According to human needs psychology, all human motivation can be explained as the desire to meet one or more of six primary human needs. These are
- Certainty: the need for stability, safety, and comfort,
- Variety: the need for stimulus and change,
- Significance: the need to be unique and worthy of attention,
- Connection and love: the need for connection with others and ultimately to love and be loved,
- Growth: the need to develop and expand, and
- Contribution: the need to give beyond yourself. To understand any behavior, whether it is someone else’s behavior or your own, it is essential to understand which need you are trying to meet. For instance, it is one thing to try to make money out of a craving for certainty and safety, and it is a very different thing to try to make money out of the sense of contribution and growth.
THE SIX HUMAN NEEDS
All of us have basic needs, not merely desires but profound needs that underlie and motivate every choice we make. There are six basic needs that everyone seeks to fulfill:
The first need is for certainty. We want to feel safe, avoid pain, and feel comfortable in our environment. Every individual needs to have some sense of certainty and security – a roof over one’s head, knowing where the next meal will come from, knowing how to obtain care when one is sick, knowing that a neighbor won’t attack us. These are just a few examples of what constitutes an underlying sense of certainty.
The helpless infant needs certainty as well as the child, the adult, and the elderly person. The degree to which certainty is needed or desired, however, varies from person to person. Some people feel secure living in one room and collecting an unemployment check. Others can feel certainty only if they make a million dollars each year. Even though some certainty is necessary to all of us, what constitutes certainty varies from individual to individual. Code words for certainty are the comfort, security, safety, stability, feeling grounded, predictability, and protection.
The second need is for uncertainty – for variety and challenges that will exercise our emotional and physical range. Everyone needs some variety in life. Our bodies, our minds, our emotional well-being all require uncertainty, exercise, suspense, surprise.
The person caught in the same routine day after day will seek change and look for uncertainty. Just as a sense of security is reassuring, so the excitement that comes from variety is necessary to feel alive. For some variety might be satisfied by watching the news on television. Others may seek extreme high-risk activities such as extreme sports or compulsive sexuality to satisfy their need for uncertainty. For many, a major source of variety is to experience problems. Code words for uncertainty/variety are fear, instability, change, chaos, entertainment, suspense, exertion, surprise, conflict, and crisis.
The third need is for significance. Every person needs to feel important, needed, wanted. As babies, we all needed to feel that we were number one. Children in a family compete with each other and find a way to be special, to feel unique. Significance comes from comparing ourselves to others – in our quest for significance; we become involved in hierarchical pecking orders and questions of superiority or inferiority. We can feel significant because we have achieved something, built something, succeeded at something, or we can seek significance by tearing down something or somebody.
In its positive aspect, significance leads us to raise our standards. But if we are overly focused on significance, we will have trouble truly connecting with others – comparisons focus on differences rather than commonalities. For some, significance comes from providing for the family; for others, from doing meaningful work, some need to make a major contribution to humanity; some require immense wealth. Some people achieve a sense of significance from failure, by being the worst at something or from having low self-esteem. Whatever the measure of significance, a sense of being important is necessary to all human beings. Code words for significance are pride, importance, standards, achievement, performance, perfection, evaluation, discipline, competition, and rejection.
The fourth need is for the experience of love and connection. Everybody needs connection with other human beings, and everyone strives for and hopes for love. An infant needs to be loved and cared for during a long period if it’s to develop normally. Infants who are not held and touched will die. This need for love continues throughout our lives. It is epitomized by the concept of romantic love, the one person who will devote their life to us and make us feel complete. In some cultures, romantic loves don’t exist; it’s replaced by the love of relatives, friends, and tribe. Some people rarely experience love, but they have many ways of feeling a connection with others – in the community or the workplace. The need to be loved is characteristic of all human beings. Code words for love/connection are togetherness, passion, unity, warmth, tenderness, and desire.
The fifth need is for growth. When we stop growing, we die. We need to continually develop intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. We grow and change physically as we develop from infancy to adulthood and old age. We grow and change emotionally with every experience, and we grow intellectually as we respond to events and the world around us. Anything that you want to remain in your life – your money, your health, your relationship, your happiness, love – must be cultivated, developed, and expanded. Otherwise, it will degenerate. Some people satisfy the need to grow by working out physically or by reading books. Others need to study and continuously learn to feel that they are indeed growing.
The sixth need is for contribution – to go beyond our own needs and to give to others. Life is incomplete without the sense that one is making a contribution to others or a cause. It is like human beings to want to give back, to leave a mark on the world. Giving to others may mean giving time to community service, making a charitable donation, planting trees, writing a book, or offering to one’s children. Not only can everyone contribute in some way, but the contribution is essential to a sense of fulfillment and happiness.
The first four needs – certainty, uncertainty, significance and love – are essential for human survival. They are the fundamental needs of the personality – everyone must feel that they have met them on some level, even if they have to lie to themselves to do so.
The last two needs, growth and contribution, are essential for human fulfillment. They are the needs of the spirit, and not everyone finds a way to satisfy them although they are necessary for lasting fulfillment. When our needs for love, growth, and contribution are met, they tend to encompass all our other needs. When we focus on something beyond ourselves, most of our problems and sources of pain become less significant.
The contribution is the human need that effectively regulates our other five needs.
If you are focused on contributing to others, you have the certainty of being able to contribute (there is always a way). You have variety (contribution is highly interactive). You have significance because you know you are helping others and improving their lives. The spiritual bond created when you help others gives you a deep sense of connection, and you grow by creatively helping others.
Everyone experiences the same six human needs. However, everyone finds different ways of satisfying these needs. Each of these needs can be met in ways that are positive or negative. Some ways of satisfying these needs are good for the person, good for others and good for society, and some are bad for everyone.
The need for certainty
Can be met by going to school and obtaining a degree that will ensure the possibility of making a good living. Or it can be achieved by doing as little as possible and avoiding challenges. It can be met by stealing from others and hoarding money and material possessions. Or it can be satisfied by holding rigidly to a dogma or a doctrine.
The need for uncertainty/variety
Can be satisfied by reading on different subjects and meeting different kinds of people. Or it can be reached by engaging in high-risk sports or by risking one’s life through violent behavior. It can be met by participating in extramarital affairs or by merely watching a movie once in a while.
The need for significance
can be met by being the best at something – or by being the worst.
The need for love and connection can be satisfied through performing good deeds and being kind, or by dominating others who are forced to show appreciation.
One can grow into becoming a better person – or a despicable human being.
One can contribute to the destruction of others – or the well-being of many.
As in everything human, there are paradoxes involved in the experience of these needs. A person may have a strong need for certainty, but also a strong need for uncertainty, and therefore might always suffer an inner conflict as to which need is most important to satisfy. The need for significance is often contradictory with the need for love. It’s challenging to love someone who continually has to feel significantly important. That is why so many successful people, who satisfy their need for significance, have trouble in their close relationships and often feel that they are not truly loved.“