Self-actualization is the realization or fulfillment of one’s full talents and potentialities. It is the process of fully developing oneself physically, mentally, and spiritually.
The concept was first introduced by psychologist Abraham Maslow in his hierarchy of needs. It is the top growth need for human beings and represents the full realization of human potential.
Examples of self-actualization include realizing your dreams, being true to yourself, and achieving inner peace. According to Maslow, one person who achieved self-actualization was Mahatma Gandhi.
Definition of Self-Actualization Needs
Maslow referred to the unique potential of each person in his hierarchy of needs. If a person is able to meet the needs of each of the first four levels, they can eventually reach the top level, which he called Self-Actualization.
When a person has realized their fullest potential, they have reached a state of self-actualization. As Maslow stated, “What a man can be, he must be.”
Very few people are able to obtain this state, but those that do have several characteristics in common. For example, they possess a high level of morality and concern for the welfare of others. They are not interested in money or fame, and are usually very courageous and independent.
1. Achieving a Peak Experience
A peak experience is a moment of intense joy or deep perception. It can include feelings of awe and ecstasy, or a profound sense of understanding. Although Maslow said self-actualized people were likely to have peak experiences, other people could have them as well.
Some examples of peak experiences include: the birth of a baby, a rush of creativity, or a profound insight into a complex problem. People that have had a peak experience describe them as transcendent moments of great change.
Other characteristics of the peak experience include an incredible moment of insight into one’s personal existence and purpose in life. It can become a life-changing event. It could also be an intense spiritual moment when a person feels at one with the world that lacks a sense of time.
The peak experience is a truly unique component of the highest level in Maslow’s original hierarchy of needs.
2. Being All You Can Be
For 20 years, from 1980 to 2000, the U.S. Army embarked on its most expensive advertising campaign in history. It was also one of the most successful recruitment campaigns the Army has ever created.
The slogan for the commercial was a simple statement: Be all you can be. Those 5 words motivated thousands of young American men and women to enlist. The commercial showed images of soldiers engaged in tough, demanding activities, such as jumping from planes.
The designers of the campaign were attempting to tap into the desire of young people to achieve greatness. It can be a time in life that is confusing with a future that is uncertain. The message in the ad however, was clear: if you join the Army, you can reach your fullest potential.
3. Realizing your Dreams and Goals
One aspect of self-actualization is realizing your dreams and goals. To get there, a person needs to have a clear sense of what they want to achieve in life and they have to make a plan to achieve it.
The ultimate goal for someone might be to achieve business success, become the best sports star you can be, or simply raising a happy family.
According to Maslow, to get to this point of realization, you need to have climbed up the levels of Maslow’s hierarchy: you need to have your basic needs and securities met, plus you need to have self-esteem and be positively regarded by others.
4. Being True to Your Values
People who are self-actualized are true to their values. They have a clear sense of who they are and they behave in ways that are consistent with their beliefs and values. They are not afraid to be different from the rest of society, and they do not try to conform to what others think they should be.
These people accept themselves for who they are, flaws and all.
For example, Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption activist, chose to go to prison rather than be silent in the face of Vladamir Putin’s oppressive dictatorship. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison, but in the process, was martyred as a hero who was true to his own values and had achieved self-actualization as a moral figure.
5. Achieving Inner Peace
People who have attained self-actualization often report a sense of inner peace. They are able to accept themselves and the world around them. They feel comfortable in their own skin and they are not disturbed by the negative things that happen in life.
This is, perhaps, most important at the end of a person’s life. If you have lived a moral life and achieved great wisdom, you might reach a point where you’re peaceful with the idea of your life coming to an end. These people achieved self-actualization by the end of their lives.
6. Living a Fulfilling and Meaningful Life
At the end of the day, people who have attained self-actualization often feel that their lives were fulfilling and meaningful. They have a sense that they made a difference in the world and that their lives mattered.
Even if they did not achieve great fame or fortune, they feel that they lived a life that was meaningful.
