What motivates people to do what they do?
How do people find meaning in life?
How do great leaders lead people so that people passionately follow them?

Have you ever thought about that? Is it obtaining money, power, and sex as some people think?

The answer is deeper than that. Keen observation, research, and centuries of history show us that we are motivated by a desire to meet certain fundamental human needs. That is, humans are motivated to do things by a desire to meet their intrinsic needs.  These needs are not “wants” but “needs” that we all have by just being human–they are ontological (stemming from the condition of being human).The 7 Fundamental Human Needs-

Evolutionary Role of the Fundamental Human Needs

We are endowed with 7 categories of needs (see below) that are called fundamental human needs. Every human being, in every culture, over every generation, on every continent has these 7 categories of needs. However, the expression of these needs in different people may take on different phenotypes and so look different. The way they are satisfied also differs from person to person and across cultures and ages.

These inborn needs have been responsible for our individual and group survival as a species and continue to play a significant role in the evolution of the human society.

Just like hunger reminds us to eat physical food so that we can nourish our bodies and survive, these needs are inner longings of every human soul that push us to contribute to our own upkeep and that of our group because as a species, we do better as individuals when our entire group does well. Think of the time when we lived in small village communities. The strength of the individual was intertwined with the strength of the community. Strong individuals made strong communities but strong communities also enhanced individual strength. Though the world is a different place today, the fundamental human needs still serve the same role. They drive us to pursue individual and community survival and growth as a species because our own individual survival depends on the survival of others as well.

Why should you bother to know about the 7 Fundamental Human Needs?

I think that the fundamental human needs are the Keys to Success. Understanding them empowers you to become the greatest person that you can be. They are also the only way to successfully influence people. If you want to influence or empower any person or group, there is no better place than to understand and meet their fundamental human needs.

Meet their fundamental needs, and people will follow you anywhere you take them. The gateway to influence is meeting human needs.

Understanding and satisfying your own fundamental human needs is how you develop a sense of meaning in your life. With that comes the tremendous benefits of living a life with a rich sense of meaning.

If you ever wanted to know what makes people tick, the 7 fundamental Human Needs are it.

Comming up with the 7 Fundamental Human Needs

A lot of work has been done in the social sciences to identify the fundamental human needs. Notably, the work of Abraham Maslow, Clayton Alderfer, Manfred Max-Neef, Frederick Herzberg, and many others.

Maslow presented a hierarchy of needs in his 1954 book called Motivation and Personality. While it spurred a lot of work in the field, many aspects of his work have come under recent criticism, especially his hierarchical arrangement of needs.

Max-Neef, on the other hand, presents needs as a system, not a hierarchy and writes, “Human needs must be understood as a system: that is, all human needs are interrelated and interactive. With the sole exception of the need of subsistence, that is, to remain alive, no hierarchies exist within the system. On the contrary, simultaneities, complementarities and trade-offs are characteristics of the process of needs satisfaction.” In this article, we will view human needs as a system as proposed by Max-Neef.

According to Max-Neef, the following is true about these needs: 1) “Fundamental human needs are finite, few and classifiable.” 2) “Fundamental human needs are the same in all cultures and in all historical periods. What changes, both over time and through cultures, is the way or the mean by which the needs are satisfied.”

I have distilled this body of work into 7 fundamental human needs and created the mnemonic, SUCCESS, to represent them. I believe that to arrive at success in life, we must learn to meet these needs well in ourselves and in others around us.

The 7 Fundamental Human Needs

The 7 fundamental human needs are not individual needs but really categories of needs. A good way to call them will be the 7 categories of fundamental human needs to emphasize that each of the 7 needs shown represents a category with a spectrum of needs. Different people in different seasons of life will fall at different places on the spectrum of each of the categories of fundamental human needs.

Keep in mind that, as mentioned above, these needs are interrelated and form a system of interactive needs that may look slightly different in each individual, yet the same in all humans across all cultures and all times.


Subsistence-Safety-Security includes both physiological and protection needs and the needs for self-care–the means by which we sustain subsistence-safety-security.

