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An essay donated by Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys:

Being selfish or being true to self?
Is there a difference?

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David Brooks wrote an interesting piece for his New York Times column Sept. 19, 2017 "When Life Asks for Everything." 1 The title doesn’t quite fit the article, in my opinion, but don’t let that stop you from reading the piece.

I don’t want to get hung up on my disagreements with David Brooks on what model is best for a happy marriage, his Four Kinds of Happiness model or Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs model. I want to concentrate on this concept of self-actualization, the top level of attainment of Maslow’s model. It is a concept that I think Brooks misunderstands.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs 2

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, with the most basic needs at the bottom of the pyramid.

I think Brooks equates the seeking of self-actualization with selfishness. To be fair, he isn’t the only one that I feel misunderstands this concept of self-actualization. I have noticed over the years that many Evangelical/fundamentalist Christians also equate it with selfishness in Atheism and New-Age religions.

Self-actualization isn’t a New Age concept. It is hard wired into our DNA as Stephen Joseph Ph.D. points out in his article in Psychology Today*, "What is Self-Actualization". 3 All living things are programmed, so to speak, to become the best that they can be. For the oak tree this means it makes the most of its genetic material and the conditions where it finds its self planted to become the best possible oak it can be.

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Dr. Joseph points out:

"Can you imagine what it would be like if we took these ideas seriously and we began to design our institutions -- schools, universities, and so on, -- around the idea that people are hard wired to self-actualize?." 3

David Sze in his piece "Maslow: The 12 Characteristics of a Self-Actualized Person" says "Maslow describes the good life as one directed towards self-actualization, the pinnacle need. Self-actualization occurs when you maximize your potential, doing the best that you are capable of doing." 4

The Wikipedia article on Self-actualization says:

"Research shows that when people live lives that are different from their true nature and capabilities, they are less likely to be happy than those whose goals and lives match." 5

Many recognize the importance of this self-actualization concept. This is why I think it is important to contradict Brooks' views, lest, in my opinion, he lead others astray.

I think the preachers of Christian prosperity gospel have tried to give the idea a Christianized twist. You might check out Rick Warrens book The Purpose Driven Life. 6He is presenting the concept that God determines what your purpose in life will be. To live a full and complete (self-actualized) life you must surrender yourself to God’s plan for you. I wrote an essay earlier about my opinions of his book.

Some religious leaders have trouble with the self-actualization concept because the self-actualized person doesn’t need the priest or minister or God to tell them what the right thing to do is. Being self-actualized isn’t being selfish. It is being self-directed as opposed to being directed or controlled, manipulated or conned by others (whether by individuals, the crowd, priests, or ministers).

The self-actualized person may still choose to go to church services and be an active member of a church, but they make their own choices about what to do or not to do. They take responsibility for who they are and their actions. They surrender to no one and blame no one. I discussed this in an earlier essay "Somethings Are Beyond Our Control."

Brooks and Maslow’s models are both based on the premise that first you must satisfy the lowest level of need before you can work on satisfying the next level and when that level is satisfied you can work on satisfying the next higher level. This is important to remember for those that want to attack the social safety net -- those programs that help people who are struggling to make ends meet: They include health insurance, including birth control, food and housing programs, education and job training programs.

I think that an understanding of these models can help people have a better understanding of the sex scandals in Hollywood that have filled the news lately AND help explain why some people seek satisfaction and fulfillment by joining ISIS, gangs, or White Supremacist groups. Or why some people join a Church, or turn to drugs and alcohol or other addictions: shopping, extreme sports, eating, sex. They are all looking for something, for satisfaction and self-fulfillment. Many just look for it in all the wrong places.

Brooks defines his model of The Four Kinds of Happiness this way -- starting from the basic needs:

    1. Material pleasure, having nice food and clothing and a nice house

    2. Achievement, the pleasure we get from earned and recognized success

    3. Generativity, the pleasure we get from giving back to others.

    4. Moral joy, the glowing satisfaction we get when we have surrendered ourselves to some noble cause or unconditional love.

I think Brooks short-changes humans by claiming that the highest level of human achievement is the seeking of Happiness or Joy with the highest level of his model being Moral Joy.