For example, many people who had a career in healthcare or education where they spent their days caring for and supporting other people will feel a sense of satisfaction at the end of their lives. Similarly, mothers and fathers who spent their lives caring for their children may feel fulfilled that they did their best for their own children.
7. Making a Positive Difference in the World
People who have attained self-actualization often want to make a positive difference in the world. They feel that they have a responsibility to contribute to society in some way. This may manifest itself in their work, their hobbies, or their volunteering.
For example, Bill Gates has made a positive difference in the world through his work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He has also made a difference in the world of technology through his work with Microsoft.
Similarly, Mother Theresa made a positive difference in the world by working with the poor and sick in India. She was able to make a real difference in the lives of the people she helped.
8. Experiencing Loy, Happiness, and Love on a Regular Basis
People who have achieved self-actualization often report experiencing joy, happiness, and love on a regular basis. This is because they are living a life that is authentic and true to themselves. They are not living a life of pretending or trying to be someone they are not.
For example, monks and other spiritual people will often speak of their joy with the simple things in life. These people have achieved self-actualization and are living a life of joy and contentment.
At a simpler level, grandparents who are retired and spend their final decades spending happy days with their grandchildren may feel as if their twilight years are the years when they get to enjoy every day and squeeze every last moment of happiness out of their lives.
9. Developing a Strong Sense of Self-Acceptance
People who have attained self-actualization often develop a strong sense of self-acceptance. They are able to accept themselves for who they are, flaws and all.
This is an important quality because it allows them to live an authentic life. They are not trying to be someone they are not. They are comfortable in their own skin and they are not trying to hide their flaws from the world.
For example, many people who have achieved self-actualization will speak openly about their struggles with mental health or addiction. They are not afraid to share their story because they know that it is part of who they are and they accept themselves for it.
Real-Life Examples of Self-Actualization
1. Mahatama Gandhi
Maslow himself recognized Gandhi as being a rare example of a person that reached self-actualization.
Gandhi was an Indian lawyer and social activist that became the leader of a national movement against British rule. During his time in South Africa, he endured insults and physical attacks by members of the white ruling class.
As he witnessed his fellow Indians being treated in the same manner, he became more assertive of his rights as a human being. He started to defend his dignity and refused to accept the unjust social order as normal. The rest of his life was comprised of political activism in both South Africa and India. He organized protests and utilized the act of civil disobedience.
Scholars today give him credit for being the catalyst of three revolutions against colonialism, racism, and violence.
A monk is a man or woman that has joined a religious community. They have chosen a life that is simple and free from many of the ill trappings of modern society. For example, they usually live in a monastery, do not drink alcohol, smoke, or engage in sexual activities.
Many characteristics of a monk’s lifestyle are the same as those identified by Maslow as being part of self-actualization. For example, monks are devoted to a religious cause that is larger than themselves. They are uninterested in fame or monetary awards, and they have a perspective on life that is free from judgment.
Some monks spend a great deal of time meditating. During mediation one can feel a connection with the universe, have deep and meaningful insights, and may experience emotional states that are highly unusual and awe-inspiring. These are very similar to the peak experience that Maslow described.
3. Starving Artists
One of the characteristics of a person that has reached a state of self-actualization is that they are completely unconcerned with money. They do what they do because of their love and devotion to that endeavor. They are totally absorbed with their pursuit.
Unfortunately, being an artist is not a lucrative career choice. Of course, there are exceptions, but an overwhelming percentage of artists only have the rewards of their creativity to benefit from.
Their works often address broad societal issues that are relevant in today’s society. Powerful commentary on the injustices of the world dominate their thinking and they often feel an obligation to speak out on such matters. These are some of the same characteristics that Maslow used to describe people who are self-actualized.
Some of the key characteristics of self-actualized people include: being courageous, independent, good problem-solvers, and having a tremendous sense of personal responsibility. They are also dedicated to a cause that is larger than themselves and are willing to make personal sacrifices.
