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Creative Conversation

All you need is love. Except it's not.

Updated: May 14

Monochrome mosaic of the top half of the faces of The Beatles

OK, we know The Beatles weren't being literal when they sang their famous anthem. But it does raise a fundamental question – what exactly do human beings need to live happy and fulfilled lives?


Many answers have been offered down the centuries, including by Abraham Maslow, with his famous idea of the 'hierarchy of human needs'.


Maslow said that we all have five categories of fundamental needs, which he ranked in a 'hierarchy' - starting from basic survival needs, through more complex psychological and emotional needs (including love), up to what he called the needs of 'self-actualisation'.


Crucially, according to Maslow, unless we meet our basic needs it's hard – if not impossible – to meet any of our 'higher' needs further up the pyramid.


Graphic of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

This model has been very influential in explaining what drives human behaviour – but it's also had its critics. Generally, they agree that


  • we human beings are driven by the urge to satisfy a range of fundamental needs

  • we adopt various (often ineffective) strategies to do so

  • we experience positive emotions when these needs are met and negative emotions when they're not

  • we move – consciously or unconsciously – towards people, environments and situations that meet our needs and away from those that don't; and if we can't move we suffer.


But Maslow's critics don't agree that there's a hierarchy to these needs. For example, the economist Manfred Max-Neef argued that

'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 other words, our needs often work together and often they clash – not just with the needs of other people but within us.


For example, our need to live true to ourselves can be in conflict with our need to be accepted by our community – just ask anyone who has fallen for the 'wrong' person.


How many needs?


What then are these basic human needs? And do they differ according to our age, sex, nationality and so on?


Well, according to Max-Neef, ‘Fundamental human needs are finite, few and classifiable’ and are the same in all cultures and all historical periods. ‘What changes,' he says, 'both over time and through cultures, is the way or the means by which the needs are satisfied.’


So, for example, the basic human need for food and drink remains constant although exactly what people consume will differ over time and from place to place.


Arms of different skin tones extended to click glasses

This view is broadly accepted by other promoters of human needs theory, such as Marshall Rosenberg, the late founder of Nonviolent Communication, and Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrell, the founders of an approach to psychotherapy called 'human givens'.


However, while there is general agreement on our physical needs, there isn't agreement on how precisely to classify our psychological and emotional needs.


These anyway do differ from person to person – the ingredients might be the same but the mixture is distinct in each individual, which might itself change over time. A young person's needs for freedom and challenge, say, typically give way as they become middle-aged to the (boring old) needs for stability and security.


Meeting our needs


Griffin and Tyrell also argue that, in addition to our basic needs, we're all born with 'an instinctive knowledge of what we need and with a set of inner resources that can help us get our needs met, provided we use them properly and are living in a healthy environment.'


Father and toddler walking hand-in-hand in a sunny park

So our fundamental challenge as human beings is two-fold – first, how to identify which of our needs are relevant in any particular situation; and then how best to activate our inner resources to help us meet those needs.


Which is where creative conversation can help – because we're not always able to pinpoint exactly which of our needs are in play, especially when emotions are high.


To find out how creative conversation works in clarifying needs, just progress through the course to Habit 5 – no rush!


The basic needs lens


Meanwhile, since there is and isn't consensus about this, we've drawn on the insights of all the individuals mentioned above to put together this list...



...that you can refer to throughout the course – and beyond.


The psychological/emotional needs are grouped according to 'Self' – those that you can satisfy as an individual – and 'Others', needs that can only be met by other people. Although you will notice that some needs are in both list (we did say that this is a disputed subject).


Which is part of what makes it so interesting.


And we promise – once you start to see human life through the lens of basic needs you'll find it hard to unsee it.


You might even grow to love it.

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