How Citizen Happiness is Built on Respect—and Jobs

Self-actualization, or "flourishing," is the peak of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs—but to get there, most people need the self-respect that comes from employment. 

Self-actualization, or "flourishing," is the peak of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs—but to get there, most people need the self-respect that comes from employment. 

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.

For governments, quantifying performance means promoting happiness among citizens. To this end, governments can apply one of the basic concepts of psychology: 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 tenseaccording to Maslow. In this post, we'll examine needs #4 and #5 on the hierarchy: esteem and self-actualization.

Sources of Esteem

The need for esteem can be thought of as the need for respect, or the need to feel valued. As humans, we need to feel respected by others. But just as important, if not more important: we need to have self-respect. People often satisfy this need by engaging in a profession or hobby to gain recognition. The impact of not having this need met can have long-lasting effects.

Edward Diener, a professor at the University of Illinois, has researched life satisfaction for several decades and conducted extensive studies into human beings’ ability to adapt to new circumstances. One of the interesting insights he found is that we humans are able to bounce back to a normal state of happiness in a relatively short amount of time, regardless of what happens. Even losing a limb does not tend to impact happiness in the long term.

The Importance of Employment

However, Diener found that two types of events do have a long-lasting effect on our happiness. The first is the loss of a spouse, which can take 3-8 years to “get over.” The second type of event may be more surprising, and shows the importance of esteem: it is the loss of a job.

Even after a person gets a new job, the lingering loss of an old job can still drag down a person’s level of happiness. Such is the importance of being respected by peers and by ourselves. 

Beyond Deficiency Needs

Maslow describes the bottom four needs as deficiency needs; these are the basic needs that need to be filled for a person to avoid being anxious or tense. Only when these are in place, according to Maslow, will people focus on the need of self-actualization. This need can be understood as the need for a person to live up to his or her full potential, whether professionally or personally.

One can think of self-actualization as a state toward which an individual strives, a “flourishing” existence. It's impossible to quantify this concept in a way that does justice to the huge range of interests and values among individual human beings. But one classic way of understanding this concept is Aristotle's concept of eudaimonia.

Active Actualization

In Aristotle’s Ethics, eudaimonia is conceived not as a passive state of contentment, but as a virtuous activity. What sort of activity might this be? For Aristotle, the answer is obvious. Humans are the only animals capable of reason, so the ideal form of eudaimonia, for humans, must involve the exercise and application of reason to achieve excellence in one’s work, relationships, and other aspects of one’s life. In other words, for Aristotle, philosophy is the key that unlocks eudaimonia.

Of course, Aristotle was a philosopher, so it is perhaps not surprising that he viewed self-actualization in terms of his own work. Other philosophers (and non-philosophers) have suggested other forms of self-actualization—finding meaning in craftsmanship, or in philanthropy, or in sharing life's simple pleasures with loved ones. What is clear is that to achieve self-actualization is no easy task for those who lack a foundation of the first four needs on Maslow's hierarchy, as Aristotle himself acknowledges.

The subjective nature of self-actualization makes it a difficult metric for governments to address directly. But governments can certainly help lay the foundation for citizens to flourish. In our final installment next week, we'll examine how government can help make Maslow's framework work for their citizens. Check back here, or download the entire e-book now:

Photo credit: Vashishtha Jogi.