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How to Apply Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in Your Everyday Life

Do you ever lose sight of what truly matters for your well-being and fulfillment? Feel out of whack?

Understanding how to prioritize our needs and goals is essential since they often compete with endless demands on our time. In both our personal and professional lives, the challenge of managing our commitments can feel overwhelming. As a solo-entrepreneur, I’ve found that being intentional helps with work-life balance and carving time for what truly matters.

EQ tools, such as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, can be an indispensable guide. They help us spot those times when we’ve let self-care slide or have moved into chronic stress or survival mode.

Estimated reading: 7 minutes

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Maslow's Needs Pyramid Still Relevant Today

Although the framework of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs was introduced in the 1940s, it is astonishingly relevant today, guiding us through the complexities of contemporary life.

This psychological needs theory offers insight into human motivation and provides a practical roadmap for navigating our daily lives with purpose and clarity. By understanding and applying Maslow's principles, we can systematically address our fundamental needs, build a solid foundation for personal growth, and pave the way toward achieving our fullest potential.

Let’s explore the pyramid of needs and how this iconic EQ tool can help you prioritize what’s truly important. From ensuring our basic psychological needs are met to continuously striving for self-actualization, applying Maslow’s theory can enhance your life.

And with all things, it’s not just what you know but how you apply and live what you know that up-levels your life. Maslow’s hierarchy can transform your approach to personal development and help you grow in emotional intelligence to achieve a balanced, fulfilling life.

So, let’s begin with the author of this monumental work.

Brief Biography of Abraham Maslow

Abraham Maslow was a renowned psychologist born in New York City on April 1, 1908. He began studying law at City College of New York. However, he switched to studying psychology at the University of Wisconsin, where he was mentored by Harry Harlow and earned all three of his psychology degrees (bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate).

In the 1950s, Maslow was the founder and driving force behind humanistic psychology, which included theories about peak experiences, self-actualization, and the Hierarchy of Needs. His ideas differed from other popular theories at the time (Freud’s psychoanalytic theory and B.F. Skinner’s behavioral theory) in that he thought they were too negative. Instead, he focused on achieving full human potential, creativity, and maximizing well-being.

Maslow’s focus has always intrigued me. In my coaching work of the last couple of decades, I’ve found that we assert too much judgment on negative behaviors and overlook the underlying needs fueling “misbehavior,” whether at home with children, in our personal lives, or the workplace.

My specialty is decoding nonproductive behavior and teaching leaders and parents to redirect it to the true aims of the adult or child. It’s always fascinating to me just how quickly a person returns to respectful and loving behavior when their needs are met and the hidden pain is resolved.

Recognizing our own needs and those of others is what makes the needs pyramid so powerful.

Let’s dive into how Maslow’s pyramid was developed.

How and When Maslow Developed His Theory

Now that you know a bit about Abraham Maslow’s background and theories, let’s get into how and when he developed his most famous theory of human needs. 

Starting in the 1940s, Maslow integrated his various approaches to human innovation. Then, in 1954, he published his groundbreaking book, Motivation and Personality which synthesized fifteen years of his human nature theories.

This book brought him international fame and critical acclaim and emphasized the positive side of psychology. The book also sparked interest from people in education and business management, as entrepreneurs sought advice on motivation and maximizing workplace team efficiency.

Later in life, Maslow became ill but continued writing, teaching, and consulting. Until he died in 1970, he firmly believed in human beings' potential to flourish. And after his death, his ideas continue to inspire millions worldwide. His legacy profoundly influences our understanding of what motivates us and the importance of fulfilling our needs to live our best lives.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow believed that understanding human needs was essential to creating a better world. This insight led him to conceptualize his theory as a pyramid with five levels, starting with basic physiological needs at the bottom and advancing to higher psychological needs, known as the Hierarchy of Human Needs.

Maslow’s theories have been applied in many areas, predominantly in education, business, and personal development.

See the illustration below as we go through each of the levels.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid

A Brief Description of Each Level of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Let’s look at what each level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs entails, starting with the broadest part of the pyramid (most important) and working up.

Psychological Needs

We find our physiological needs at the pyramid's base, which sustains life. Think of these as everything the body needs to survive: air, water, food, shelter, and sleep. We create a stable foundation for our well-being and health by meeting these fundamental needs. These needs are a reminder that self-care starts with honoring the body's basic requirements.

Safety Needs

Once we meet our basic needs, we naturally seek safety and security. This level encompasses our desire for a safe living environment, financial security, health and wellness, and a net of protection against accidents and harm. It's about creating a sanctuary in our external environment and within ourselves, fostering inner peace and stability.

Belonging and Love Needs

Humans are inherently social creatures craving connection, love, and belonging. This stage in the pyramid emphasizes the importance of intimate relationships, friendships, and community ties. Did you know that our brains are literally wired for connection? Since our brains are built to be social, the needs for love and belonging are a high priority.

