Empirical research suggests that having meaning in life protects us against inflammation, disease, and a pre-mature death. This research has demonstrated that if you are happy but have no sense of meaning, you will have similar gene expression patterns as someone who is chronically ill.
So, pursuing happiness instead of meaning is a shortcut to disease and death.
If that is the case, where do we find meaning and make sure we find meaning in the right things? Let’s turn to Abraham Maslow for some insight.
His ‘Theory of motivation’ is still one of the most recognized and used in the field of psychology. It may not be perfect but it’s very useful framework through which we can better understand our own motivation.
You may be familiar with this diagram which illustrates the original version and was improved on later.
When we enter this world, we are motivated to survive, and we do so by satisfying our basic needs. In our early, developmental, and younger years, we need to have these needs met so that we can progress on to the higher needs and motivations that help us actualize our potentials.
Initially we need to satisfy the “lower” needs, only then can we progress to the “higher” needs. You cannot actualize your potential if you haven’t eaten for days or have nowhere to sleep. Most of the lower needs fall below the line and the higher needs are above the line. Life is not a static process but a dynamic one, so it’s normal to move around in this triangle as you seek to satisfy your needs. These different needs motivate you. You are motivated to satisfy them. However, it is important to move beyond and transcend the lower needs and apply yourself to the higher needs if you wish to live a healthy, long, and fulfilling life.
Maslow’s revised hierarchy
In his book To Have or to Be? Eric Fromm makes a clear distinction between the two levels or modes where we derive our motivation, meaning, and identity from. Where you direct your attention will determine your quality of life.
The lower needs – Having mode – deficiency mode – survival mode
In this mode the focus is on your needs. The focus is on you: surviving, stabilizing, belonging, validating, being loved, accepted, and liked. These needs are met by having something. Things you need. We seek to get something. Biological needs like water, food, air, comfort, shelter, etc. These “lower” needs are deficiency needs, when they are met, they go away. These needs are more about self-interest. We share these needs with most animals. They are instinctive. Whether it is the survival needs, safety needs, social needs, or self needs — these are basic to physical and psychological well-being.
Here you are mostly motivated by seeking pleasure or comfort and avoiding pain or discomfort. Dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin are released when these needs are met. This makes it easy to see why we can get “stuck” in this mode and become “addicted” to the feeling we get when these needs are met. The bottom floors or lower levels are more tangible and mostly material, yet they are not wrong or bad. You need to satisfy these needs and enjoy them. But by giving them too much meaning, you rob yourself of the chance to tap into the more profound motivations on the higher levels. You will live a hedonistic lifestyle of just seeking pleasure if you get stuck here. You can experience a “pleasant” life here, but it won’t be meaningful. This is explored territory and can become a comfort zone.
The higher needs – Being mode – actualization mode – thriving mode
These needs are met by becoming something. They are developmental needs like maturity, love, autonomy, meaning, growth, development and includes reciprocal realization.
These “higher”, being needs are focused on giving of yourself. The focus now becomes others. They are not instrumental like the lower needs. You can survive without them, you may even be happy, but you will not thrive. You need them to express your humanity and true potential. So that you begin to become what we are designed to be and capable of being. It brings out your highest meanings and values and it leads to your best performances. Here we become real, authentic human beings. If you satisfy these needs, they grow. Because this realm is about giving, not getting it becomes reciprocal. It is your gift and expression to humanity and where you contribute real value. You live a life of contribution, giving, and making a difference to something outside yourself. Your life is no longer solely about you. It’s about others. About living a self-actualizing life, this happens as you move upward into the truly human, somewhat divine needs. This can involve discomfort or even growing pains, that is why it’s often avoided. For most of us, this is unexplored territory.
The more your attention is focused on your deficiency (lower) needs the more you will consume, thinking your higher needs will be met.
You must overcome your instincts. Your core survival urges. You must transcend the animal mode and become godlike. The “world” can keep you focused on the lower needs and distracted from thinking and pursuing meaningful, virtuous, righteousness living.
In today’s world we get mixed up, confused, and remain stuck: We are trying to satisfy “being (higher) needs” within the “having (lower) mode”.
