Refining Maslow


THE GREAT PSYCHOLOGIST ABRAHAM MASLOW proposed a pyramid paradigm of human needs, ranking their vitality and importance as physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization. One must satisfy the first in order to be able to secure the second, then explore the third and so forth to self-actualization (or to put it more cryptically, I-am-I-ness).

This is all very well as far as it goes, which isn’t very far at all without one particular ingredient: humor.

I would argue that a sense of humor lies among our physiological needs. Our bodies crave laughter — it makes us feel good, for one thing, and promotes the rest of Maslow’s overstructure: safety, love, belonging, and certainly esteem and self-actualization. In fact, I would go so far as to say that our most basic needs are ordered by what we breathe, drink, eat, shelter under and laugh at (or with). The first chuckle may even have occurred when we saw each other naked, huddling in some cave away from the mid-Pleistocene rain. (Certainly humor makes nudity easier to cope with, which to me screams “prerequisite!” I can only assume it also helps with the random smilodon or mammoth.) Humor is so important in fact, that its lack can be attributed to every human war, skirmish, argument or bluster — especially the unresolved ones.

Many years ago, while preparing to hitchhike across the USA, I was describing my road gear to a seasoned friend. “Backpack (soft), spare clothes, paperback book, extra shoes, sleeping bag, boots (new), Swiss Army knife (new) …”

“Where’s your toilet paper?” he asked.

“What do I need that for?” I asked.

He fixed me with a gaze reserved for the feeble. “If you don’t have toilet paper, the rest just don’t matter,” he said.

Humor is like that too: it cleans out the head and refreshes it for the next challenge, which is always a moment away. And without humor, the rest just don’t matter.

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One Response to Refining Maslow

  1. Patricia Ann CLark on 2011.01.27 at 1648

    Maslow’s theories were widely dismissed by colleagues as not being scientifically sound, so you’re free to tinker with his concepts. And I agree that a sense of humor is a key survival skill, the sine qua non of self-actualization, as it were. (I didn’t need to add the “as it were” but I thought it lent my Comment an air of scholarship.)

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