Esteem Needs

Our esteem needs focus on our longing for respect, self-esteem, and recognition. This level involves achieving and mastering skills, independence, and receiving appreciation from others. It's a call to celebrate our accomplishments and to cultivate self-respect and confidence, acknowledging that our value comes from within and is reflected in our actions and how we treat others.


Maslow first coined the term 'self-actualizing' and interviewed many high achievers to understand what made them emotionally healthy and prosperous. Through these interviews, he discovered the occurrence of peak experiences, which were often related to accomplishment or family life. Maslow also believed that self-actualizing people constantly try to reach their full potential and possess characteristics of self-acceptance, independence, and spontaneity.

According to Abraham Maslow, the highest need—the ultimate goal—as human beings is self-actualization. You’ll find it at the top of Maslow's hierarchy, representing one's potential, creativity, and personal growth. This focus is centered on authenticity, pursuing our passions, and fulfilling our purpose.

Each level represents human needs. A growth journey encourages continuous exploration, learning, and embracing growth opportunities. However, these pursuits become unlikely when a person is homeless, starving, or even operating on burnout in the workplace.

A Major Criticism of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a central piece of psychological history that has profoundly influenced many aspects of human understanding.

But it’s not perfect.

The main criticism of Maslow’s theory is that it lacks universality and cultural difference considerations. Different cultures have different needs and priorities, and the hierarchy may be less relevant to individuals with different values and beliefs.

His theory neglects the impact of social and cultural factors and individual differences. For instance, communal cultures such as those in Asia, Middle East, and India, emphasize family and collective well-being rather than individualism and personal self-fulfillment needs or actualization. Their social structures are shaped to support community, family and society rather than individuals.

Cultural values and norms can significantly affect an individual’s needs and priorities, sometimes even superseding them. Therefore, consider cultural context when using the pyramid.

This shortcoming of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs highlights the importance of recognizing that human needs and motivations aren’t one-size-fits-all.

While we are all human, cultural differences play a significant part in deciding the course of our lives. People from different cultures have different priorities and aspirations, and their needs may be influenced by external factors such as social, economic, and environmental circumstances.

When Maslow first published his theory in 1943, he tried to encompass as many people as possible given limitations present at that time. But we must expand its parameters to apply it to today's world. Therefore, approach the understanding and use of the Hierarchy of Needs with cultural sensitivity and an appreciation of the complexity of human motivation.

How the Basic Needs Play Out in Modern Life

The world is much different now than when Maslow created the Hierarchy of Needs. However, his theory is valuable for gaining profound insights into our personal development today.

Modern-Day Psychological Needs

The pyramid's foundation begins with fulfilling our basic psychological needs of sustenance, hydration, and shelter. Today, we might push those elements to pursue wholesome, sustainable food options, exercising to strengthen our bodies, and find safe, welcoming spaces where we can  relax and be authentic.

Recognizing and prioritizing these needs is fundamental to physical health and overall well-being. You can move on to the next level when your basic needs are met as best as possible.

Modern-Day Safety Needs

In modern times, we can broaden this level from only physical security to emotional and cyber security.

Much of our lives are online now—banking, shopping, friends, hybrid work, school, etc. —so creating digital empathy is crucial, especially with prevalent social media shaming.

And, of course, a safe space is also imperative for protecting ourselves and our loved ones from threats in our physical environments. If we extend this level further, we might include our planet’s environmental health, a concern for many.

Our emotional safety needs to be a priority today, too. In the past, many people, especially men, were taught to push their emotions down and buck up. Cutting ourselves off from our emotions  limits our effectiveness, sometimes resulting in angry bursts. We know now that being emotionally healthy and having high emotional intelligence (EQ) is essential for a better life.

Young Asian couple sitting in their living room both separately hooked into technology.

Modern-Day Love and Belonging Needs:

While love and relationships have evolved since the time Maslow created his Hierarchy of Needs, the human brain is wired for relationship and the need to belong is stronger than ever in our digital age. Direct human contact is still essential, even though the digital age allows us to “connect” with people instantly across the globe.

I recommend finding some balance in this area. You can value your online “friends” and enjoy the social media connections but also ensure you nurture and grow your relationships in person. Invite a friend to coffee or lunch. Pick up the phone and make a call. Hug someone (with their permission, of course). Go out on dates and have fun. Ensure your online interactions complement your physical ones rather than replace the richness of real-life experiences.

Heartmanity encourages nurturing these connections with openness and empathy, recognizing that our emotional health flourishes when we feel loved and supported.

Modern-Day Esteem Needs

Life moves faster today than ever before. Meeting our esteem needs—the desire for accomplishment, respect, and self-esteem—has been taken to a higher level. With the advent of social media, there are WAY more avenues for recognition and validation, offering instant feedback loops for our achievements and recognition.

