The 2009 Bollywood movie – 3 Idiots – was a big hit. It captured quite well the malaise with our educational system and our social priorities. Aamir Khan as the eccentric Ranchoddas Shamaldas Chanchad (nicknamed ‘Rancho’), is genuinely passionate about science and engineering, and captured our imagination. He embodied what it meant to be a self-actualised person. But why are the Ranchos so few in our society? Before we delve into that, let us step back and investigate the origins and meaning of the term self-actualisation.
Let us say you have a steady job, with sufficient income. You have a close-knit family based on mutual respect, affection, and love. Your friends are great company and dependable in times of need. Your coworkers respect you for your competence, and you have been given a few awards in recognition of your work. Would you feel totally satisfied in such a situation, not wanting anything else? Before you are quick to say yes, pause and see what the psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908–1970) had to say.
Hierarchy of Needs
In the scenario mentioned above, the steady job takes care of the physiological needs of the body, and also the safety needs for shelter, security and protection. Your family and friends fulfil your love and belonging needs. The respect and recognition you get at work satisfy your esteem needs. Maslow called these needs as “deficiency needs” or d-needs. If they are not satisfied to an adequate degree, you may feel dissatisfied. In a way, that is common knowledge.
However, Maslow talked about a further need that motivates us in addition to the deficiency needs, the need to grow (g-needs) as a person or “self-actualisation”. These five needs he arranged hierarchically, with self-actualisation at the top, often referred to as “hierarchy of needs”. Maslow proposed this in his 1943 paper ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’ published in Psychological Review, which he later dealt with in greater detail in his book Motivation and Personality published in 1954.
The Next Level
Now, what generally tends to happen in the Indian society is that, given that we are still not a highly developed nation, majority of the people are stuck at the first two levels of satisfying physiological and safety needs and that too with a fair bit of struggle and often falling short. That being the case, these people do not have a chance to go after the higher-level needs.
Those few who are able to achieve the satisfaction of the first two needs generally fail to go on to satisfy even the next two levels let alone the self-actualisation need. Think back to how we made our career decisions. Did we choose our field of study and career like Rancho did by following our passions, interest and calling with due consideration of our abilities? No. We typically opted for the safe careers of medicine, engineering, MBA etc, based on the perceived nature of their potential to get us good jobs so that we could get “settled” in life. In the process, we did not follow our aptitudes.
Hence, those who would be better fits say in mathematics or philosophy end up as doctors or engineers or managers. Since they are in their respective professions for the material security that it provides them, they are highly unlikely to be deeply involved in their profession, practicing it mechanically without too much interest and creativity.
Hence, their work will be shoddy, they will not discover or invent anything original, nor any of their works will get patented. They will perform their jobs merely perfunctorily as chores to be done so that they can get the income with which they can satisfy their material needs. Thus, lacking in any creditable work, they will not go on to fulfil their self-esteem needs since they will have nothing in their outputs that they can take pride in. And this is what generally happens in India, does it not?
What about the love and belonging needs? They may seem to satisfy these needs to a certain extent once they get married. But, given that most marriages are marriages of convenience based on what parents and elders in the family feel is the best choice for their marriage partner, often people end up with suboptimal partners, with whom they can neither get romantic fulfilment nor any deeply satisfying love relationship because marriage is seen even by them as something of a contractual relationship one enters into more for the reasons of companionship than love. Of course, the arrival of children ameliorates the situation a bit.
Given this situation, self-actualisation needs go for a toss and remain largely unfulfilled in the lives of most of us Indians. Maslow talked about self-actualisation needs in the following terms: “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualisation. It refers to the desire for self-fulfilment. If you deliberately set out to be less than you are capable, you’ll be unhappy for the rest of your life.” But, in India most people pursue a profession or art not for the love of it but for the material gains they can get from it. Given this scenario, very few go on to attain self-actualisation.
To be sure, the self-actualising needs may vary. In one it may be the desire to be an ideal mother, for some, it may be to transform society, and for yet others, it may be to discover or invent something. Maslow said that a good or healthy society is one that permitted people’s highest purposes to emerge by satisfying all their basic needs. So, until Indian society matures into a full-fledged developed economy with earning opportunities and profitable careers in abundance and until we seek in life not merely the satisfaction of our material needs, it is unlikely that the number of self-actualisers is going to shoot up.
(The author is a writer and poet; preview his poetry at https://a.co/fyEOQFa)
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