The Science of Human Motivation

Abraham Harold Maslow was a pioneer in the science of human motivation.

His theory on human motivation describes that human are motivated by a hierarchy of needs.

The primary focus is first on physiological needs and then safety, love, belonging and esteem before we can ‘self-actualize'.

This theory has also become known as Maslow’s Pyramid – with each human 'striving' for the top.

But will we ever reach the top if we have an infinite desire for more?

New Research on Human Motivation

In the book Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization, the author Scott Barry Kaufman builds on the research of Maslow. Instead of a pyramid he compares our human motivations with a boat, where the hull signifies security and the sails are the symbol for our capacity to grow.

Below I will explain each concept in detail.

Part 1. Building a Sense of Security

When born we have nothing. No impressions, consciousness or history. But as we grow older, our identity starts to take shape. From a nobody we turn into a somebody.

How all this turns out depends on how we wish to be perceived. Nevertheless, there are always three elements that are central to building a sense of security as they serve as the foundation from which we can grow.


Up until the last few centuries, safety used to be our primary need and our only problem if this need wasn’t met.

There would be no stressing about mundane problems, because without safety every other goal of self-actualization becomes obsolete.

"We should never have the desire to compose music or create mathematical systems, or to adorn our homes, or to be well dressed if our stomachs were empty most of the time, or if we were continually dying of thirst, or if we were continually threatened by an always impending catastrophe, or if everyone hated us...." - Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality

Even though it’s a fact that physical dangers are not present anymore in everyday life, we still need to adapt to ever changing circumstances, both personally and professionally. For example, we can still feel mentally threatened and burdened by the unpredictability of the world. To create a basic sense of security with physical safety it’s therefore essential to cultivate the ability to deal with unpredictability in one's environment.


The desire for acceptance is deeply rooted in our evolutionary social protection system. 

"From the start of our lives, interactions with various attachment figures defines our sense of what connection is; it's the availability and sensitivity of others to our needs, as well as views of our own goodness and worthiness of love and support. "

- Scott Barry Kaufman 

In other words, connection is an essential ingredient to our base of security. Because it teaches us the values and behaviours from our parents that are important to survive. Eventually though other social relationships such as friends and romantic partners different styles of connections with various persons and role models become familiar to us, leading to a unique look and perspective on life.

So on the one hand, connection is the need for intimacy, mutuality and relatedness but on the other hand it is also reflected in the need to belong and to be liked and accepted.

That's why it’s essential to cultivate relationships and connections that give us a sense of security. With a safe environment and personal connections, we form our values about what is normal or possible in the world.


Self-esteem is the subjective judgement of our identity and personality.

If we feel self-esteem, our sense of security is complete. It’s the calm assurance of being able to handle any situation adequately.

“When we have unconflicted self-esteem, joy is our motor, not fear. It is happiness that we wish to experience, not suffering that we wish to avoid. Our purpose is self-expression, not self-avoidance or self-justification. Our motive is not to “prove” our worth but to live our possibilities.

Through self-esteem and a system of positive beliefs we can become present and grounded in the moment. As a result of this sense of security there is a solid foundation for growth and exploration.

Part 2. Creating an Ecosystem for Growth

When we are inwardly free (our sense of security is present) we can commit to a growth-oriented direction. This can be seen clearly among children, who are exploratory once they feel that their parent is there for safety and comfort.

But maintaining our natural curiosity that we had as a child is difficult. So, we need to set a new clear direction of our journey. One that is beyond our 'safe and secure' zone and into the unknown.

Let me cover the three elements Exploration, Love and Purpose in detail below.


Exploration is about discovering where you want to go in life. It does not imply to wander off without knowing where you want to go.

"If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable."

- Seneca

In other words, it is important to know and discover for yourself which parts of yourself you want to grow and develop. This openness to experience is required to explore individually but also on a collective level.

Individual Exploration

Individual exploration, as the name implies is focused on exploring our own personality and desires. This can be a desire for adventure (going to new places, taking in new experiences) or the desire for knowledge (knowing how things work).

With this type of exploration, we fulfil our natural desire for curiosity by pushing ourselves to some limit. Maybe we want to see what we are capable of, or what the world can still give us in terms of novel experiences. It’s the excitement of a new endeavor that creates this willingness to explore and acquire new knowledge.