In a sense, subsistence may be seen as being alive or remaining alive while safety, security, and self-care are fundamental means by which we support subsistence. None of us has to worry about coming alive–all of us, who are alive now, were born alive. Another way to put it is that subsistence is having life in you; self-care and safety/security is how you sustain and protect that life from being snuffed away by the dangerous world in which we live. Subsistence needs include things like air, food, water, breathing, homeostasis,  shelter, warmth, sleep, entertainment, leisure ( a time when one is not working or occupied; free time), etc. When it comes to Safety and Security needs, people want to control and structure their lives because that makes them feel safe and secure.  According to research by Dr. Lauren Leotti and her colleagues, “Converging evidence from animal research, clinical studies, and neuroimaging work suggest that the need for control is a biological imperative for survival, and a corticostriatal network is implicated as the neural substrate of this adaptive behavior.” Some of the basic security and safety needs include, 1) Financial security, 2) Health and wellness, 3) Safety against accidents and injury.” Finding a job, obtaining health insurance and health care, contributing money to a savings account, and moving into a safer neighborhood are all examples of actions motivated by the security and safety needs.” Safety and security needs include health, wealth, and safety. Subsistence and safety needs are often called the basic needs. Self-care is needed in four domains: Physical, emotional/psychological, social, and spiritual.
Here are some needs that fall under the umbrella of this the subsistence-safety-security need.

  1. Health and well-being.
    • Personal time alone to do something you want.
    • Time alone: This is daily time for reflection or thinking alone – Psychological health and well-being.
    • Exercise (walking, sports, exercise, shopping etc) – Physical health and well-being.
  2. Need for structure. If you put this need on a scale of 0 to 10, every human being will show some need for it. No one will have zero need for structure. However, some people may be a 4/10 while others may have a 9/10. We perceive those who show a need of 9/10 as exhibiting the need for structure while those who have 4/10 have less need for structure. However, it’s important to remember these two people are on two ends of the same spectrum. They are requiring different levels of the same need. This is true with all the needs. For example, some people can perform well at work on 6 hours of sleep while others need 9 hours to perform well.
  3. Personal space / physical space. Some people show a higher need for physical space that is their very own, where no one disturbs them. Introverts and extroverts get refreshed in different ways.
  4. Leisure -E.g. Listening to music and relaxation
  5. Humor (the need to laugh)
  6. Sleep
  7. Financial security – this is another expression of our need for control. Some people express so much so that they need to know all income and expenses and make sure that there is always a surplus saved up. Without that, they are stressed.
  8. Order and closure – Like the need for structure, this is an expression of our bigger need for control in our lives and environments.
  9. Personal security
  10. Safety net against accidents/illness and their adverse impacts


This refers to the need to Understand AND be Understood. It refers to the need to understand ourselves and the world around us, to find guidance to navigate life, and wisdom to make wise decisions that safeguard and improve life. It also refers to the need to communicate with others and be listened to empathically and understood.

Here are some needs that fall under the umbrella of this need.

  1. The need to acquire knowledge; to learning something new – This is a need everybody has, however, some people exhibit so much more that it’s a significant need for them at the time. Some people just love to learn. There are people with 3 or 4 graduate degrees. Education from teachers and sources like schools, families, universities, and communities fulfills this fundamental need for understanding.
  2. Understanding is comprehension of facts or knowledge that has been gathered. This is the need to make sense of facts, to find meaning in data, to have knowledge, and to find patterns that explain nature. Scientists come up with hypothesis and theories to try to understand the world through research. Yet, we are all scientists in our own little way. Different people express this need different at different times and to different degrees. Children are always asking, why this, why that? There is a deep urge or curiosity that needs to be quenched with meaning. I for one cannot handle it when I am listening to a speaker and fail to understand a point they make. I get a strong urge to immediately stop them and get an explanation. Other people act differently simply because there are many phenotypical expressions of this one urge or need.
  3. WisdomWisdom is knowledge understood and applied. Wisdom is taking knowledge and putting it to work to make our lives better.
  4. Guidance – We all express the need for guidance to travel the journey called Life. We each need a true north. A lot of people find this through religion or spirituality. Others find this through science, others atheism, some soul search, and others find it in a combination of sources.
  5. Institutions of learning have always been created as long as man has existed on earth to meet this fundamental need for understanding. Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden was also a sin in the area of meeting this need.
  6. The need to be understood. Listening is the gateway to understanding people. People need to feel understood.

As said above, this is the need to understand and to be understood. It starts with understanding ourselves. It is also the need to understand the world around us and to make ourselves understood by others.

