Government and Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs: Can Money Buy Citizen Happiness?

Food, water, and shelter are essential to survival, which is essential to happiness. And today, we buy these things with money.

Food, water, and shelter are essential to survival, which is essential to happiness. And today, we buy these things with money.

This blog post is an excerpt from our e-book, Happy Citizens: Measuring Performance in the Public Sector. You can download the whole e-book here.


One of the basic concepts of psychology is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, developed by the American psychologist Abraham Maslow in the 1940’s and 50’s. The Hierarchy of Needs covers five motivations that drive human beings: (1) Physiological, (2) Safety, (3) Love/Belonging, (4) Esteem, and (5) Self-actualization. The needs are ranked with the most fundamental towards the bottom of the pyramid. The bottom four needs are considered the “deficiency needs.” If these needs are not met, the individual will feel anxious and tense, according to Maslow.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, like any model, is a simplification of the real world. Needs and motivations also vary between cultures and from person to person. Nonetheless, the model works as a useful framework for thinking about happiness. It can inform how government policies and initiatives impact the overall satisfaction of constituents’ lives.

This series of blog posts will cover four different research projects and their insights related to happiness. Each study is related to one of the deficiency needs. The studies help illuminate the aspects of citizens’ lives most related to happiness—thus providing insight into how policies and initiatives can most effectively increase public happiness. Today, we'll start with the first and fundamental need—physiological. 

Physiological Needs for Modern Families

Physiological needs relate to the necessity of food, water, and shelter for survival. In a modern society, this concept translates to money—the means with which most people buy sustenance and pay for housing.

The World Happiness Report was able to show that income had an effect on happiness. This fact begs the question, “Can money buy you happiness?”

Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School conducted a study to answer this question. Economist Angus Deaton and psychologist Daniel Kahneman analyzed responses from 450,000 Americans polled by Gallup and Healthways in 2008 and 2009. The participants were asked how they had felt the previous day and whether they were living the best possible life. In addition, they were asked about their income.

What Maslow Tells Us About Money

Before revealing the results of the study, it’s important to, once again, distinguish between the two types of happiness—the day-to-day feeling of joy, and one’s overall satisfaction with life.

The study found that money does indeed buy you happiness—the day-to-day kind—at least up to an annual income of $75,000. Once you reach that level, additional income does not make your days more joyful. It can, however, make you more satisfied with where your life is going.

Lower income did not cause people to be sadder but instead made people “feel more ground down by the problems they already had.” Having money makes it easier to handle adversity.

Check back next week for Part III: Safety and Love. Or, download the entire e-book now: