We use cookies to help you find the right information on mental health on our website. If you continue to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies.
Dr Edward Hoffman

Living Positively

The friendships and romance of self-actualizing people - Dr Edward Hoffman

Positive psychology was officially launched in 1998, but its roots lie deep in the work of Dr  Abraham Maslow, best known in India today as the guru of human motivation, with its relevance for organizational success. Among Maslow’s best-known concepts is self-actualization – everyone has the capacity to fulfill their inborn potential and a small percentage of people do attain it. By Maslow’s definition, such men and women have gratified their basic needs for security, belongingness, esteem and respect, and are primarily motivated by their higher needs — which he associated with transcendent values like creativity, justice, and helping to make a better world.    

In Maslow’s view, the study of self-actualizing persons is crucial for guiding humanity on “the proper direction in which to grow…to use as a guide and model.” For this reason, it’s important to know his views on these four dimensions of social life: friendship, romantic love, marriage, and child-rearing. This column will focus on the first two, and the next column will focus on the latter two.

1) Do self-actualized persons have friends? It is an undeniably stark question and requires a nuanced, tri-pronged response. First, Maslow extolled the warm pleasures of friendship among psychologically healthy persons. For example, he defined identification - love as “a kind of transcendence, e.g. for one’s child or beloved friend.” He also commented, “It is a privilege to love family members and friends, even though doing so inevitably means to suffer all their pain in addition to your own.” Second, Maslow sharply differentiated true friendships marked by authenticity and self-disclosure from shallow pseudo-friendships. Third, although Maslow saw self-actualized persons as typically enjoying deep friendships, he considered such relations as only mildly necessary for their sustained emotional wellbeing, because their need for belongingness and esteem had already been met. In other words, they didn’t need friends for flattery.   

Maslow emphasized the importance of both authenticity and self-disclosure as vital to trusting relationships. Authenticity involves both the ability to identify and take responsibility for one’s experiences in life and act consistent with these experiences. Self-disclosure involves revealing one’s feelings and thoughts honestly and openly. Maslow regarded both qualities — besides warmth and shared interests — as salient in the friendships of self-actualized persons.     

2)  Do self-actualized people fall in love? For someone whose romantic experience was limited to a single partner in college whom he soon married, Maslow had a surprisingly strong, sustained interest in the topic. He reported that because self-actualized persons were free of neurotic needs for admiration, praise, or dominance, their romantic relationships were more empathic and caring. Later in life, Maslow also observed that psychologically healthy persons were more self-disclosing too. Perhaps even more salient for Maslow, because self-actualized persons had satisfied their needs for esteem and respect, they were able to focus wholeheartedly on their loved one. Using contemporary terminology, we might say they are capable of showing greater mindfulness in their romantic love.  

Influenced by the Eastern thought in 1960s, Maslow would describe this mindset as comprising 'Taoist receptivity' which he saw as paradigmatic among lovers gazing blissfully into each other’s eyes or a mother staring in joyful wonderment at her newborn. In his view, the psychological state of being in love entails seeing one’s romantic partner as not only wonderful and extraordinary, but as perfect. Though such a mindset was certainly unrealistic from the perspective of daily life, Maslow considered it essential for romance to arise and thrive.

Maslow’s emphasis on the importance of idealizing or sacralizing (to use his term) one’s romantic partner foreshadowed recent research on the role of positive illusions in love. One study found that newlyweds who idealized their partner enjoyed greater marital satisfaction after three years compared to peers. In another study, investigators found that newlyweds who idealized each other were more in love with each other and also less likely to experience loss of love after thirteen years of marriage. In short, idealizing or sacralizing one’s partner seems to be vital for maintaining passion in married life.

Dr Edward Hoffman is an adjunct associate psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York City. A licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, he is the author/editor of more than 25 books in psychology and related fields. Dr. Hoffman is the recent co-author with Dr William Compton of Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing, and serves on the editorial boards of the Indian Journal of Positive Psychology and the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. You can write to him at columns@whiteswanfoundation.org