How to Achieve Self-Actualization in College

Carolina Jacobs

Jul 13, 2022

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Part of the college journey is discovering more about who you are and making decisions for what you want your future to look like. These goals tie into a psychological concept called self-actualization that focuses on human motivation and how to become the best version of yourself.

While the term self-actualization was actually coined by psychiatrist Kurt Goldstein, it didn’t become popular until Abraham Maslow incorporated it into his groundbreaking psychological theory. Here’s everything you need to know about how to achieve self-actualization in college. 

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

In the early 1900s, psychologist Abraham Maslow was studying abnormal human behavior. He realized over the course of his study that there was no literature defining normal human behavior. This was a significant research gap – without a benchmark for healthy human behavior, it’s challenging to discuss deviations in that behavior. 

Maslow began his own private study to try to understand healthy and even optimum human behavior. He started by observing individuals who were admired, respected and otherwise thriving. After a while, he began to see patterns in the way these people thought and behaved. 

Eventually, Maslow created a hierarchy of needs to explain human motivation based on his personal research. Originally, this hierarchy consisted of five stages, each representing a human need that people are motivated to fill. Here’s a brief summary of the stages:

  1. Physiological needs – food, water, sleep
  2. Safety needs – shelter, resources
  3. Relationship needs – family, community, romantic love
  4. Esteem needs – respect, valued
  5. Self-actualization – self-aware, internal growth

Maslow later added a sixth section to his hierarchy, known as transcendence. To meet this need, people look beyond themselves to contribute to others and live for a larger purpose than their own personal fulfillment. 

Qualities of Self-Actualized People

As a humanist, Maslow believed that people were intrinsically good. Given the right environment, they would progress into generous, kind individuals who were interested in the welfare of others. 

Based on his research, Maslow created a list of personal qualities that he observed over and over in those he deemed “self-actualized.” As well as observing people he personally knew, he also studied historical figures like Albert Einstein and Thomas Jefferson to compile this list. 

Some commonalities between Maslow’s self-actualized people included those listed below: 

  1. They can embrace the unknown. 
  2. They are grateful.
  3. They think for themselves. 
  4. They are self-aware. 
  5. They invest in a few deep relationships. 
  6. They accept their flaws. 
  7. They experience wonder. 
  8. They have a healthy sense of humor. 
  9. They are creative. 
  10. They have a strong sense of purpose. 

Many of these behaviors are markers of emotional maturity. However, Maslow’s work was partially influenced by Taoism, a religious philosophy that originated in China. Because of this connection, some of Maslow’s characteristics reflect ideas from this Eastern religion. 

Problems With Maslow’s Hierarchy

Because he focused on the human potential for self-mastery, Maslow’s work represented a turning point in psychology. Previous to his hierarchy, the field of psychology was focused on abnormal human behavior and animal conditioning. 

Psychologists had developed a pessimistic view of humanity which led many to question whether there was any valuable difference between people and animals. Maslow was initially hesitant to publish his work on self-actualization because he was afraid that it would be perceived as unscientific. 

Although his theory had a positive influence on the field of psychology, it’s not perfect by any means. Numerous scholars and at least one dedicated study have pointed out that human needs are not hierarchical. For instance, many people enjoy positive social connections even if they don’t have enough to eat. 

Another issue with Maslow’s theory is that many of his ideas rely on terms without absolute definitions. For example, the idea of “success” or “a healthy person” varies across cultures and religions. Without an external standard for these terms, it’s challenging to test his theories. 

How to Achieve Self-Actualization in College

However, even with its imperfections, you can use Maslow’s work to assess your personal goals and experience personal growth while in college. In fact, college is an ideal place to work on self-actualization. School offers a unique opportunity for students to expose themselves to new ideas and decide which values will drive their lives. 

Here are several practical ways you can benefit from Maslow’s work and pursue personal growth while in college: 

Finally, do your best to think for yourself while at school. Instead of accepting what you hear or going along with the crowd, ask questions. Asking “why” will bring you to the root cause of philosophies and behaviors and empower you to be intentional with your life. 

It’s important to remember that self-actualization isn’t a destination you can reach. Instead, it’s a journey of continual growth that strengthens your mind and increases your maturity. Self-actualization isn’t a quest for perfection, and it looks a little different for everyone. 

Benefits of Self-Actualization

Students who see college as an opportunity for personal growth will graduate with higher levels of personal maturity. Instead of just focusing on grades, keep in mind that you’re developing foundational habits and character while at school that will follow you later in life.  

Although Maslow’s hierarchy of needs isn’t a perfect description of human motivation, he was right about one thing – people want to become the best version of themselves. Focusing on internal growth will add to your future happiness far more than any degree you can receive or any approval you win along the way. Learning how to achieve self-actualization in college will make you a better version of yourself.

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