Helping Others to Help Ourselves

Helping hands

An hour ago, I boiled the kettle to make a cup of coffee but discovered, on opening the fridge, that I was out of milk. I walked around the corner to the shop and bought the milk. Mission accomplished! A simple example of needing something, establishing where (and how) to get it and following through to fulfil the need.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – A Theory of Motivation can be summarised as a hierarchical climb towards human perfection, starting with physiological needs such as food and shelter and summiting with the somewhat more ethereal concept of self-actualisation.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow first suggested in 1943 that all human actions are motivated by the need for one thing or another and that we cannot move up through the hierarchy until the lower needs have been fulfilled. He later clarified that a lower need will be overtaken by a higher one once it has been ‘more or less’ met. We do not need to completely fulfil each level before moving on to the next.

There is a caveat here. To remain focused on the higher need, the lower one must be continually met. Say for example, we have sufficient food to maintain a healthy, balanced diet. We can then move on to focus on the next level in the hierarchy – relationships, for example.

So, with a full belly, we start a new relationship. But in the first few weeks, we lose our job and now have to refocus on keeping food on the table. Maslow’s initial contention that the hierarchy was chronologically sound falls by the wayside because the realities of life are clearly more chaotic and cyclical than that. Keeping food on the table is a continuous task which cannot be forgotten at any stage. All levels in the hierarchy are continuous. As we progress upward, we are not excluding the focus on lower level tasks but rather, adding to the improvements upon which we are focused.

At the top of the hierarchy, the self-actualisation phase of the climb encompasses concepts such as morality, creativity, spontaneity, acceptance, meaning and inner potential. On first reading, it appears that we have our work cut out. Surely, with everything our daily lives throw at us, we will never find the time to focus on achieving such lofty goals. Surely, we already have enough on our plate with all the lower levels that adding a self-actualisation component to our efforts is simply too much to ask? It’s not like we can just walk around the corner to the shop and buy a pint of self-actualisation!

Reinhold Niebuhr

The question then becomes quite clear. If I am to achieve some kind of self-actualisation in life, what should it be and, more practically speaking, how do I go about it? I was reminded in conversation with a friend recently of the Reinhold Niebuhr prayer which featured in school assembly every morning as we grew up:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference

The prayer appears to give us options. Can I focus on changing what I can and accept the rest as beyond the scope of my abilities?

But how do I know what the things are that I am capable of changing unless I actually set out to try and change/achieve them? Often, there comes a point in the effort where we realise that we have already affected some change and can go no further, admitting some sense of defeat and making the decision to move on to something else. At what point along that path do we come to that realisation? Well, that may well depend on what the initial objective was. Let’s take an example.

Establishing Goals

I want to earn an extra €10,000 next year. By June, I have earned an extra €2,000 over my income from last year. Do I analyse the effort I have put in the first 6 months and decide that I need to adjust the goal downward or do I decide to make an extra effort and keep chasing the initial €10,000? Certainly, in light of Niebuhr’s sentiments, I have changed my income for the better regardless – at least in the first six months anyway. At the end of June, I need to either serenely accept I will not reach the initial goal and adjust it downwards or summon the courage to ‘up-the-ante’ for the second six months.

Either way, the effort to change my income has been a worthy one and I should reach over my shoulder and pat myself on the back. Intermittently congratulating ourselves on a job (partially) well done is a vital step in maintaining the effort to complete the job. Whichever decision I make in June will likely be based on the information I have to hand. Information like, how much additional effort I have made to increase my income, whether the efforts are achieving the desired results or even whether I should change my actions altogether in the hope that they return better results in the future. These questions are reflective of all aspects of our lives in that we are constantly reviewing where we are and changing (or not) based on the experiences we have and the relevant knowledge we have acquired.

Setting goals

The goal of an extra €10,000 income could be considered actually quite easy when compared to some of the more ethereal goals suggested by Maslow. How do we quantify the concept of morality? How do I review the improvement in my morality after 6 months? I would contend that it matters little. What really matters is that we have made the effort to improve ourselves to some end and the effort in and of itself is worthy of the pat on the back. Surely if we are making strides towards becoming a ‘better’ person, we are justified in stopping every so often and congratulating ourselves – which may well be the catalyst for an even more concerted effort to improve?

Ultimately, it is the goals we set from the outset that will define the type of person we become. The extra €10,000 in my salary may well be much less important to the person I want to be than, perhaps, becoming more patient with friends and family or spending more time with those that matter. Perhaps helping someone else step up in their own hierarchy is more important than progressing in my own or – maybe the two aren’t mutually exclusive!

The Inherent Gift

If I am at level 2 in my own hierarchy (already have my basic physiological needs – food and shelter), should I be looking to help those still at level 1 – the homeless for example? There is an inherent gift in helping others. We actually help ourselves by achieving a new sense of self-worth and it is that new sense of self-worth that fosters the foundations for stepping up to the next level in our own hierarchy.

While Maslow’s hierarchy may appear clean-cut, in contradiction of the realities we know exist in life, it certainly provides a framework for personal development.  As the new year dawns and we start to focus on our future selves, perhaps the way forward is to focus on the future of others lower down the hierarchical mountain, secure in the knowledge that helping them climb will ultimately benefit us all. Self improvement may not be about self at all…

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About the Author

Mark White
A native of Dublin, Mark has slowly been moving West since 1997. Schooled at Gonzaga College and CBS Dun Laoghaire, he received his undergraduate degree in Software Engineering from Athlone Institute of Technology in 2002. Mark spent a number of years working as a C# Developer in the industry before deciding to undertake a research masters in Information Technology at NUI Galway in 2010. His work resulted in a new algorithm to reduce energy consumption in virtualised data centres and has been since published. He fills his working day writing software, taking photographs and editing The Galway Eye.