A Working Definition of “Self-Actualization”

(THIS IS THE THIRD IN A SERIES OF IN-DEPTH DISCUSSIONS ABOUT COLLECTIVE SELF-ACTUALIZATION, AND THE THEORIES AND THOUGHTS BEHIND IT. IF YOU HAVEN’T ALREADY, WE RECOMMEND READING THE FIRST AND SECOND PARTS BEFORE CONTINUING.)

When Dr. Abraham Maslow initially developed his Theory of Human Motivation, the concept of Self-Actualization didn’t actually have a working definition; instead, he looked for common characteristics in some of the intellectual figures throughout history that he felt had reached their full potential as human beings – Abraham Lincoln, Leonardo DaVinci, Frederick Douglass, Eleanor Roosevelt, and others.

Maslow looked at the positive characteristics that these people had in common with each other, such as creativity, overall happiness, intuitiveness or empathy, etc. These characteristics are what he used to describe Self-Actualization, but Maslow never actually defined Self-Actualization. He relied on these common general characteristics in place of an actual definition.
leonardo-da-vinci-on-Intellectual-Revolution
Leonardo DaVinci

Well, then how do you know if you have reached Self-Actualization? How can we know if this state has been achieved if we do not have a sound definition for it? This is our starting point, sports fans – generating a working definition of Self-Actualization.

The following, a result of years of thought, research, analysis, discussion, and more thought, is our proposed definition for Self-Actualization. (As an aside, if anybody out there has any ideas, insight, or questions about any of this, please send us a message or share your thoughts in the comments below. Everything here is up for discussion, and this is meant to be an environment for such discussion to take place)

In our definition, there are two criteria in defining Self-Actualization: the ‘objective’ and the ‘subjective’. The objective criteria for Self-Actualization simply states that “Self-Actualization occurs when one fulfills the needs and wants they choose to have fulfilled.”

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Eleanor Roosevelt

Note here that it is the needs and wants that you choose to have fulfilled, not the needs and wants you happen to have. However, if we define Self-Actualization simply as an objective goal, that leaves a very broad range of needs and wants. For instance, a serial killer could attempt to justify their atrocities by claiming that they “just happen to want to kill people”, and they are therefore achieving Self-Actualizing by engaging in those destructive behaviors.

Thus, for morality to exist in our definition, we must define Self-Actualization as the fulfillment of the needs and wants you choose to have fulfilled, and attribute an understanding of personal responsibility. When we quantify our definition with emphasis on the personal choice, it is then intrinsically implied, assumed, and granted that 1) You are a rational, moral agent, and 2) You are engaging in an ethically significant interaction, whereby you are actively taking on, by your own free-will and accord, moral accountability.

The subjective criteria of our working definition of Self-Actualization takes this idea even further. To be straight forward, the subjective understanding can be stated like this: “Self-Actualization is the fulfillment of all the needs and wants that you choose to have fulfilled, in a manner that is consistent with these basic ethical principles:

FrederickDouglas
Frederick Douglass

1. Autonomy (the ability for one to pursue self-direction and not impede upon that ability in others, or to have others impede on one’s own ability)
2. Justice (fairness and equity for all people that we come into contact with)
3. Beneficence (to do good in the world, for ourselves and for others)
4. Non-maleficence (to do no harm, either to others or to ourselves)”

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Abraham Lincoln

These four ethical principles are actually borrowed from the core principles of medical ethics. In a sense, what results from combining medical ethics with the objective view of Self-Actualization is a guiding principle for individual development in social action.

And now we have our working definition of Self-Actualization – “a state of fulfillment of all the needs and wants that you choose to have fulfilled, in a manner consistent with the basic ethical principles of autonomy, justice, beneficence, and non-maleficence.”

But, just as there are many different roles to be filled in the world, and many different passions and dreams to follow, Self-Actualization will be different for every person. This, again, is where the distinction must be made that Self-Actualization is the fulfillment of all needs and desires that you choose to be fulfilled. What that culminates in is ultimately up to you.

For some, Self-Actualization could be competing in the olympics, or coaching a recreational sports team. For others, it could be honing their abilities of personal expression through photography, painting, music, or filmmaking. Still others might find their pinnacle of Self-Actualization in being a loving parent, or in teaching special needs education, or even just in being able to lay in a hammock by the beach for hours at a time. The reality of your full potential is completely up to you.


Now, we come once again to the question of “How does this help to change the world?”. In this narrowed  analysis of the Theory of Human Motivation and the individualized concept of Self-Actualization as we have defined it to the best of our understanding, we have come to the point where we must ask how this idea can make anything better other than our own lives. And this is where CSA comes in – reaching the full potential, or, the Actualization, of the Collective Self. Follow me…

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