Charity (Caring Relationships, Connection, Community)

Relationships are the jars that carry the healing balm of love…

…People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care…

By charity, I mean love. This refers to the need to love and to be loved unconditionally. This is unconditional love shown through deep enduring relationships with others. It is love from people you know you can count on no matter what because they love you unconditionally. Good relationships and this kind of love go together because good quality relationships are the channel or conduit through which this kind of love goes back and forth between people. Good relationships are the only environment in which that kind of love can happen. Without good relationships, you cannot have this unconditional love. Relationships are the jars that carry the healing balm of love.

And research from Harvard University has supported this age-old wisdom that good relationships are a necessity, not a luxury if we want to have a good life. We need good relationships to be healthy and happy. In fact, research has also shown that babies die when they are not loved, when good relationships aren’t there, even if all their biological needs are met.

This need is about belonging to a group or connecting with other people deeply. It’s a social need we all have. It is a need for emotional relationships. Some of the relationships that satisfy this need include friends, work groups, social groups, community groups, family, romantic relationships, churches and religious organizations, sports teams, book clubs, gangs, cults, etc. People need to be connected through relationships. They need approval and acceptance from the aforementioned relationships. Connecting with others is how people avoid lonelinesses, depression, anxiety, etc. Dictionary.com defines Charity as “Christian love; agape” and thefreedictionary.com defines it as used in Christianity as “The theological virtue defined as love directed first toward God but also toward oneself and one’s neighbors as objects of God’s love.”

Here are some needs that fall under the umbrella of this need.

  1. Relationship: The need for friends and the need to give and receive love. We all have these needs but they are fulfilled differently.  Some people prefer one-on-one relationships. They feel stressed within groups but comfortable one-on-one. At parties, you may see them in a corner chatting with one person that they know. Other people are just the opposite; they prefer group relationships. Some people just love hanging out with people more than others do. They have a higher need for visible relationships.
  2. Belonging:  We all feel the need to be connected to a group of like-minded people; People need to feel that they belong somewhere.
  3. Empathy: Some people have a much higher need for people important to them to know what they are feeling than others. They prefer for people to know the depth of their feelings and respond appropriately.
  4. Approval and acceptance from a community of relationships.
  5. Touching / Physical contact: These people often meet this need by asking for hugs, volunteering in a nursery or orphanage, getting a pet, getting a massage etc. Jobs like nursing are good jobs for people with this need.

Question: How many people do you have in your life right now that you know you can count on their love and for them to be there for you no matter what?

Application Principle: Pursue love with all your heart, mind, and soul through building strong enduring relationships with others.

** Of all the 7 fundamental human needs, this third need–unconditional love through good relationships–is the greatest of them. All the other six needs include good relationships with others to be met. This third need is the most essential and most foundational of all.

Creation and Contribution

Creative Contribution

We all feel the need to make the world a better place and to add value to those around us. Contribution refers to this inborn need for creative contribution which is basically the need to create and to contribute to the needs of others around you. You create something to contribute to the needs of others. What you create can be a good or service, etc. The purpose of creation is to make a contribution. We are creative beings with a need to create and be creative. Even though, it may sometimes feel as though people feel happy just being creative without necessarily always having a need to contribute to the welfare of others, it is likely that we feel good when we are creative because we are designed to live in a community contributing to the needs of others. It’s like sex. It’s designed for procreation but also feels good on its own and has other benefits attached to it somehow perhaps through those benefits to encourage procreation. This is also called creative participation; participation in improving the lives of others.

Here are some needs that fall into this category:

  1. Need to give and do for others (contribution)
  2. Need to have a project going on (creative need)
  3. Need for variety of experiences (variety inspires creativity; also removes boredom)
  4. Anticipation – these people love to look forward to something that is coming up, such as a wedding, the birth of a baby, taking a trip, or seeing friends.

Effective creative contribution requires that we find out our purpose, our calling, and know our DESIGN. When we operate in our element, our sweet spot that we are able to give the world our best and greatest contribution. To fully meet this need for creative contribution, knowing your purpose or calling is vital. That’s a great place to strive to arrive when seeking to meet this need.


Esteem has to do with respect that is earned as a result of our contribution to society. Unlike significance (described below) which is innate, esteem is based on our achievements. All human beings have a need to feel respected or esteemed because of our contribution. There are two types of esteem: esteem by self and by others. In other words, the need for esteem can be broken down into two parts based on their origin: internal (which is by oneself) and external (which is by others). In other words, internal needs refer to self-esteem (self-respect) and external needs refer to esteem or the respect others give us. Both internal and external esteem comes from things like achievements, social status, and recognition by others.