Collective Exploration

Collective Exploration is about sharing experiences with others or learning from other peoples’ experiences. This can lead to new ideas and beliefs and can inspire us to take action.

For example, maybe you have a friend that is always happy and uplifting, even though the situation isn’t suited for it. In this case we can learn from this person because he or she broadens our perspective of how we can react in a certain situation.  In this case, their virtue becomes our focus of exploration in order to make it a virtue of our own.

Another way to collectively explore is to share personal stories and experiences with another person. This can lead to insights about what the experience would mean to the person who hasn’t experienced it yet. This type of knowledge is also called second-hand knowledge, where the story of someone helps us figure out if we would be happy with it without actually experiencing the thing ourselves.

For example, maybe you know someone who has found his or her passion and made it into a career. Or someone that successfully changed his or her lifestyle. By asking how the experience is for this person, we might become motivated to make this change in our own life as well.  in both cases, we ‘feel’ the positive energy the change has created in this person, spurring us to create the same feeling in our own life.


Love is the binding factor between human beings to relate, sympathize and co-exist. Nevertheless, it’s important to examine the origin of love and from which place it is given.

On the one hand love can be given from a place of expectation. In this case love is only given when it is received.

Children who are still in their infancy are a good example of this. They think: I'm loving because I feel loved. It's a reactive feeling based on the environment they perceive. Likewise, in adult life we might still feel a hole present, an emptiness that has to be poured, or an assurance that has to be given.

But this isn’t the way to actually increase love. What is important instead is to shift towards a perspective of giving love; I'm loved because I love.

Possibly, but not surely, you might be reciprocated for it. In other words, this implies it is un-needing love, which does not need a positive resonance with the other person in order for it to work:

"The only way to create love, safety and acceptance is by giving it away"

In this sense, mastering love means moving away from seeing love as the means to a specific end and moving into love itself. It’s about acting in full alignment in yourself to produce well-being, growth, health and productivity.


The true definition of a purpose is a goal where you accept hardship and tough moments as a necessary part of the journey. Put differently, only for your purpose are you willing to accept this adversity because the goal is really important to you. It means you are willing to sacrifice, to suffer, to fail and try once again. Because achieving your purpose becomes the way to create some real significance in life.

But purpose can never be something purely for yourself. There is always a connection or benefit to be present for the world:

"Self-actualizing people are, without a single exception, involved in a cause outside their own skin, in something outside of themselves. They are working at something which fate has called them to them, and which they work at and which they love, so that the work-joy dichotomy in them disappears."
- Maslow

When this dichotomy between work and passion evaporates, Maslow observed that people were genuinely fulfilled with their strides to achieve something important:

"Happiness is an epiphenomenon, a by-product, something not to be sought directly but an indirect reward for virtue... the only happy people I know are ones who are working well at something they consider important."

Simply said, a purposeful life is not void of pain or emotional misery. It includes pain and negative experiences, but also clarity and fulfilment on a deep level (this concept is also known as practicing Ikigai).

"He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how"

- Friedrich Nietzsche  

Once we feel we are fulfilling each of these human drives, peak experiences may come to us. These are moments in which we feel connected with life and its pleasures. It's the pleasurable feeling of being happy in the moment.

Peak Experiences

Peak experiences are moments in which you experience a 'peak state' of consciousness. Most people describe peak experiences as being connected to a cosmic power beyond their individual existence.

We can feel this peak experience during practically any moment as long as we are aware of it. For example, it can be an athletic or musical performance, a creative experience, a love experience, childbirth, or a moment of insight and understanding - all can serve as the window through which we experience life fully and vividly.

In other words, being connected to life can vary in intensity, depending on the moment and your ability to synchronize with the present moment.

Intensity of Peak Experiences

Research shows that show that there are different levels of intensity and how we experience connectedness with the world. This means that happiness simply means being attentive to the moment and experiencing it fully.

On the left side there is flow. This is the experience of becoming pleasantly absorbed in an activity. In this case we feel a connection with the bigger universe but we are still within out individual body and experience.

The more we move to the right on the continuum, the more intense and unified the experience can feel.

Setting Sail

We human have the unique freedom to define our course of action.

Are all the elements of the boat present in your life?
Are you having peak experiences to fully enjoy your daily life?
Because it is up to us to live life fully and happily.

Special thanks to Dean Yeong, who helped me write this article.
Check out his blog at