Psychological needs

I am the co-manager of an online forum for South Australian mental health professionals called the Psychology and Health Forum. The forum has a blog section that I write in occasionally. I posted this today on that blog. Thought it was worth repeating here as well.

I thought I’d spend a bit of time today reflecting on psychological needs. 

I understand psychological needs as conditions or experiences we need in order to be healthy and happy. 

They are the mental equivalent of physical needs – air, water, food, shelter – without which we would get sick and die. 

Superficially, we might assume that failure to get our psychological needs met isn’t as catastrophic as not getting our physical needs met, but I am not so sure. 

Belonging/relatedness is a psychological need – feeling like we are a part of something, part of a group, attached meaningfully to others. The opposite – social isolation/disconnection/loneliness – is incredibly bad for our health and by some accounts a modern epidemic

Having meaning and purpose is a psychological need. Without direction in life, we are easily guided by forces that prioritise our immediate gratification at the expense of health: junk food, alcohol, drugs. They can easily kill us, albeit typically slowly. 

Autonomy is a psychological need – the feeling we are at least partial masters of our destiny, agents of choice in our own lives. Without some control, we quickly become hopeless, which has depression and helplessness as its endpoints. 

So the idea that we can survive without our psychological needs being met, is in my mind, false. 

So what are our psychological needs?

The list I carry in my head has 13 at present:

  • competence – being good at stuff and having capacity to grow and get better
  • autonomy – being a agent of change in one’s own life
  • relatedness – feeling connected to others
  • achievement – being recognised for our contributions to the world
  • engagement – feeling connected to the things we do
  • feeling good – having moments of hedonic happiness
  • security/order – a sense of predictability
  • self-esteem – a sense that we have worth as a person
  • meaning and purpose – knowing what we are supposed to do with our lives
  • creativity – bringing something unique and new to the world
  • aesthetics – being in contact with the beauty of the world (nature) and of human endeavour (e.g. art)
  • internal consistency – a sense that our beliefs and behaviours are in sync
  • Adventure – feeling like we are on a path to discovery

There is overlap between these. I also think we differ in the extent to which different needs are important to us. Some people prize predictability and routine, whilst others court constant adventure.

Over time, as I’ve reflected on these, I’ve been able to identify times in my life when some of these needs weren’t being met and the impacts of that. 

For example, I went for a long time without having a true creative endeavour –  I was bringing nothing unique to the world. That left me in a true funk. It took starting a new job and returning to projects like this blog for me to feel like I was making a unique contribution again.  

I would say I am currently in a place where I feel a little disconnected from the world (relatedness) and have been taking specific steps to re-connect with the people important to me to address this before that sense of isolation kicks in.

When I self-reflect I can also understand recent changes in my life and how those changes helped meet some underlying psychological needs. For example, tidying up my finances and starting to invest gave me a much greater sense of security/order. Decluttering my home and building my garden brought powerful aesthetic forces into my life. 

It is easy in life to get caught up on the minutiae of everyday life. However digging under the tasks of everyday life and asking ‘which psychological needs are these tasks meeting (or not meeting)?’ can be powerful process. You realise that the psychological demands of life aren’t always operating to meet your psychological needs.

It works the other way as well though. You can read the list of psychological needs and ask yourself if there are people, activities, situations in your life that are helping you meet that psychological need. Do you have people with whom you feel closely connected? Do you have a sense of meaning and purpose? Do you feel your behaviour and your internal world are in sync?

I’ll return to the topic of psychological needs, when I start work on Chapter 5, looking at the purpose of self-improvement.

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