 This need is met through achievement, self-respect, the respect of others, recognition, status, dominance, prestige.

Freedom is a related human need. It goes together with esteem because it is difficult to feel esteemed when you don’t feel or have freedom.
Here are some needs that fall under the umbrella of this need.

  1. Self-respect – the need to respect and value self
  2. Recognition (for achievement by those they are in relationship with or their community)
  3. Reputation
  4. Attention
  5. The need to win (competition). These people are aggressive and want to win because winning builds their self-esteem and makes others esteem them as well.
  6. The need for freedom. People need to be and feel free and unencumbered.


I chose the word substantiation to describe the two ideas Maslow called self-actualization and self-transcendence. I chose that word because I have discovered that people have an innate worth, an inborn potential, a DESIGN,  and a purpose or destiny in life.

Related Article: DESIGN: 6 Keys to Finding Your Calling or Element

They yearn inwardly to live out their DESIGN (potential) and fulfill the purpose for which they were created. When they strive to achieve their full potential, they are not striving to move up the ranks, to attain a new level, become a new species or gain new significance. They are instead becoming who they are.  It is more of an unveiling of what is–a revealing of who they really are–rather than a creation of a certain new and better ideal. Again, they are in essence becoming who they really are. They are giving substance to who they already are; they are making themselves real or actual. They are proving the truth of who they are; they are supporting with evidence that everyone can see what they already are. The oak within the acorn is unveiled to all its glory; it’s come to full blossom. This means that the person in the humble state who is not yet substantiated is no better human than the one who has substantiated. There is no room for pride here. It also means that the person who feels weak can say they are strong and be right. The advice, “Let the weak say I am strong” rings true here.

It is like having two bulbs of the same model, one with its switch turned on so that it shines brightly and beautifully but the other its switch is turned off and so it doesn’t display its glory. The two are exactly the same–they are bulbs. The only difference is that one has been positioned in a place that it can shine when the other hasn’t been. The bulb that shines must be as humble as the one that isn’t shining. Yet, substantiation brings its joys and advantages. It allows us to experience life as fully as we are meant to.

As such, substantiation is becoming everything you were created to be by living for a purpose that is higher than yourself. It incorporates both self-actualization and self-transcendence as described by Maslow.

A) Self-Actualization. To self-actualize means to develop or achieve one’s full potential. Self-actualization is the innate drive of humans to grow and become everything that they were created to be; to reach their full potential, to become all they can be. It is the inborn motive to realize one’s full potential. This means growing physically, psychologically, socially, and spiritually. Dictionary.com says self-actualization is “the achievement of one’s full potential through creativity, independence, spontaneity, and a grasp of the real world.” The American Psychological Association says self-actualization is a”person’s constant striving to realize his or her potential and to develop inherent talents and capabilities.” Growth is an essential component of self-actualization.

B) Self-Transcendence. Later in his career, Abraham Maslow added self-transcendence to his list of needs. “The self only finds its actualization in giving itself to some higher goal outside oneself, in altruism and spirituality.” Spiritual needs are part of self-transcendence, the desire to reach a desired spiritual state.

Here are some needs that fall under the umbrella of this need.

  1. The need to know that we are spiritual beings. This is the need to pursue something bigger than ourselves.
  2. The need for purpose and hope for life to be meaningful.
  3. The need to realize that each of us has great potential, that we all have seeds of greatness in each of us.
  4. The need for growth.

Felt needs should be sought and addressed because a person’s perception is their reality.


significance or meaning in life

Significance is the need to feel that you are important, special, and matter tremendously. In the words of King David, that you are “fearfully and wonderfully made“, that you are unique, one of a kind, irreplaceable in human history, and that you have a purpose. People need to know that they are significant for simply being human, not because of anything they have done or any possessions they have. Significance is inspired by the principle of human dignityinnate human worth. We need to feel that our lives have meaning.

Much of our significance comes from our sense of identity.  We have two types of identities. Social identity and self-identity (personal identity). And both of them are crucial to our sense of importance.

How people realize or develop a sense of significance.

  • When people find their purpose in life, it helps them realize their significance.
  • When people develop a healthy self-identity and social identity, it helps them realize their significance.
  • The story you tell yourself helps people find a significance. This has to do with our self-identity.
  • Community and belonging. This has to do with social identity.
  • Spirituality helps people find their sense of significance.
  • All of the other 6 fundamental human needs help people have a sense of meaning.