Those all sound like the exact characteristics of motherhood. Mothers are fully devoted to raising their children as best as they possibly can. They are willing to make extreme sacrifices if necessary. And of course, mothers must be excellent problem-solvers.
Mothers also must be enduring, patient, and capable of incredible multi-tasking. Although most scholars may not identify motherhood as an example of self-actualization, the fact that it contains many of the same characteristics makes it a very suitable example.
5. The Stars in Nike Advertising
Nike commercials have helped bring the company huge success. One famous entrepreneur, Steve Jobs, was particularly impressed with the Nike shoe campaigns. He marveled at how successful the advertising designers were at tapping into people’s desire for greatness, through shoes.
He once noted that in most Nike commercials, the shoe is hardly ever seen on screen. There is little to no information in the ad about the shoe itself. No elaborations on its structure or the materials used to make it superior.
The ads are all about achieving greatness and excelling like you have never excelled before. This is a perfect example of advertising trying to tap into Maslow’s fifth level of his hierarchy of needs: the need for self-actualization.
6. The Enlightened Woman in “The Greatest Commercial of All Time”
Of course, there is no way to determine what is the “greatest commercial of all time.” This is purely a personal opinion. However, one commercial that often gets mentioned by professionals in the advertising industry is the Apple 1984 ad.
The commercial aired during Super Bowl XVIII in 1984. The ad depicted a grainy monochrome grey auditorium with a large screen at the front. The audience stood in front of the screen, nearly lifeless and bald, all dressed in grey.
As a big-brother-type character was preaching about the “unification of thought”, all of a sudden, a young woman runs inside. Carrying a huge sledgehammer and being chased by police, she slings the hammer and destroys the screen.
The goal of the ad was to tap into people’s desire to not conform, to be different and unique. The message was clear: if you want to be transcendent, use a Mac.
Other Needs on Maslow’s Hierarchy
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a five-tier hierarchy. The two foundational tiers (or ‘basic needs’) are fundamental needs for people to survive. As you move up to the top three tiers (or the ‘growth needs’), a person starts thriving:
- Physiological needs – these are the basic needs for people to survive, such as air, water, food, and shelter.
- Safety needs – these are the needs for people to feel safe and secure, such as personal safety, financial security, and health.
- Social needs (belongingness and love needs) – these are the needs for people to feel a sense of connection and belonging, such as family, friends, and intimacy.
- Esteem needs – these are the needs for people to feel a sense of self-worth and achievement, such as respect, recognition, and success.
- Self-actualization needs – these are the needs for people to reach their full potential, such as creativity, self-fulfillment, and personal growth.
According to Maslow, few people ever reach the self-actualization level.
Maslow’s fifth level in his hierarchy of needs is self-actualization. This is the highest level in Maslow’s original theory. A person can only reach this level if the needs of the other four levels have been sufficiently satisfied.
In Maslow’s view, each individual has a unique talent, and to be self-actualized means that you have exercised that talent to your fullest potential. He also spoke of the peak experience, which was a moment of transcendence that brought about deep insights and awe-inspiring emotional states.
Although most people will never achieve self-actualization, Maslow did identify many famous historical figures that possessed several of the key characteristics. These were individuals that made tremendous personal sacrifices for a greater cause. They were independent and not interested in fame, wealth or recognition.
Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review,50(4), 370-96.
Dhingra, N., Samo, A., Schaninger, B., and Schrimper, M. (2021, April 5). Help employees find purpose – or watch them leave. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/help-your-employees-find-purpose-or-watch-them-leave
Privette, G. Defining moments of self-actualization: Peak performance and peak experience, in K. J. Schneider, J. F. T. Bugental, and J. F. Pierson (Eds.). The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology, 161-180; 2001.
Shyles, L., & Hocking, J. E. (1990). The Army’s “Be All You Can Be” Campaign. Armed Forces & Society, 16(3), 369–383. http://www.jstor.org/stable/45305171
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.