Needs, Non-Distraction and Non-Conformity: Making Counter-Habits

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As I embark on a more simple and less technological way of life, I have been thinking about a tangle of concepts: ‘distraction’, ‘habit’, ‘nonconformity’ and — of all things! — Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. While I am not able to tie them all together here and now, I hope to thread some ideas together. After all, I am after better patterns.

Contrary to what I have written, I do find some psychology interesting. If we leave the rungs of Maslow’s pyramid vague (so as to account for situational and cultural differences), it is hard to disagree. Maslow’s basic idea is this: once we achieve shelter, clothing, sleep and nutrients; safety (including financial security, a measure of health and freedom from harm); social belonging and, finally, esteem or respect, then and only then can we finally achieve “self-actualization” and “self-transcendence” – the very marrow of life at the peak of the pyramid. By incorporating ‘self-transcendence’ into ‘self-actualization’, Maslow addressed some fair criticisms of his philosophy; in particular, that his story about human development is too narrowly focused on the evolution of the individual self, cutoff from her communities.

There are counterexamples to Maslow’s theory; for example, the self-transcendence Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl experienced in Nazi concentration camps. Perhaps both basic fulfillment and extreme deprivation prompt self-transcendence. Or, better yet, perhaps extreme deprivation gifts us new values, while basic fulfillment affords us the opportunity to practice those values.

What is so interesting about this pyramid of needs (ordered from more fundamental to more refined) is how few people ever achieve the more foundational needs in their lifetime. Even in “developed” countries like the US, we bounce around the bottom levels, surviving instead of living.

I wonder why more of us are not focused on meeting our basic needs — those fundamental needs that are so essential to our well-being, both individually and as a society. Are we afraid of our own company, so much so that we pursue endless distraction? As Blaise Pascal wrote in his Pensées:

When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town (139).

Pascal overlooks another key force that works against self-actualization and self-transcendence; namely, conformity. Even though we Americans are more likely to encounter floundering consumers rather than flourishing citizens, we nevertheless conform. We want to belong, and distractions steal away the energy we require to counter our culture in meaningful ways.

But should “belonging” and “exciting distraction” be bought for the price of self-actualization and self-transcendence? Is it worth it? Or, in a society so obviously unhappy, is it better to seek non-conformity and to practice counter-habits? For it is habit — and only habit — that empowers us to live better, more meaningful lives.

Happy habit making!