Through marketing and media, organizations, institutions, politicians, and the way society functions, we are kept focused on these needs. Why? Well then, we are easier to control and more profitable for the system. While focused on the lower needs your behaviour is easier to direct. I don’t think this is some conspiracy but just the way our society has developed. This is the normal working, and the natural way institutions operate. Their higher goals and interest are mostly not your health, growth, and wellbeing. Their interest is mostly economic growth, market share and profit (power). While you stay focused on survival, or pleasure, entertainment, gratification, quick fixes etc. In our culture it serves market interest if you remain confused and pursue your being (higher) needs in the having (lower) mode. Welcome to materialism, greed, envy, consumerism, and conforming to the masses. You will never have enough if your identity is based on having. For everything that can be had, can also be lost.
How does this play out in daily life?
You need to be mature, so you get a car. You need to experience love, so you seek sex. You want status, you buy an expensive watch. You are seeking approval and acceptance (likes on social media) rather than being true to yourself. Being stuck in this mode is existential confusion. Your higher needs are not being met, but you keep pursuing them at the wrong level. You are trying to fill a bottomless pit. You pursue it by buying more cars, purchasing more sex, buying more watches, seeking more social approval etc. You horde and accumulate stuff. But the “gap” of meaning and purpose remains unfilled. The more the “world” can get you to pursue your being needs from your having mode, the more it can sell to you. The easier you are to control and manipulate. You become a marionette. It’s a shallow existence to live your entire life in the having mode. You remain in the “herd” if you stay focused on your “animal” needs.
You need to transcend and leave this space.
We all have an inborn longing and search for meaning. But we can end up searching for meaning and purpose in all the wrong places. Meaning and purpose is not something pick up instore or online.
There is no instant or quick fix for this. Meaning is not found or stumbled upon. It’s created and experienced.
The danger arises when we get stuck on the pursuit of pleasures and basic needs. This orientation keeps your vision focused on what’s down below. You must see beyond your survival needs and direct your attention to what is above and beyond. This is how you transcend. You must see beyond, think beyond, and move beyond. You must pursue peak experiences, face challenges, overcome obstacles, and become what you can be. Position yourself to contribute value and be committed to something or someone outside yourself.
Remember the having mode (lower needs) are met by having or controlling things. The being mode (higher needs) are met by enhancing meaning and becoming something.
Is your focus above or below the line? The line represents the threshold of indifference and ignorance. Your instincts are telling you not to go up there. It’s dangerous, uncomfortable, and unexplored. Many things can happen. You can fall.
Do you go?
Above the line dreams come true. Below the line, dreams die.
Your biggest contribution can only come by first living a life where your potentials are being actualized, and then from that position you are helping others. You cannot really help others if you have not taken care of yourself.
You can’t fix or change the world if you are not busy climbing your mountain. Sort yourself out first. It’s ok to be “selfish” and spend the required time and resources on setting yourself straight. Figure out what you want, what you value and what your highest intentions and dreams are.
The outcome is that you transcend.
Transcendence is a dedication and commitment to something or someone else outside or beyond yourself. It is strongly related to creating meaning in your life and then acting in accordance with this meaning.
This meaning is necessarily related to transcending yourself, without losing yourself, for the sake of something larger than yourself.
Transcendence leads to some external usefulness of your life through virtuous living in line with your purpose or calling. Transcending oneself for the sake of the greater good.
Martin Seligman, the person behind the positive psychology movement, distinguishes between the pleasant life, the good life and the meaningful life.
- The pleasant life is devoted to pursuit of positive emotions and can be compared to hedonic well-being.
- The good life is where you are using your character strengths to obtain achievement and gratification – activities you like doing, akin to flow.
- Finally, meaningful life is about using your strengths in the service of something greater than yourself.
“I slept and dreamt that life was joy.
I woke and saw that life was service.
I acted and realized that service was joy.”
Meaning is not found or stumbled upon; it’s created. One day at a time.
*This is an excerpt from the book: Keep Thriving.
For more information on the book or to understand how you can build meaning and purpose into your life, please connect with us.
About the author: Reinhard Korb is a Meta-coach and integrates neuroscience, psychology, epigenetics and lifestyle for optimal health, performance, engagement and productivity. As the founder of Keep Thriving, he has facilitated and helped organisations and individuals actualize their potential.