Self-Fulfillment is a term that has been used by various organismic psychology theories, often in slightly different ways (e.g., Goldstein, Maslow, Rogers). The term was originally introduced by the organismic theorist, Kurt Goldstein, for the motive to realize all of one's potentialities. In his view, it was the master motive - indeed, the only real motive a person has, all others being merely manifestations of it. However, the concept was brought to prominence in Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory, as the final level of psychological development that can be achieved when all basic and meta needs are fulfilled and the ‘actualization’ of the full personal potential takes place.

Self-actualization in Goldstein's Theory

According to Kurt Goldstein in his book The Organism: A Holistic Approach to Biology Derived from Pathological Data in Man self actualization is “the tendency to actualize, as much as possible, its [the organism’s] individual capacities,” in the world. The tendency for self-actualization is “the only drive by which the life of an organism is determined.” Goldstein defined self actualization as a driving life force that will ultimately lead to maximizing one’s abilities and determine the path of one’s life.

Self-actualization and Maslow's Hierarchy

The term was later used by Abraham Maslow in his article, A Theory of Human Motivation. Maslow explicitly defines self-actualization to be “the desire for self-fulfillment, namely the tendency for him [the individual] to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.” Maslow used the term self actualization to describe a desire, not a driving force, that could lead to realizing one’s capabilities. Maslow did not feel that self actualization determined one’s life; rather, he felt that it gave the individual a desire, or motivation to achieve budding ambitions. Maslow’s usage of the term is now popular in modern psychology when discussing personality from the humanistic approach.

A basic definition from a typical college text book defines self actualization according to Maslow simply as “the full realization of one’s potential” without any mention of antiquated Goldstein.

A more explicit definition of self actualization according to Maslow is “intrinsic growth of what is already in the organism, or more accurately of what is the organism itself…self actualization is growth-motivated rather than deficiency-motivated.” This explanation emphasizes the fact that self actualization can not normally be reached until other lower order necessities of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are satisfied. While Goldstein defined self actualization as a driving force, Maslow uses the term to describe personal growth that takes place once lower order needs have been met.

People that have reached self actualization are characterized by certain behaviors. Common traits amongst people that have reached self actualization are as follows:

• They embrace reality and facts rather than denying truth.
• They are spontaneous.
• They are interested in solving problems which may include personal problems or the emotional conflicts of others.
• They are accepting of themselves and others and lack prejudice.

For Goldstein it was a motive and for Maslow it was a level of development; for both, however, roughly the same kinds of qualities were expressed: independence, autonomy, a tendency to form few but deep friendships, a ‘philosophical’ sense of humor, a tendency to resist outside pressures and a general transcendence of the environment rather than a simple ‘coping’ with it.

Self Actualization’s Place in Psychology

Self actualization resides at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and is considered a part of the humanistic approach to personality. The humanistic approach is one of several methods used in psychology for studying, understanding, and evaluating personality. The humanistic approach was developed because other approaches, such as the psychodynamic approach made famous by Freud, focused on unhealthy individuals that exhibited disturbed behavior. The humanistic approach focuses on healthy, motivated people and tries to determine how they define the ‘self’ while maximizing their potential.

People who are self actualized have had peak experiences. Peak experiences are situations that are so intense that the person loses all sense of self and they find themselves in the flow of the event. These are often religious or mystical experiences.

Stemming from this branch of psychology is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. According to Maslow, people have lower order needs that in general must be fulfilled before high order needs can be satisfied. As a person moves up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, eventually they will reach the summit—self actualization. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs begins with the most basic necessities deemed “the physiological needs” in which the individual will seek out items like food and water, and must be able to perform basic functions such as breathing and sleeping.

Once these needs have been met, a person can move on to fulfilling the “the safety needs” where they will attempt to obtain a sense of security, physical comforts and shelter, employment, and property. The next level is “the belongingness and love needs” where people will strive for social acceptance, affiliations, a sense of belongingness and being welcome, sexual intimacy, and perhaps a family. Next are “the esteem needs” where the individual will desire a sense of competence, recognition of achievement by peers, and respect from others.

Some argue that once these needs are met, an individual is primed for self actualization. Others argue that there are two more phases an individual must progress through before self actualization can take place. These include “the cognitive needs” where a person will desire knowledge and an understanding of the world around them, and “the aesthetic needs” which include a need for “symmetry, order and beauty”. Once all these needs have been satisfied, the final step of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can take place—self actualization.

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Author's Bio: 

This definition is part of a series that cover the topic of Happiness. Hale Dwoskin is The Official Guide to Happiness. Dwoskin, New York Times Best-Selling author of The Sedona Method, and co-author of the best-selling Happiness Is Free (five-book series) is the CEO and Director of Training of Sedona Training Associates, an organization that teaches courses based on the emotional releasing techniques originated by his mentor, Lester Levenson. Dwoskin is an international speaker and featured faculty member at Esalen and the Omega Institute. He is also one of the 24 featured teachers of the book and movie phenomenon, “The Secret.” For thirty years, he has regularly been teaching The Sedona Method techniques to individuals and corporations throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

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