem. A thirsty child wants a glass of water, not a hug, from mom.

When such basic physiological needs are met, however, our attention shifts to the next level on our hierarchy, our needs for safety and security. We want a roof over our head, freedom from threat of harm, and some certainty that we can continue to meet our physiological and safety and security needs on a day-to-day basis.

Assuming such needs are adequately met, Maslow's model has us focusing on our love, affection and belongingness needs. Whereas previous needs centered on the more concrete parts of our lives, here we see a shift to the world of feelings and relationships. We are often most aware of these needs in children (perhaps because they are most honest in stating them), but they are equally important to adults as well.

If we are loved by those around us, we then have the foundation upon which to build our own sense of self-love, or esteem. Such esteem -- accepting, respecting, valuing ourselves -- is the fourth level of need in Maslow's schema.

Our needs don't stop here. Again, based upon our already having met those needs lower in our hierarchy, we in turn consider what Maslow calls our self-actualization needs. These have to do with knowing and understanding, with developing our interests and talents to their fullest potentials, with appreciating the uniqueness and beauty in the world and people around us, with exploring our spiritual selves.

As I suggested previously, meeting our needs takes a lifetime. Actually that's one of the basic assumptions of Maslow's work. Meeting our needs, from physiological to selfactualization, is what our lives are all about.

There are three other dynamics of Maslow's hierarchy that you may already have guessed. First, we can, and often do, regress in our focus. A reasonably safe, loved, self-confident, and growth-oriented person will become very oriented to her physiological needs if she goes hungry for a while.

Second, meeting our higher needs will sometimes lead us to sacrifice meeting some of our more basic needs. A parent will risk life and limb (safety and security) to rescue a child (love and affection). A scholar immersed in a project (self-actualization) will simply forget to eat (physiological).

Third, we never really finish meeting our needs at any level. That's fairly obvious when we think of our more basic needs, but it applies to our less-tangible needs as well.

We need frequent and consistent love, affection and belonging, for example. And our self-esteem must continually be reinforced by our life experience. Likewise, we will never stop growing and developing.

Complicating this dynamic is the reality that we live in an imperfect world with imperfect people. Even for the most fortunate of us, then, there will always be circumstances, events, or people who threaten, hinder, or block our efforts to meet our needs. Loss of a job, a natural disaster, an unloving parent, a major failure, and so on, all take a toll.

Let's pull all this together and return for a moment to last week's discussion of "enough." I suggested that one of the pitfalls in our securing "enough" is that we often focus on the external world of things to the exclusion of the internal world of thoughts, feelings, meaning and fulfillment.

And here is where Lao Tzu and Maslow, East and West, ancient and modern, meet. For Maslow's model also points to the same dilemma.

Our basic needs, the physiological and safety and security, are thing oriented. They often have to do with accumulating enough money, possessions, power. When such needs are met, however, we often tend to attempt to meet our higher order needs in the same way, by accumulating even more wealth, more and increasingly complicated possessions, greater power.

Yet, as I pointed out before, such efforts are actually counterproductive in meeting our needs for love, affection, belongingness, self-esteem, or self-actualization. Our continuing pursuit of things tends to alienate people, leave us doubting our inner worth as people, and ignores much of our potential to grow and develop.

The alternative? Again, we must look to that time honored, but little practiced belief that I cited last week. Life is most fulfilling when we fully express our own unique talents, interests and characteristics in loving and giving relationships with those around us. Whether we reach this statement through pondering the thoughts of an ancient philosopher, or a modern psychologist, the conclusion is the same. Think about it.

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