If you see your cause as "noble" or "moral" you are stuck in the achievement stage, getting pleasure from others recognition of your "noble" or "moral" efforts. If you see yourself as "surrendering" to a noble cause you aren’t as advanced as you think you are. The use of the word "surrendering" implies self-righteous sacrifice. Self-righteousness is an extreme form of selfishness -- needing to be seen as more moral than others, and showing you are stuck on level 2 seeking recognition.

I think the highest level of human attainment is something like quiet contentment. This brings happiness but not of the boisterous or joyous or ecstatic kind! This is something we learn from practitioners of Eastern Religions and from the Tao teh Ching, the I Ching, the Buddhist Sutras, the Upanishads, etc.  The Bible also tries I think, to lead us in this direction. Jesus is quoted as saying in the Sermon on the Mount:

"Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth."7

Meek doesn’t mean wimpish, or weak; t means mild mannered, quiet, content, and humble.

A life of quiet contentment/self-actualization may be filled with moments of boisterous joy and happiness or a state of ecstasy or spiritual transcendence. (I plan to have an essay about this topic next month.) But those aren’t the moments that you seek. You accept them as they come. The addict spends his life seeking moments of boisterous joy, happiness, ecstasy to the detriment of all else -- other people, a job, taking care of one’s health. That is an example of selfishness. This is one reason why I think Brooks is wrong in promoting Happiness as the basis for his model of human achievement. It leads people away from making tough unpleasant choices in favor of what will bring the greatest happiness.

Getting satisfaction (not pleasure or happiness) from doing what is right may be unpleasant for you. One reason why it might be unpleasant is because it is not seen as being a "noble cause" by the rest of society. It might also be seen as being unpleasant because it actually causes discomfort or harm to someone in those instances where discomfort or harm is necessary. An example is refusing further help (as in giving money or shelter) to someone who refuses to seek help for a drug problem and will use the money to buy more drugs.  It isn’t "surrendering" as in giving in or giving up. It is stepping up to do what is right. That may often be unpleasant and not make you happy, but you know it is the right thing to do.

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Brooks contrasts his Four Kinds of Happiness with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. He defines Maslow’s hierarchy this way, starting at the lowest, most basic level:

    1. satisfy physical needs, food, shelter, etc. (My comment: This is quite different from Brooks #1. Here it is satisfying the basic needs for survival of the organism. It isn’t about having "nice food and clothing and a nice house". It is about having the basics of food, clothing, shelter, medical care so you can survive.)

    2. satisfy need for safety, economic and physical security.

    3, satisfy need for self-esteem (My comment: This is comparable to Brooks #2, "achievement, the pleasure we get from earned and recognized success." This is where self-centeredness occurs when a person gets stuck on satisfying this need. This is also where the people involved in the sex scandals in Hollywood were stuck -- seeking self-esteem in confirmation of their sexual prowess, or in having control over others. This is also what draws young men to ISIS or other groups, the promise they will gain respect.)

    4. satisfy need for belonging and love (My comment: This is also what draws people to join groups -- the need to feel a part of something, to belong to something that gives you meaning, to help you satisfy those earlier needs and the satisfy the need to feel loved and appreciated.)

    5. satisfy need for self-actualization  

I get the impression from Brooks piece that he equates self-actualization with selfishness. If you are stuck on selfishness you are stuck in level 3 of Maslow’s Hierarchy. You haven’t yet reached level 4. With Brooks' Model of Happiness you are stuck on his level 2, seeking pleasure from recognized achievement. Selfishness is meeting your own needs to the detriment or at the expense of others.

BUT how can I show that this is so? Is it just my opinion against his? What does self-actualization mean?

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What is Self-Actualization?

A dictionary isn’t much help in helping us understand this concept of self-actualization. It mentions living an authentic life. This would be a life free of pretense. A pretense is doing something to show off, to please someone else, or to please yourself -- while knowing that what you are doing is a sham, a ruse, designed to trick others (or perhaps trick yourself). Being true to self would be to be free of pretense. There are no hidden motives behind your actions.

Another way to understand this idea of self-actualization is that it is about learning to be happy in your own skin! This is connected to the concept of pretense above but aimed more at being happy with your physical appearance, and abilities or disabilities. It is about learning to accept your limitations AND discovering and developing your own special gifts/abilities. It is about learning that TRUE beauty and happiness is what lies within a person not their outward appearance.

