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Abraham Maslow's original hierarchy of needs placed self-actualization at the very top of the list. As I understand it, self-actualization can be roughly defined as realizing one's full potential.

Yet the percentage of people who achieve self-actualization is theoretically less than 5% (probably closer to 1%). Maslow himself listed about a dozen people who, in his opinion, could be considered examples of self-actualization, including Abraham Lincoln.

At the same time, I haven't met many people who really pushed themselves to their full potential. Apathy and Xbox seems to be the norm nowadays.

So we can think of self-actualization as an awesome goal, but is it really a "need"?

To put it another way, have any studies been done on the psychological damage inflicted on people who failed to self-actualize? People obviously get depressed when they fail to get a great job or blossom into a professional athlete. Could such "failure-based depression" qualify self-actualization as a need?

EDIT

I'm not familiar with the psychological community's definition of "need," so let's just say I'm referring to a need as opposed to a "want." We might think of a need as something that's necessary for a person's mental health.

Or, to put it another way, does self-actualization really merit being included with the other needs in Maslow's hierarchy, such as safety and social connections? Feelings of vulnerability and loneliness can drive people to suicide, but how many people who haven't self-actualized drown their sorrows in a bottle of beer?

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TLDR: Self-actualisation is the goal of Maslow's Theory, not a need

Needs

As far as the needs are concerned, @jsakaluk's excellent, well supported answer to Is Maslow's hierarchy of needs really accurate at labeling sex as a physiological "need"? gave a good rundown of the definition.

Definitions of "Needs", "Motives", etc., are dime-a-dozen. Though I don't necessarily agree with all the ingredients, I like how well explicated the criteria by Baumeister and Leary (1995) are, according to whom a fundamental need should:

  1. produce effects readily under all but adverse conditions
  2. have affective consequences
  3. direct cognitive processing
  4. lead to ill effects (such as on health or adjustment) when thwarted
  5. elicit goal-oriented behavior designed to satisfy it (subject to motivational patterns such as object substitutability and satiation)
  6. be universal in the sense of applying to all people
  7. not be derivative of other motives
  8. affect a broad variety of behaviors
  9. have implications that go beyond immediate psychological functioning

Self-Actualisation

We need to determine what self-actualisation actually is. Maslow described it as follows: (Maslow, 1943)

This term, first coined by Kurt Goldstein (1939), is being used in this paper in a much more specific and limited fashion. It refers to the desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.

The specific form that these needs will take will of course vary greatly from person to person. In one individual it may take the form of the desire to be an ideal mother, in another it may be expressed athletically, and in still another it may be expressed in painting pictures or in inventions. It is not necessarily a creative urge although in people who have any capacities for creation it will take this form.

The clear emergence of these needs rests upon prior satisfaction of the physiological, safety, love and esteem needs. We shall call people who are satisfied in these needs, basically satisfied people, and it is from these that we may expect the fullest (and healthiest) creativeness (Kardiner, 1941). Since, in our society, basically satisfied people are the exception, we do not know much about self-actualization, either experimentally or clinically. It remains a challenging problem for research.

Maslow's hierarchy is visually put together as follows:

enter image description here Image Source: Wikimedia Commons Under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

and to attain the sixth level or stage: self-actualisation, is the goal of Maslow's Theory, not a need. Take away any of the levels below self-actualisation, and you will not reach the top goal. And as stated by Maslow (1943) — see above — and in the TLDR summary of @NickStauner's answer to Does evidence support Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs?,

One sequence can't fit all (it didn't claim to), but it makes sense in general, and so do the exceptions, and so do other motive models.

Maslow himself said:

Though, in principle, self-actualization is easy, in practice it rarely happens (by my criteria, certainly in less than 1% of the adult population. For this, there are many, many reasons at various levels of discourse, including all of the determinants of psychopathology that we not know. (Maslow, 2013)

also, the fact that "most of us function most of the time on a level lower than that of self-actualization" he called it the psychopathology of normality. (Loevinger, 1976)

References

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529.
DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.117.3.497 PMID: 7777651

Goldstein, K. (1939). The organism: A holistic approach to biology derived from pathological data in man. Salt Lake City, UT: American Book Publishing.
DOI: 10.1037/10021-000

Kardiner, A. B. R. A. M. (1941). The Traumatic Neuroses of War, New York: Paul B. Hoeber.

Loevinger, J. (1976) Ego Development: Conceptions and Theories (Jossey-Bass Behavioral Science Series). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50 (4), 370–96.
DOI: 10.1037/h0054346
FREE via http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Maslow/motivation.htm.

Maslow, A. H. (2013). Toward a psychology of being. Simon and Schuster [eBook].

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