However, true fulfillment goes beyond likes, clicks, views, and shares. It involves finding genuine satisfaction and deepening your self-respect in your personal and professional life. Set meaningful goals, embrace your unique strengths, and contribute to communities in meaningful ways. These simple actions enhance your sense of belonging and expand your authentic self.

Modern-Day Self-Actualization

Pursuing your full potential, embracing creativity, problem-solving, and achieving personal growth in the modern world can be more challenging with myriad distractions, yet simultaneously more accessible.

Today, we have unprecedented access to information, diverse communities, and nearly limitless opportunities for learning and expression. We have varied and plentiful paths to personal and professional development.

However, self-actualization is a journey, not a destination. It’s not just about acquiring knowledge. Wholeness and integration is a deep, ongoing process of aligning our actions with our true selves, developing our intuition, exploring our passions, and contributing meaningfully to the world. You’ll need mindfulness, resilience, and an openness to experience life fully—including embracing all your challenges as opportunities for growth.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is as prevalent in our everyday lives as ever. The same principles apply; only the original hierarchy has evolved to include the elements of our modern world.

A Real-Life Personal and Workplace Example of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Knowing which of our needs must be met and in what order can be complex. So, let’s look at two examples (personal and workplace) to understand better how to apply Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in real life.

Personal Example

Let’s say you feel sluggish, your dating and work life are stagnant, and life doesn’t seem to be going your way. Many might immediately think caffeinated drinks, dating apps, scrolling social media, and moving on to a new job will “fix” their lives.

However, according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, fulfilling your basic psychological needs comes first: food, water, warmth, and rest, before jumping to external “things” to find happiness.

Well-being requires us to prioritize our physical needs of hydration, creating a bedtime routine that promotes relaxation, going to the gym for exercise, and planning meals to ensure you have nourishing food readily available.

Meeting the basics first can alleviate a lot of your stress, increase self-confidence, and improve your overall well-being. Start providing everything at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid for yourself. Then, reach out to a good friend and increase connection. Work up from there!

A veterinarian examining a happy Border Collie at a veterinarian clinic.

Workplace Example

Imagine you’re the owner of a veterinarian clinic with fifteen employees at each of your three locations. In a workplace setting, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs can be used to improve employee experience, motivation, and satisfaction as well as the needs of your customers.

For example, an owner or employer can ensure that employees' physiological needs are met with providing access to purified water, a relaxing and attractive break room, a comfortable working environment, and a fair income. Creating a clean, professional, welcoming space for customers, friendly service will ensure their basic needs. Furnishing a convenient restroom and an organized reception area will help them feel at home.

Meet first-level needs first, then address safety needs, such as an easy entrance for customers and a spacious, comfortable waiting area. For employees: job security, a safe working environment, and adequate on-the-job training are fulfilling the second level needs.

After an employer meets these needs, they can focus on social needs by creating opportunities for team building and socializing to foster a sense of belonging. You could also plan a public event with food and refreshments for customers, extending to them a greater sense of belonging.

Keep in mind, depending on your business, providing employees a strong sense of belonging at work is more difficult in our hybrid, Zoom and Slack-focused world. A special effort will need to be made to include off-site employees.

Finally, employers can help employees fulfill their esteem needs by providing recognition, opportunities for growth, emotional intelligence training, and appropriate involvement in decision-making.

Closing Thoughts

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs may have been formulated and introduced decades ago, but its principles are still relevant today. They can be instrumental in keeping life’s priorities in order.

Our lives are driven by needs so understanding what needs are fueling our behavior can be extremely empowering.

It’s pretty simple system for well-being: start at the bottom and ensure your most basic needs are fulfilled first: getting enough sleep, healthy eating and drinking, exercising, and having a safe place to rest. Then move to each subsequent level.

The one vital key to a happy life: fulfilling your needs and sharing your life with others.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What happens if our human needs in Maslow's pyramid are not met?

In Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, he believed that as people met the needs of each level, at least partially, they ascend to the next level.

Brain science shows us that our brains are programmed for survival so it makes sense that the most urgent needs are the highest priority. If we lack water and food, because we could die, they would become all-consuming. 

However, because we are complex human beings with spiritual beliefs and deep values, we might seek spiritual guidance even as we lack the basics. And because the limbic brain seeks connection with other humans, we might also seek connection and love simultaneously as we pursue our survival needs.

The needs pyramid is a guide, not a hard-and-fast rule. Listen to your own heart to interpret what is most needed for your well-being.

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Jennifer A. Williams / Emotional Intelligence CoachJennifer A. Williams / Emotional Intelligence Coach
Jennifer is the Heartmanity founder and an emotional intelligence expert. She has two decades of EQ experience and is the author of emotional intelligence training and courses. As an emotional fitness coach, Jennifer teaches EQ skills, brain science hacks, and a comprehensive approach that gets results. She is happily married and the mother of three incredible grown children.

Posted in Emotional Intelligence & Fitness

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