The Selfish Good Deed

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maslow-need-hierarchyI was recently reading an article online about motivation. The article referenced Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which I had studied in college. But, since it’s been many years since college (more than I can actually believe), I decided to reread the theory. Maslow states that people are motivated to achieve certain needs. No kidding. He also contends that once one need is fulfilled, a person seeks to fulfill the next (higher) one, and so on.

For clarity’s sake, I am including Maslow’s five basic needs here. They are:

  1. Biological and physiological needs – things like air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, and sleep. Sex is also included here, at the most basic need level.
  2. Safety needs – things like security, order, law, stability, freedom from fear.
  3. Love and belonging needs – things like friendship, intimacy, affection and love.
  4. Esteem needs – the need to achieve, to master, to gain independence or dominance, the need for self-respect and respect from others.
  5. Self-Actualization needs – realizing personal potential and self-fulfillment. In this stage, a person is motivated to do things not for personal gain, but solely for the benefit of others.

Maslow’s theory contends that human beings must satisfy lower basic needs before progressing on to meet higher level growth needs. He does, however, say that an individual can fluctuate between levels on the hierarchy in response to life experiences. For example, someone could be riding high in the esteem category of the hierarchy when all of a sudden, a life event abruptly ends a career. Suddenly, the most basic needs associated with the loss of a paycheck become a reality again for the person. Lesson? Don’t take good fortune for granted.

I don’t share this as a psychology lesson. Instead, I use it to prompt reflection on what motivates me.

I am reminded of the popular TV Show, Friends, in which Joey makes the argument that as human beings, we do nothing solely out of wanting to help another person. He argues that there is no such thing as an unselfish good deed. Everything we do – no matter how kind – is selfish, he says, because it makes us feel good. And because it makes us feel good, there is some element of selfishness in it.

Joey’s argument supports Maslow’s statement that only one in a hundred people become fully self-actualized. In a society that consistently rewards motivation based on esteem, love, and other social needs, there is really very little reason for anyone to strive for the top of the hierarchy. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

As I write this, I can’t help but think of the “Ice Bucket Challenge.” There are lovers and haters of the social media phenomenon that is successfully raising millions for ALS research. Lover or hater, I don’t think there is anyone who doesn’t think that the amount of money raised is an awesomely remarkable thing. But the “challenge” speaks so clearly to Maslow’s hierarchy that I had to mention it.

I think the whole campaign has been such a huge success because it pulls people directly into the fourth rung of the hierarchy (esteem needs) through the perceived “good deed” of fighting ALS. I would even go so far as to say that the actual reason for dumping ice water on your own head and filming it for the whole world to see, has little (for most)  to do with ALS. The cause could be anything humanitarian – cancer research, saving the rainforest, ending hunger in Africa. The cause is irrelevant. What is relevant  is that it is popular. And we, in our need for self respect and respect from others, are dumping bucket after bucket on our heads.

But who cares why we are doing it, right? At the end of the day, people are acting out against a terrible disease. And they are feeling good about it. If you’ve filled your own bucket, good for you. If you’ve actually donated to ALS research, even better. And, if you write a check next year without making a video and posting it on Facebook, I applaud you.

Here’s my point. Think about what motivates you. Then, think about how your motivation impacts the people around you. And remember, no matter where you on the hierarchy, there’s always room for a good deed – even if it makes you feel good.






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