Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/Self-actualisation and motivation

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Motivation and self-actualisation:
What motivates self-actualisation?
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Overview[edit | edit source]

What allows people to progress toward advanced stages of self-fulfilment? When a society champions and cultivates individuals growth, this question is increasingly attracting the interest of both employers and psychologists (Ivtzan, Gardner, Bernard, Sekhon & Hart, 2013). The notion that life's highest calling is fulfilling one's own unique potential has been markedly appealing. This chapter investigates the motivational factors that engage people in pursuing the realisation of their full potential.

Important points about this section:

  • Self-actualisation is facilitated by intrinsic motivation and undermined by extrinsic motivation.
  • The identity crisis that occurs during adolescence is at odds with self-actualising endeavours. Whereas, the preoccupations of adults has been identified as being congruent with self-actualising pursuits.

What is self-actualisation?[edit | edit source]

Self-actualisation is the process of achieving one’s own full potential through creativity, autonomy, spontaneity and the establishment of one's goals and values (Tripathi & Moakumla, 2018).

Self-actualisation has been defined and described in a variety of ways, according to Maslow (2013) there are key features which makes self-actualisation distinct, such as the expression and acceptance of one's inner core self, minimal presence of ill health or psychopathology (e.g. neurosis, psychosis etc.) A self-actualising person has a free spontaneity, uninhibited expression of his or her inner nature. Maturity in terms of self-actualisation means to transcend deficiency needs with a tendency to fulfil self-fulfilment or 'being-needs' towards "Peak Experience" and self-transcendence. [1]

Figure 1. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow's hierarchy of needs[edit | edit source]

  • Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is premised on the assumption that motives and values are essential for understanding human behaviour (Maslow 1970, as cited in Tripathi & Moakumla, 2018).
  • Maslow’s hierarchy makes the assertion that human growth is associated with a decrease in the prepotency of “lower” motives and an increase in the prepotency of “higher” motives (Reiss & Havercamp, 2005).

Developmental criteria for self-actualisation[edit | edit source]

  • Developmental psychology accentuates the existence of multiple selves whereby individuals must establish congruence as personality develops (Showers and Zeigler-Hill 2012, as cited in Fabian, 2019). Adolescence is marked by a significant increase in the detection of contradictory self-attributes that lead to conflict and confusion (Harter 2012, as cited in Fabia, 2019). This finding is consistent with Erikson's assertion that adolescence is marked by the identity crisis whereby adolescents strive to refine their values to constitute a consolidated identity.
  • Contemporary experimental research conducted by Reiss & Havercmp’s (2005) supports the notion that developmental factors impact one’s ability to self actualise. Specifically, it was identified that participants over the age of 36 had a tendency to be concerned with higher motives, and participants under this age with lower motives (Reiss & Havercamp, 2005).
  • Furthermore, the notion of immediate gratification and extrinsic reward is highly pronounced during adolescence. This lack of internal drive or motivation is at odds with self-actualising endeavours (Ivtzan et al, 2013).
  • Adulthood is marked by a decrease in wishes and fears which are replaced by realistic steps to achieving future goals (Lang & Carstensen, 2002). Thus, the preoccupations of the mature population may be more congruent with self-actualising pursuits.

Theoretical evidence underpinning the process of self-actualisation[edit | edit source]

The coalescence of being[edit | edit source]

  • Research evidence pertaining to the underlying mechanisms of self-actualisation has been predominantly inconclusive. Thus, Fabian (2019) aimed to close this gap by asserting that the theory of coalescence was an influential model of self-actualisation.
  • Coalescence refers to the notion to unite into a whole and is premised on the integration of Self Determination Theory (SDT) and Self Discrepancy Theory (Fabian, 2019).
  • The central mechanism of coalescence is the strive for congruence between the actual (who one is now)-, ideal (who one aspires to be)- and ought-selves (who one has a duty to be) (Fabian, 2019).

Self-determination theory[edit | edit source]

  • Self-determination and personal expressiveness have been fundamentally attributed to the attainment of wellbeing (Ryan & Deci, 2017).
  • Coalescence of being is the catalyst for a range of wellbeing outcomes including positive affect, a sense of meaning and purpose and the nourishment of our basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness (Fabian, 2019).

SDT posits a spectrum of motivation from intrinsic to extrinsic[edit | edit source]

The actual-self is characterised by intrinsic motivation to pursue values and undertake behaviours that are inherently attractive (Fabian. 2019). The actual-self may also undertake extrinsically motivated behaviours. However, unless these are being undertaken with the goal of transfiguring them into intrinsically motivated behaviours, this will result in poor mental health (Fabian, 2019).

Types of Extrinsic Motivation
Type of Extrinsic Motivation Definition Example
Introjection A type of motivation driven by the desire to avoid guilt or boost one's self esteem. “I recycle because I ought to, if I am going to feel good (rather than guilty) about myself.”
Identification A type of motivation that concerns activities that the individual deems valuable but does not necessary pursue for their own sake. “I recycle because it is important for a cleaner environment.”

Table 1. Types of Extrinsic Motivation (Reeve, 2018; Fabian, 2019).

Development of intrinsic motivation:

  • Integration is the point where motivation crosses over from extrinsic to intrinsic (Fabian, 2019).
    • Internalisation: The process by which values and behaviours move from being identified to integrated is called internalisation (Ryan and Deci 2017). This process is critical to the “self-creation” element of self-actualisation (Ryan & Deci, 2017, as cited in Fabian, 2019).

Psychological needs[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Three Innate Psychological Needs.

SDT argues that humans have basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness (Ryan and Deci 2017).


