Self-actualization is a term used in psychology to describe a state of being where you feel you are fulfilling something worthwhile and achieving your goals and dreams. It has been speculated by several psychologists that this is the real way to achieve happiness and a sense of satisfaction.
In the ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ that drive the human psyche as outlined by Maslow, self-actualization is considered the top of the pyramid and what we go after once we have achieved our physiological needs like breathing and eating, safety, love and esteem needs (though you could argue esteem and actualization are closely connected).
Here Maslow describes actualization as being comprised of ‘morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice and acceptance of facts’, but generally it’s used to encompass the kind of goals we have that give our life ‘meaning’ rather than just helping us to survive.
However achieving this actualization is the part that’s tricky, and while most of us here in the West have no trouble finding food and drink (fortunately) many of us do struggle to really know what it is that we want to accomplish in life and so to give our lives that kind of purpose.
But fortunately psychology doesn’t leave us fending for ourselves in this area either, and there are plenty of strategies that have been devised to help us get to the root of this. Going and seeing a therapist is one strategy, but that’s very expensive and time consuming, so here are a few of the things you can do yourself right now to help you get back on track.
Write Your Own Eulogy
One popular strategy that’s promoted in a lot of ‘pop’ psychology books is to try writing your own eulogy – imagining that you are dead and someone is writing down their thoughts about you. The idea is to write the eulogy that you’d like to hear in an ideal world, and in doing so this should illuminate what’s important to you. Does your eulogy focus on the fact that you were a family man or woman who was always smiling and there for their friends? Or does it point out all the fantastic accomplishments you’ve made in life? Either way you then know that you need to start living your life in that certain way in order to ensure that that’s the way people will remember you once you’ve gone.
The Five Fold Why
The fivefold why is another little psychological trick in which you ask yourself a question and then follow it up with the question ‘why’ five times – like an annoying toddler. The reason this works is that it forces you to think more deeply on a subject rather than just answering the question literally – by constantly asking ‘why’ you are forced to look at the real reasons you want to achieve something. So you ask yourself what you want to achieve in your career, and you might say ‘I want to become the youngest manager’. Following that you would then ask why several times and this might uncover the fact that you crave distinction, or that you want to be in-charge. And maybe you want to be in-charge so you can feel important, and feel respected. Once you know this you then know what you really need in order to feel happy in your life – respect. Of course the root cause of your desire could be any number of things, for me what I really want is freedom. My career doesn’t really matter then, as long as it allows me to be free.
Look at Your Role Models
Most of us have a few role models who we look up to and try to emulate, and these can give us a good look at some of the things that we want to achieve in life. By looking again at what it is about your role models that you aspire to, you can learn more about yourself and about your goals. So a good strategy to use is to write down the traits of your top five role models and then note down anything that is re-occurring. You might well find that there are some clear similarities between all of them.
Write Your Bucket List
A bucket list is a list of things you want to achieve, and common entries include things like ‘run a marathon’ or ‘reach the summit of Everest’. By writing a bucket list you ensure that your life is fulfilling in terms of the experiences and memories you have at the end of it. If you look online you can find plenty of suggestions for things to add to that bucket list and this can really help you.
Your Ideal Day
This is a ‘counterfactual simulation’ exercise, where you are running through a situation in your mind that is not actual real. Counterfactual simulation can be used in many ways – such as to come up with contingency plans for instance. Here you are using it to simply go through what would be your most perfect day – and then you take notes of those things that would bring you the most long term happiness. It might be that you wake up in a beautiful house, it might be that you achieve some kind of long sought after success, or it might just be that you spend a day with your family. By noting what it is that would bring you genuine happiness, you can then make the steps necessary to accomplish it.