We need each other. We need others to survive; we need to be an included member of a group. As evolutionary psychologist Vladas Griskevicius and colleagues note, “Although some animals spend most of their lives as hermits, humans have always lived in groups.” We evolved to crave connection with others—to the point that our perceptions of ourselves in relationship to others are the underpinnings of all our needs. So, what does that mean for how we interact with others and live our daily lives?
We continuously scan our environment to assess if our needs are being and will continue to be met. When we perceive that meeting our needs is assured, we respond from love. If we perceive that meeting our needs is jeopardized, we respond from fear. Our physiology responds to social and physical threats in the same manner. The fear of physical harm AND the fear of social inadequacy elicit the same narrowed, focused attention—and other stress responses. Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson refers to feeling safe or at risk as operating in the green or red state, and explains that it is not just the perceived stressors but our appraisal of being able to meet those stressors that determines if we are operating in the green versus red state. Although we evolved to have green (love) as our resting state, modern demands have led many people to operate primarily from the red (fear) state. Based on the work of early and contemporary psychologists, I have organized our needs into three groups: (1) safety needs, (2) belonging needs, and (3) fulfillment needs.
Safety Needs: Our safety needs are those required for survival: they include physiological (such as sleep, food, water, air, etc.) and psychological (e.g., security, stability, protection, and predictability) needs. Many societal institutions are designed, although not always successfully or fairly, to assure the meeting of its members’ safety needs. We can all think of examples of being driven by our safety needs, such as being too hungry or tired to pay full attention to what was going on in our environment. For myself, my worst red (fear-driven) parenting moments occurred at 3:00am, when I feared I would never get the sleep I needed. And, because my fears had catastrophized the possible consequences (“I’ll never get to sleep again!”) I did not summon my love for my precious child and my response agitated both of us, extending the time we were awake—it turns out that yelling doesn’t help anyone fall asleep. When we feel that we can assure the meeting of our safety needs, we can operate from love; when our safely needs are (or appear) jeopardized, our fears draw our attention back to survival tasks.
Belonging Needs: Our belonging needs have two aspects. First, we need frequent and affirming interactions with the same individuals. And, second, we need these interactions to occur across time; we need stable experiences of care and concern. We are more likely to form connections with people with whom we engage in cooperative activities, who are in close proximity, with whom we spend time, and with whom we share an intense experience (even if it is an adverse experience). Because belonging is so important to us, we allocate substantial cognitive resources to monitoring our relationships. Emotions evolved to help us monitor and maintain our belonging to groups. When our lives consisted primarily of participating in a small insular tribe, it was easier to feel connected—to know our role and its value. In contemporary societies, it is harder to situate ourselves in a group, to feel that we belong and have worth. We move through various social contexts, playing different roles in each—often multiple times per day. Our fears hide and reveal our belonging needs. Conversely, when we feel that we belong to and are esteemed by a group, we feel connected and operate from love.
Fulfillment Needs: Fulfillment needs include needs for competency, knowledge, and self-actualization. When we feel competency, we feel mastery and joy in our accomplishments. I’ll never be a professional skier, but when skiing my best, I can get down a hard-for-me run with fluid, smooth turns. In these moments, I experience competency. I don’t need anyone else to have noticed, and don’t compare myself to anyone else—I am immersed in feeling joy in my own mastery. This sense of accomplishment drives me to continue practicing. Similarly, the need for knowledge drives us to learn, understand, and appreciate new things. And, self-actualization needs lead us to be true to and utilize our interests and talents in unique ways. Meeting our fulfillment needs leads to joy, pride, and satisfaction. And, these good feelings increase our ability to think creatively and divergently. Self-love helps us to recognize, prioritize, and celebrate our fulfillment needs. As our fulfillment needs are met, our awareness of our love for others increases and we are naturally inclined to tailor the expression of our talents in ways that benefit others. Meeting our own fulfillment needs also helps us to recognize, prioritize, and celebrate other people’s fulfillment needs. For example, aware of my joy in feeling competency while skiing, I seek to provide experiences for others (on or off the snow) where they can experience competency. And conversely, fear can lead to sabotaging our and others’ fulfillment needs.
Meeting Our Needs. Our needs for safety, belonging, and fulfillment overlap and interact with one another. For example, when I am not too hungry, I enjoy cooking. Given optimal conditions, I take pleasure in meeting the safety needs of myself and others by cooking a healthy meal, I strengthen my sense of belonging as I share the meal with others, and find fulfillment in creatively preparing food that is tasty and appealing. At other times, cramming a sports bar into my mouth as I drive, I meet my safety needs at a subsistence level and feel no belonging or fulfillment through the experience—instead, I feel alienated and depleted. It is at these busy and stressful times that I most need to (and am least likely to) reach out to others to reestablish my relationships. Remembering my needs, and that all other people share these needs, is a beginning to meeting my needs. When I take the time to listen to my needs and consider what I can do to meet those needs, I can greet others with love and support them in meeting their needs—even when it’s not 3:00am, rarely is yelling the choice I really want to make.