  • In pursuing those activities for which an individual holds intrinsic motivation, affirming their own values as against external ones, and gradually integrating identified values, the self-actualising individual nourishes their sense of autonomy (Fabian, 2019).


  • Drawing towards intrinsically attractive activities tends to see the individual pursue things they are good at and abandon activities that are excessively challenging. This nourishes their sense of competence (Fabian, 2019).
  • Self-actualisation is conceptualised as goal pursuit. As the individual adjusts these goals to align with the parameters set by their actual-self they will become more attainable.


  • Self-actualisation is marked by an individuals desire to comport with groups that share their values and hence validate and affirm their identity, thus nourishing the individual’s sense of relatedness (Fabian, 2019).

Outcomes associated with self-actualisation[edit | edit source]

Wellbeing enhancement[edit | edit source]

  • Self-actualisation is considered an instrument to stimulate people to attain a better quality of life.
  • This is premised on the notion that a person is always ‘becoming’ and never remains static, therefore, in self-actualisation, a person comes to find a meaning to life that is uniquely important to them (Tripathi & Moaklama, 2018; Frankl, 1965).
  • Self-actualisation has been found to relate positively to measures of psychological adjustment and negatively to measures of psychopathology (Ivtzan & Conneely, 2009, as cited in Ivtzan et al, 2013).

Goal-setting[edit | edit source]

  • Goal-setting is an important factor that influences wellbeing. While people with clear goals have been found to have higher levels of wellbeing than those who are not goal-driven or pursue inauthentic goals, goal setting has been found to have only small effects on well-being (Oyserman et al. 2012, as cited in Fabian, 2019). However, achieving self-concordant goals has statistically significant and sustained well-being effects (Sheldon 2009). That is, wellbeing is derived at its optimum when goals are pursuit intrinsically, as extrinsic goals undermine intrinsic motivation.
    • There are two prerequisites for a goal to be self-concordant. It must be autonomously pursued in the sense that the individual is intrinsically motivated towards it (Fabian, 2019; Deci & Ryan, 2017).
    • The second is that the goals are associated with “intrinsic pursuits” like personal growth, affiliation and community rather than “extrinsic pursuits” contingent to the activity itself (Sheldon and Kasser 2008).
    • Three basic needs - The achievement of extrinsic pursuits like financial success have relatively minor well-being effects compared to intrinsic pursuits as extrinsic pursuits do not effectively nourish the three basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness (Sheldon & Kasser, 2008).
    • These findings accentuate that extrinsic pursuits are contingent to rather than intrinsic to self-actualisation (Sheldon and Kasser 2008).

Real-life implications of self-actualisation - why is this important?[edit | edit source]

  • Individuals with higher levels of self-actualisation have higher levels of leadership success due to their intellectual flexibility, ability to work in a team, and mature outlook on situations (Pfaffenberger, 2005). This provides a significant implication for organisations who wish to enhance leadership capability, by providing leaders with the autonomy to pursue intrinsic interests/ passions.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Key practical take-home messages:

  • The identity crisis that occurs during adolescence is at odds with self-actualising endeavours. Whereas, the preoccupations of adults has been identified as being congruent with self-actualising pursuits.
  • The three psychological needs posited by self-determination theory facilitate one's ability to strive towards self-actualisation.
  • Intrinsic motivation is required for self-actualisation. Evidence indicates that extrinsic motivation undermines self-actualisation. It is important to note, that an individual may engage in extrinsically motivated behaviours, however, unless these are being undertaken with the goal of transfiguring them into intrinsically motivated behaviours, this will result in mental illness (Fabian, 2019).
  • It has been consistently identified that self actualisation positively predicts wellbeing. This finding is highly applicable to different environments including therapeutic and organisational settings.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Fabian, M. (2019). The Coalescence of Being: A Model of the Self-Actualisation Process. Journal Of Happiness Studies, 21(4), 1487-1508.

Frankl, V. (1965). The doctor and the soul: from psychotherapy to logotherapy. Penguin Books Ltd.

Ivtzan, I., Gardner, H., Bernard, I., Sekhon, M., & Hart, R. (2013). Wellbeing through self-fulfilment: Examining developmental aspects of self-actualization. The Humanistic Psychologist, 41(2), 119-132.

Lang, F., & Carstensen, L. (2002). Time counts: Future time perspective, goals, and social relationships. Psychology And Aging, 17(1), 125-139.

Pfaffenberger, A. (2005). Optimal Adult Development: An Inquiry into the Dynamics of Growth. Journal Of Humanistic Psychology, 45(3), 279-301.

Reeve, J. (2018). Understanding Motivation and Emotion, 7th Edition (7th ed., pp. 114). New York: Wiley.

Reiss, S., & Havercamp, S. (2005). Motivation in Developmental Context: A New Method for Studying Self-Actualization. Journal Of Humanistic Psychology, 45(1), 41-53.

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2017). Self-Determination Theory Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness. Guildford.

Sheldon, K., & Kasser, T. (2008). Psychological threat and extrinsic goal striving. Motivation And Emotion, 32(1), 37-45.

Sheldon, K., Abad, N., Ferguson, Y., Gunz, A., Houser-Marko, L., Nichols, C., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2009). Persistent pursuit of need-satisfying goals leads to increased happiness: A 6-month experimental longitudinal study. Motivation And Emotion, 34(1), 39-48.

Tripathi, N., & Moakumla. (2018). A valuation of Abraham Maslow's theory of self-actualization for the enhancement of quality of life. Indian Journal Of Health And Well-Being, 9(3).

External links[edit | edit source]

  1. Maslow, A. H. (2013). Toward a psychology of being. Simon and Schuster. p. 42,151