Unlike esteem that has to do with what we have accomplished, significance doesn’t focus on what we have accomplished. It has everything to do with how we are created–uniquely, one of a kind, with intrinsic purpose and meaning that then becomes substantiated as we live out our lives. It has everything to do with the fact that we are the apex of creation–the greatest species ever made and each of us has as much value and worth as all of us together.

All of the seven fundamental human needs I teach, when they are in full flower, help people achieve significance or meaning in life. In other words, when each of them is fully being met in a person’s life, the resultant is a feeling of significance or meaning in life. Even though significance is a fundamental human need, it is itself achieved by meeting the other human needs.

Related Article: Having a Sense of Meaning and Purpose in life is linked to Health and a longer lifespan.


What happens when the fundamental needs are not being met?

Without connection, love, and belonging, many people become susceptible to loneliness, social anxiety, stress, and clinical depression (and atypical depression can cause increased appetite and weight gain). Risk factors for depression include (among many): Certain personality traits, such as low self-esteem; financial problems; stressful life events; Few friends or other personal relationships, etc. Nature (genetic) and nurture (environment) causes are implicated as causes of depression.

Without meeting the esteem needs, people may suffer from an inferiority complex, weakness, helplessness, hopelessness, etc. As such, understanding human needs and meeting them in yourself and in others is a good way to reduce stress in relationships and on the job.

When many people suffer from depression and anxiety, they eat more and become obese. Stress is linked to all kinds of diseases that take patients to the doctor’s office. I coach all my overweight and obese patients in my Slim Fit Lifestyle program to seek to satisfy their seven fundamental human needs. That is a key part of effective weight loss and maintenance.

Key points about the 7 Fundamental Human Needs

  • The needs are a system, not hierarchical as Maslow presented them. They are interrelated.
  • These needs are universal. People in every culture and throughout history have had them. They are simply satisfied in different ways.
  • They are not meant to be exclusive. Things that are true for one point may be true for several other points.
  • Some needs may overcome others. A child may choose to be with an abusive parent because he fulfills their need of belonging.
  • The degree to which people have or express a need varies with from person to person and from season to season. So we still need to know people to understand their specific needs.
  • The way people meet a need is different for different people. For example, some people express the need for charity or connection by thriving on “one-on-one attention” in their relationships with others while others prefer group relationships. If you go to a party, you will see some people who find one person and chat in one corner while others love to hang out with a group in a large circle talking and socializing. Others require a need for more empathy from those they are in a relationship with than others. Some people just love being with people more than others. Some are more touchy-feely than others. For self-care, some people are invigorated by hanging out with friends and crowds while others prefer time alone time for reflection and thinking. Sleep, for example, is something that everybody needs. However, some people need to have a specific number of hours of sleep per day to function properly. If they don’t have enough sleep, they become irritable, angry, stressed out etc. Others can handle less sleep without visible effects. Self-awareness is important here so that a person can organize their lives in a way that allows them to have the amount of sleep they need to function effectively. Another example is personal space. Some people need to have some protected space that is their own where others do not disturb while others don’t seem to have that need to the same extent.
  • Negotiating with others with whom we are in a relationship with is necessary for us to get our needs met.
  • Self-awareness includes knowing yourself and how your fundamental needs are expressed.
  • Another way to categorize needs is that we have Physical, Emotional/Psychological, Social, and Spiritual needs; Soma, Soul, Social, Spiritual needs.
  • #1 of these seven needs is equivalent to what Herzberg called incentives and hygiene factors. The rest are the motivators. You can read about Herzberg’s work here: http://www.netmba.com/mgmt/ob/motivation/herzberg/
  • Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory of motivation. It was his way to explain why people do the things that they do.
  • These human needs are the result of research and understanding in the social sciences. I didn’t come up with any of them. Now, take a look at those groups of needs. How are we designed to meet them? In one word, relationship! Those needs can only be met in relationships with other people and the material world in which each of acts as a steward.
  • The only way self-fulfillment comes is by doing something for someone else. You feel self-fulfilled when you help someone else fulfill their dreams. Self-fulfillment doesn’t come through fulfilling your own dreams except they are to help someone else fulfill their own dreams.
  • Another good motivation model is the MAP model. MAP stands for Mastery, Autonomy, Purpose. People are motivated to get good (Master) something that they care about. They desire autonomy. And they want to live for a purpose greater than themselves.