There are plenty of examples of people who get cosmetic plastic surgery because they think that tweaking this or that part in the search for perfection will bring them happiness. Michael Jackson was perhaps one of the most famous examples. I remember a woman that appeared on Oprah’s show years ago. She had so much surgery she had actually lost her beauty, in my opinion.

Self-actualization is about learning to be happy in your own skin.

I have cast the I Ching every morning for the last several years as a way to gain inspirational food for thought for the day.

Other people turn to their Bibles and select a passage to ponder on during the day.

There are several passages that lead you in the direction of understanding and reaching for this concept of self-actualization.

The first passage that I thought about was #27 Nourishment. To paraphrase here it tells us to figure out what nourishes us then to nourish it. When we figure this out we are becoming self-actualized people -- people able to find their happiness and inspiration within themselves as opposed to looking to others for approval and direction.

Self-actualization also involves developing the self-skills -- self-control, self-discipline, self-restraint, self-motivation, self-respect. (Selfishness, though it has the word "self" in it, isn’t one of these skills; it actually shows a lack of these skills.) These self-skills are necessary if you are to become a self-actualized person. The person without self-control, or self-discipline, or self-motivation is at the mercy and the whims (control) of others.

There are several other passages in the I Ching that lead one in the direction of self-actualization. (My I Ching quotes are from the Sam Reifler edition.)

  • #19 Conduct tells us "The Superior man is always nourished, always nourishes others."

  • #43 Breakthrough "The superior man rains benefits on those below him, and does not let his gifts go unused."

  • #18 Fixing "The superior man helps others and fortifies himself."

  • #29 The Deep "The superior man is a teacher and practices what he preaches."

  • Another passage, #60, tells us that our restraints placed on ourselves should come naturally and when they do they are not difficult to bear.

This is what self-actualization is about. Learning to live naturally, free of pretense, being happy and content in your own skin. It is about developing the self-skills: self-control, self-discipline, self-restraint, self-motivation. It includes finding and developing your own particular talents so that you can use them to your own benefit and also to the benefit of others.

It isn’t about selfishness, placing your own needs above the needs of others and sometimes at their expense. Nor is it about seeking recognition, acclaim, approval, validation for your actions to boost your self-esteem. It isn’t about seeing your actions as a sacrifice or martyrdom. It is seeing your actions as simply doing what is right.

The self-actualized person doesn’t need to Bully or abuse others (physically or verbally) in an attempt to bolster his/her own self-esteem. He/she doesn’t build him or herself up by beating others down.

The self-actualized person can identify "fake news" -- propaganda posts found often on social media sites and elsewhere, and separate it from real worthwhile information. I doubt the self-actualized person would spend much time on social media sites.

The self-actualized person isn’t afraid of diversity, or of homosexuals, transgender persons, or people of other faith traditions. The self-actualized person doesn’t feel the need to impose his/her beliefs on others by restricting their access to birth control or abortions or by denying them services (such as providing wedding cakes, photography services, venue rentals, etc.) The self-actualized person allows others to live their lives as they see fit as long as doing so doesn’t interfere with the rights of others to live their lives as they see fit.

When you understand what self-actualization is you realize it isn’t at all like selfishness! In fact self-actualization leads a person away from selfishness, away from self-sacrifice/martyrdom and from seeking self-esteem at the expense of others!

As a society we need to understand this concept of self-actualization so we can help more people become self-actualized happy, content, fulfilled and fulfilling (as in capable of helping the world become a better place for all people) adults.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. David Brooks, "When Life Asks for Everything," New York Times, 2017-SEP-19, at:
  2. Diagram by By FireflySixtySeven [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons at:
  3. Stephen Joseph, "What is Self-Actualization?, Psychology Today, 2016-SEP-13, at:
  4. David Sze, "Maslow: The 12 Characteristics of a Self-Actualized Person," Huffington Post, 2017-SEP-17, at:
  5. Wikipedia
  6. Rick Warren, "The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?, (Zondervan 2012). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  7. "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth" (Matthew 5:5) From the sermon on the mount, Matthew (5 to 7).

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Author: Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys
Originally posted on: 2017-NOV-15
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