Tag Archives: Self-actualization

Optimal Living: Insights From Flow Theory

What does it mean to live optimally? Is there any difference between self actualization and self-transcendence? Do peak performances and peak experiences differ? The last question was asked yesterday by Scott Barry Kaufman on twitter and it got me thinking.

The thoughts triggered were too large to fit in a few tweets, so here is the longer blog post; thanks Scott for the inspiration.

To start off, lets recall what flow is ; its typically associated with deep engrossment and peak performance during a task. When thinking about tasks two dimensions are relevant: how difficult is the task and what are the skills of the person executing the task.

When task is of high difficulty, and skills are low, it may lead to experience of anxiety in the person; when task is of low difficulty and skills are high, it may lead to relaxation/ boredom. Only when task difficulty is slightly greater or matched than skills does the possibility of flow emerges. With adequate in time feedback and no distractions, one can get into a state of flow. Another point to remember is that the idea is to keep increasing task difficulty and keep adding to you skills – thus high task difficulty and high skills are associated with flow; while low task difficulty and low skills lead to apathy.

Flow diagram courtesy Wikipedia

It is safe to assume that micro moments of flow where task difficulty/challenge is slightly greater than skills, helps in building up your skills over time leading to increased probability of peak performances in the limit. Thus peak performances are related to flow and are evident in some task related activities.

Now, one of the framework I have been using is to divide our focus of inquiry among TASK, SELF, OTHERS and LIFE. Basically in some contexts you are totally TASK focused, and your primary goal may be achieving success, in some you are SELF focused and your primary goal may be achieving eudiamonic happiness; in yet others your focus may be (significant) OTHERS and your primary goal finding meaning via connection while in yet other contexts, you be focused on LIFE as a whole and your primary goal being a moral person. Now you don’t have to believe in this framework, but I used this to derive some insights below:

First off, analogous to TASK having two dimensions related to performance, I think its useful to think about two dimensions of SELF related to expression of SELF. First is self-discrepancy operationalised as distance between ideal and actual self. The higher the discrepancy the more the ideal, sought after self differs from actual self. The other dimension of interest is self-acceptance. This is operationalised as how much at peace we are with our actual self.

Now consider someone with high self discrepancy and low self acceptance. They are likely to feel sadness; on the other hand someone with high self acceptance but low self discrepancy will be complacent as far as growing and expressing ones true self is concerned, because there is no/ little internal pressure to change. Growth happens when self discrepancy is slightly greater than self acceptance; you are comfortable with who you are but also aiming to change and become better. Analogous to flow, one maybe led into these micro moments of growth that I call flowering. Over time as you keep raising the bar for ideal self and keep accepting who you are: your strengths as well as limitations – you re likely to experience peak expressions of your self and likely to become self -actualized.

I wish I was not lazy and could make a diagram/ figure to explain this better, but if you are feeling stuck make a 2D graph for SELF with self discrepancy on y axis and self acceptance on x axis, analogous to the flow diagram.

Next up, consider the context where we are dealing with (significant ) OTHERS . Consider two dimensions that may underpin that dynamics : our mutual demandingness from/ towards others and our mutual caringness/ concern from/towards the others. Consider for example a parenting relationship: if demandingness is high, but caring is low one feels anger / irritability; if however demandingness is low, but caring is high one start taking things for granted, gets lax/ stagnant. For a mutually beneficial relationship, the demandingness has to be just slightly above the caring/ nurturing that enables one to meet the demands. When that happens one experiences moments of love/ intimacy and the relationship grows and connection is felt. Over time as mutual demands increase and mutual care increases, one feels peak experiences characterized by love and connectedness and moves towards self transcendence.

Finally, consider LIFE. The two dimensions of relevance here are life responsibilities and life supports. When life responsibilities are high and life supports (like social support, adequate income etc ) are less, one is likely to feel guilt and maybe disgust at the life one is living: life will feel a burden. On the other hand if life supports are high , but life responsibilities are low, one is likely to feel dissipated and lead a life of decadence. However, when life responsibilities are just matched or greater than ones supports , one is likely to be in a zone where life is felt a gift to be enjoyed and a privilege. These micro moments of living up to your responsibilities, may lead to peak living.

So that is my basic premise: Peak Performance (in a task) can be distinguished from Peak Experiences (in our relationships with others ), which can further be distinguished from Peak Expressions (of self) and Peak Living. Hope these lead to some insights and Scott/ someone else actually tries to elaborate/ verify the model .

A disclaimer while I am familiar with Mihaly’s original work on Flow/ peak performances my knowledge of Malsow/peak experiences is via secondary sources and readings only.

Transcend: Standing on the shoulders of Maslow

This post is a book review of ‘Transcend: The new science of self-actualization ‘ by Scott Barry Kaufman. He, and his publishers, were kind enough to send an advance copy and I think the review is just in time, as the book is formally published, and the virtual book tour gets kick-started.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and emerged wiser and kinder for having read it. I am not sure how far I am, or my reader is, on the path to self transcendence, but whatever may be your current station on your journey, you will find some much needed guidance and help here. At least I did.

The book on the outset is about Maslow and his hierarchy of needs and how self actualization and self transcendence fit in, but its also a tour de force of all that is worth knowing about the latest advances in positive psychology, humanistic psychology and various other aspects like existential psychology. More than mere re-conceptualizing Maslow’s concept of needs, and validating his insights using cutting edge finding in psychology, it is also a culmination of Scott’s interests and expertise in a holistic book form. The magnum opus of whole person psychology that Scott has produced is indeed a ‘whole’ book (pun intended).

First off, lets clarify some misunderstandings about the hierarchy of needs. Most people believe that Maslow had himself arranged them into a pyramid of five needs of inflexible ordering , and while I myself have shown them as pyramid in my earlier posts, I have at least had the good sense of highlighting self transcendence needs early on and at the top. Scott clarifies and adds nuance by distinguishing between security/deficit needs, growth needs and actualization/transcendence needs and illustrates all this with a beautiful sailboat metaphor.

While security needs like safety, connection and self esteem make the body of the sailboat, and their purpose is to make it steady ; the sail that powers and gives direction to the boat is made up of growth needs of exploration, love and purpose.

The book elaborates on all theses needs drawing inspiration from Maslow who is extensively quoted, as well as other prominent psychologists lke Carl Rogers, Karen Horney, Eric Fromm etc ; however the book is only part nostalgia about these great thinkers, it also draws on latest research findings to make its point.

The book contains extensive self assessments to figure where you stand on each of these and other needs/ concepts and helpful tips on what you can do thereof to make sure your needs are optimally fulfilled and are not thwarted. The 2 appendices are really excellent and should not be skipped; the second appendix that lists many (positive, as well as other) psychological interventions should be definitely explored and imbibed in ones daily life.

Scott’s personality shines thorugh the book, and so does Abe’s ; While Scott wanted this as a tribute to Abe, he has indeed stood on the shoulders of that giant and come out on its own – the book integrates various strands of Scott’s expertise, interests and humanism and weaves into a very palatable feast. However , at some places I felt the integration was a bit sketchy or far fetched – for example linking hope, grit, smart goals etc under purpose seemed a bit contrived. But of course as Scott has such expertise in all these topics that one juts loves reading about them and doesn’t mind the apparent disconnect with the topic at hand.

Scott’s and Abe’s message is something that needs to be told and retold, again and again, and I am so glad that Scott took it upon himself to clarify misconceptions about Abe as well as to shine a light on such an imprtnat topic of self transcendence. Here is wishing the book all the success it deserves. Well done, Scott! You are truly a giant!

Maslow’s motivational hierarchy revisited


Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Resized, renamed,...
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve written previously about Maslow’s motivational hierarchy and how that relates to the eight stage evo-devo model. Most people are familiar with the 5 motivational basic needs/motives theory of Maslow, but are not aware that he had later revised it to include eight basic needs/ motives.

A recent paper by Krenrick et al also discusses the more popular 5 motivational scheme of Maslow and revamps the model by dropping self-actualization at the top and making room for 3 reproduction related motives -mate attraction, mate retention and parenting.  Regular readers will note that this is inline with the eight stages discussed during life-history theory based perspectives on this blog.

This new paper, which is available in full on authors website, is an important contribution and gets many things right, though I believe that safety need should trump physiological needs and that we need an eighth motive/need which would be related to finding meaning/purpose/transcendence .

Anyway, lets first see what a motivational system is:

Throughout this article, we have used the terms needs, motives, and goals somewhat loosely. Our view of motivational systems follows that of evolutionary theorists such as Plutchik (1980) and Scott (1980), with connections to the views of the original evolutionary psychologists such as William James (1890) and McDougall (1908) and to Carver and Scheier’s (1998) cybernetic view. On that view, any motivational system includes (a) a template for recognizing a particular class of relevant environmental threats or opportunities, (b) inner motivational/ physiological states designed to mobilize relevant resources, (c) cognitive decision rules designed to analyze trade-offs inherent in various prepotent responses, and (d) a set of responses designed to respond to threats or opportunities represented by the environmental inputs (i.e., to achieve adaptive goals).

To elaborate, and link with the ABCD model of psychology, desire/motivation forms a big sub-domain of psychology,m but motivation.desire can itself be broken into 1)Affective components (a template for recognizing a particular class of relevant environmental threats or opportunities) 2) Behavioral components ( a set of responses designed to respond to threats or opportunities represented by the environmental inputs) 3) Cognitive components (cognitive decision rules designed to analyze trade-offs inherent in various prepotent responses) and 4) Desire / motivation proper ( inner motivational/ physiological states designed to mobilize relevant resources).

The motivational system itself can be analyzed at different levels of analysis-Proximate reasons for a behavior and ultimate reasons for a behavior. The different levels of analysis include  evolutionary (ultimate), developmental, situational (proximate) and phenomenological.  These concern with the biological context, the ecological context , the cultural context and the personological context respective;y in which a (human) being functions.

Kenrcik et al consider the evolutionary ,  developmental and proximate mechanisms and level of analysis and use that to refine the Maslow’s ladder and that makes sense and is more or less inline with the eight stage model.

They also refer to Deci and Ryan and their intrinsic motives and I like to think of deci and Ryan motives as well as addition to that by Daniel pink as follows: 1) autonomy (from genes) 2)  mastery (over environment) 3) Belongingness (to culture) and 4) Purpose ( of self) – these intrinsic drives again related to biology, environment, culture and phenomenology.  Only the last level of analysis need make a reference to consciousness; all prior levels are/may be non-conscious.  I believe the lack of phenomenological level of analysis is limiting and perhaps the reason they miss the eight and highest motive.

The authors, apart from adding new motives of mate attraction. mate retention and parenting, also stress the point that these are overlapping/ can be activated simultaneously and do not necessarily follow developmental stages.

The original article itself is accompanied by commentaries and Kenrick himself maintains a blog and has written a  couple of blog posts related to this, so there are no excuses for not reading up more on this.

Douglas T. Kenrick,, Vladas Griskevicius,, Steven L. Neuberg, & Mark Schaller (2010). Renovating the Pyramid of Needs
Contemporary Extensions Built Upon Ancient Foundations Perspectives on Psychological science DOI: 10.1177/1745691610369469

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