How Governments Can Put Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to Work

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is more than just a concept in psychology—it's a roadmap for governments interested in fostering happiness among citizens. 

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is more than just a concept in psychology—it's a roadmap for governments interested in fostering happiness among citizens. 

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.

The Hierarchy of Needs is a basic concept in psychology. Developed by the American psychologist Abraham Maslow in the 1940's and 1950's, it 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 tenseaccording to Maslow.

Maslow never intended his framework to be used by governments. Nevertheless, the concept works as a useful model for evaluating how a government initiative affects the livelihoods and happiness of constituents.

Targeting Tiers of Happiness

The framework can help assess programs by evaluating what specific aspect of happiness a program or policy will affect. Will the policy help people increase their income? Will it help people feel more safe and secure? Will the initiative help establish or improve social connections?

It is important for governments to consider metrics for their programs with specificity, because Maslow's Hierarchy shows that higher-tier forms of happiness are dependent on lower-tier needs being met. 

A Holistic Approach to Government Programs

In some cases, the model can assist in thinking about performance measurement of programs more holistically. A holistic approach, using this frame- work, could lead to the identification of root causes that otherwise might not be obvious. Take education as an example. A standard performance measure is the average of test scores for a school. If performance measures are solely focused on test scores, one might jump to the conclusion that a given teach- ing program is flawed. A holistic approach using this framework could also ask the question, are our students’ physiological need met? Do they come to school hungry? No amount of extra tutoring can help increase test scores if the students’ basic need for food and water is not met.

Better Connections Between Government and Citizens

The new focus on happiness as part of policymaking can lead to better dialogue between the government and its constituents. For instance, the effectiveness of programs could be measured by surveying the happiness levels of the population served before and after the program.

The American government is for the people, by the people. And people need to have access to food and shelter, to feel safe and secure, to maintain social connections, and to gain respect. If government measures its performance in these terms, it can more effectively help its constituents live the lives they truly want to live.

If you'd like to learn more about how governments can use Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, download the whole e-book here: