Motivation and emotion/Book/2022/Self-actualisation and motivation

Motivation and self-actualisation:
What motivates self-actualisation?


What allows people to become fulfilled? What motivates us to strive to become the best person we can? When a society champions and cultivates individuals' growth, these questions are increasingly attracting the interest of employers, educators and psychologists (Ivtzan et al., 2013). The notion that life's highest calling is fulfilling one's unique potential has been markedly appealing. This chapter investigates the motivational factors that engage people in pursuing the realisation of their fullest potential.

Focus questions:
  • What is self-actualisation?
  • What do psychological theories say about self-actualisation motivation?
  • What motivates self-actualisation?

What is self-actualisation?Edit

Self-actualisation is the process of achieving ones[grammar?] own full potential through creativity, autonomy, spontaneity and the establishment of ones[grammar?] goals and values (Tripathi & Moakumla, 2018).

Figure 1. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow, 1970)

Self-actualisation was first coined by Kurt Goldstein (1939; 1940), who viewed self actualisation as an innate and ultimate goal of every organism. It has now become a popular term within modern psychological and Humanism fields, with many theories and theorists seeking to understand it and the ways of promoting it within their clients.

Abraham Maslow (2013) proposed that in order for a person to become self-actualised, they must first have all other physiological, safety, belonging and esteem needs met. This is expressed through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and is visually represented in Figure 1, with self actualisation being the final stage. Maslow (2013) outlined key features that make self actualisation distinct, the expression and acceptance of one's inner self and minimal presence of ill health or psychopathology (e.g neurosis, psychosis etc.). Maslow (1970) investigated the qualities of self-actualised people had by examining key historical figures such as Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. Maslow (1970) found common characteristics of self-actualised people through their investigation are are explored below (Table 1).

Table 1.

Characteristics of self-actualised people (Maslow, 1970)

Characteristic Description
Efficent[spelling?] perception of reality Judge honestly and correctly, senstive[spelling?] to the superficial and dishonest.
Accepting Of self, others and nature, it's flaws and successes.
Independant Relies on self not society or culture to form views or opinions.
Spontaneous and natural Not perscribing[spelling?] to others wants, being true to oneself.
Autonoumos[spelling?] Independant[spelling?] and resourceful, do not rely upon others.
Task centered Focused on mission or goal to fufill in life.
Appreciative Continued renewal appreciation for all good things in life.
Meaningful interpersonal relationships Ability to cultivate and maintain deep loving bonds with others.
Comfortable with solitude Ability to value and be comfortable being alone.
Sense of humour (non-hostile) Ability to laugh at oneself or situation, not at others misfortune.
Peak experiences Frequent experiences marked by feelings of ecstacy, harmony and deep meaning.
Socially compassionate Ability to possess and showcase humanity.
Few friends Few close relationships rather than an abundance.
Gemeinschaftsgefühl A sense of oneness with humanity. With marked social interest and a community feeling.

Carl Rogers, a founder of the humanstic[spelling?] approach, offered a different perspective to Maslow of self-actualisation. Rogers (1995) proposed that a person has an 'actual' (who someone is) and 'ideal' (who someone aspries[spelling?] to be) self, and that in order to become self-actualised these selves to become unified. This process according to Rogers (1995), is not an end point as Maslow's hierarchy suggests, but an ongoing process of maintaining and enhancing the self. Rogers (1995) also believed that every organism has an actualising tendency, that is an innate drive to become self-actualised, and that interactions with others was vital to the process. Through this ongoing process a person is able to develop social competence and an interdependent autonomy. Eventually attaining the 'good life' and becoming a fully functioning person (Rogers, 1995).

Theories of self actualisation motivationEdit

There are many theoretical approaches and concepts that seek to explain how people are motivated to become self actualised.

Intrinsic motivationEdit

Intrinsic motivation is the concept of doing an activity for its inherent satisfaction and value rather than for an instrumental reward or consequence (Ryan & Deci, 2000). When a person is intrinsically motivated they will commit to an activity due to the fun, the challenge and the fulfilment that is associated with the activity. Intrinsic motivation is as crucial element in cognitive, social and physical development, as engaging in activities that are linked with one's inherent interests help to develop knowledge, and skills and extends ones capacities (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Intrinsic motivation is best observed through young infants, who will consistently interact with their environment and objects within it through grasping, biting, squashing or shouting (Oudeyer & Kaplan, 2009), expanding upon their capabilities, knowledge and skills with no reward or consequence.

Test your knowledge:

Which of the following is an example of intrinsic motivation?

Buying a PlayStation 5 to play games with friends
Working out to lose weight in time for summer
Attending a sewing class to learn new skills
Baking a cake to sell at the local markets

[What evidence is there about the relationship between intrinsic motivation and self-actualisation?]

Extrinsic motivationEdit

Extrinsic motivation is the concept of doing an activity in order to attain a separable outcome (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Instrumental outcomes are crucial to differentiate between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Instrumental outcomes could include undertaking activity to avoid consequences or sanctions or to obtain instrumental value, such as a reward, pay rise or praise. These outcomes are not in themselves inherently satisfying, fulfilling or have enjoyment in the way that activities associated with intrinsic motivation are. People who are extrinsically motivated will focus on compensation, punishment and rewards.

[What evidence is there about the relationship between extrinsic motivation and self-actualisation?]

Test your knowledge:

Which of the following is an example of extrinsic motivation?

Researching photography as its a personal interest
Attending university to attain a career with a higher pay
Attending university to expand personal knowledge and attain a rewarding career
Writing a book about dinosaurs to expand palaeontology knowledge

Self-determination theoryEdit

Self-determination theory represents a broad motivational theoretical framework that consists of other related sub-theories. Self-determination theory on it's[grammar?] own proposes that people are motivated to grow, change and to become self-determined (self-actualised) by three innate psychological needs, autonomy, competence and relatedness (see Table 2). The fulfilment of these needs are essential in the attainment and development of self-determination and a cohesive sense of self.

Table 2.

Self-determination theory psychological needs (Ryan & Deci, 2017; 2020).

Psychological needs Description
Autonomy To be in control of one's life, behaviours, actions and goals.
Competence Mastery, proficiency and attainment of skills.
Relatedness A sense of belonging and attachment to others.

[What evidence is there about the relationship between intrinsic motivation and self-actualisation?]

Case Study:

Jane has a wonderful relationship with her family and friends, spending most of her spare time chatting to them on the phone or going for catch ups at the local cafe. She is a very talented embroider and often makes her friends and family members pieces as presents for birthdays and other events. Jane has been feeling a lot of pressure from her family to continue to study law, she doesn't enjoy law and finds it stressful. Jane would love to have an embroidery business so she can have a career in something she actually enjoys. She feels she will never be able to pursue this career as her parents would disapprove, and that she wouldn't be able to make a substantial income.

Which of Jane's psychological needs are not being met, according to self-determination theory?


Self-determination theory involves both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, proposing that rather than separate entities these motivations are a part of a continuum. This continuum allows for a relationship and interactions between them, which impact upon the ability to become self-determined. For example, if a person is intrinsically motivated to complete a task, and then is extrinsically rewarded, this would result in a decrease in their autonomy and in turn their self-determination. These motivations have corresponding behaviours, intrinsic motivation promotes self-determined behaviours and extrinsic motivation to non-self-determined behaviours, each of which produces its own regulatory styles, locus of causality and regulatory processes. These can be examined further in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Self-determination motivational continuum, outlining regulatory styles, locus of causality and relevant regulatory processes.

A person's relationships and interactions with others can play a vital role in fostering or hindering their well-being and personal growth. Ryan & Deci (2017; 2020) work proposes that social support is essential in providing positive intrinsic outcomes. Positive encouragement and feedback from others were shown to aid in a person's competency and can increase intrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2017; 2020).

Wehmeyer & Powers (2007) study outlined four characteristics that self-determined people express through their behaviour and is explored in Table 3.

Table 3.

Traits of self-determined people (Wehmeyer & Powers, 2007).

Trait Description
Locus of control High autonomy. Ability to overcome challenges.
High self-motivation Intrinsically motivated.
Engage with goals Engage in actions and behaviours that aid in the completion of goals.
Responsibility Take responsibility for their actions, wins and losses.

[What evidence is there about the relationship between intrinsic motivation and self-actualisation?]

Sub-theories of self-determination theoryEdit

There are a range of sub-theories relating to the theory self-determination, which are briefly explained below and can be seen in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Self-determination sub-theories

Basic needs theoryEdit

Focuses on three psychological needs, autonomy, confidence and relatedness and their relationship with intrinsic motivation, effective functioning, high quality engagement, and psychological well-being (Reeve, 2012).

Organismic integration theoryEdit

Proposes that four types of extrinsic motivations contribute to the socialisation of a person. Providing external motivations for people to willingly engage in activities that they may not enjoy (Reeve, 2012).

Cognitive evaluation theoryEdit

Cognitive evaluation theory is proposed by Ryan & Deci (2000) and focuses primarily on the competence and autonomy psychological needs. Cognitive evaluation theory specifically addresses facilitation or hindrance of intrinsic motivation through external events. It comprises of three propositions which outline how events can undermine or facilitate intrinsic motivation.

Goal contents theoryEdit

The understanding of a persons reasoning behind selecting and pursuing their goals. The method of comparison between beneficial and negative outcomes associated with intrinsic and external goals respectively (Reeve, 2012).

Causality orientations theoryEdit

Proposes differences in the way people motivate themselves is dependent on their personality. With three orientation styles helping people decide on goals, autonomy, control, and impersonal (Reeve, 2012).

Self-discrepancy theoryEdit

Edward Tory Higgins' self-discrepancy theory (1987) states that people can experience emotional discomfort when comparing their 'actual', 'ideal' and 'ought' self (see Table 4), these discomforts are due to gap between the self-representations. The theory states that a person will feel motivated to become more aligned with their representational selves (actual, ideal and ought), through the negative emotional experiences of being unaligned (Higgins, 1987). In particular, the discrepancy between the 'actual' and 'ideal' selves is often what motivates people to take action, change and improve. The discrepancies between the three selves can produce differing negative emotional outcomes which are explained in Table 5.

Table 4.

Representational selves (Higgins, 1987).

Representational self Description
Actual A person's perception of their personal attributes.
Ideal An idealised set of attributes a person would like to have.
Ought A representation of attributes the person believes (every) one should or ought to possess.

Table 5.

Discrepancies and emotional outcomes (Higgins, 1987).

Discrepancy Emotional outcome
Actual vs ideal Disappointment, dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, frustration and depression
Actual vs ought Self-dissastifaction[spelling?], guilt, self-contempt, uneasiness and self-criticism
Actual vs actual Identity crisis and guilt.
Ideal vs ought Stress
Case Study:

Annabelle is a new mother, after 8 weeks of maternity leave she is ready to enter the workforce again. Annabelle begins to feel stressed. She wants to return to work as she wants to have a successful and fulfilling career as a dentist. Annabelle also feels a sense of duty and obligation to be home with her son full-time.

What type of discrepancy is Annabelle experiencing?

Actual vs Ought
Actual vs Ideal.
Actual vs Actual.
Ideal vs Ought.


Carl Rogers (1995) outlined that a motivational driver behind self-actualisation, [grammar?] was for a person to become congruent with their 'actual' and 'ideal' self. The actual self refers to a persons[grammar?] current concept of their self, their values, beliefs, actions and behaviours. While the ideal self refers to who the person aspires to be (Rogers, 1995)[grammar?]. When these concepts are not aligned with each other, a person experiences incongruence, negative emotions (such as depression or anxiety) associated with the gap between the ideal and actual self (Rogers, 1995). These negative emotions motivate people to become congruent and begin the pursuit of alignment and self-actualisation.

The fully functioning personEdit

A fully functioning person is a concept developed by Carl Rogers in which a person actively works towards self-actualisation, functioning freely and continually aiming to fulfil their potential (Rogers, 1963). The concept outlines that a fully functioning person is continually intrinsically motivated by the journey and process of becoming self-actualised (Rogers, 1963). A fully functioning person does not commit to the journey to attain a reward or to avoid a consequence. Instead, the journey of continuous development and life itself becomes intrinsically fulfilling and satisfying.

A fully functioning person is committed to the process of continuous development in which they focus on increasing and developing the aspects found in Table 6 (Rogers, 1995):

Table 6.

Aspects of a fully functioning person (Rogers,1995).

Aspect Description
An increasing openness to experience The ability to fully live the human experience through ownership and acceptance, without a defensive barrier.
An increasingly existential living The ability to live in the moment, true to oneself rather than to other preconceived ideas of how to have a successful life.
An increasing trust in their organism The ability to trust oneself without relying on social norms or narratives.
An increasing of freedom of choice The ability to maintain autonomy, and freedom to choose one's own path, with the knowledge that the choices will have an impact on their life.
Creativity The ability to create, not only in physical form but by adapting and creating solutions to problems, rather than relying on the need to conform.
Reliability and constructiveness The ability to understand one's needs and emotions, engage with them in a constructive manner, balance them and use them appropriately.
A greater richness of life The ability to soak up all the experiences in life, finding fulfilment in the range and breadth of the human experience, from sadness, ecstasy, happiness, anger and so on.

Case study:

Four years ago Ben was involved in a car accident, in which he narrowly escaped with his life. Before the accident Ben held a lot of resentment towards others in his life, often blaming them for the negative experiences in his life. He felt that he was unable to live up to others' expectations of him, working a 9 to 5 job, getting married, buying a house and having children. Ben would often lash out at others during stressful times, especially when pressed on his career, relationships and aspirations. Ben was unsure of what or who he wanted to be and did not trust himself to make the best decisions for his life.

After the incident, Ben's outlook on life changed. He began to understand that, he has the ability to live life and become the person he wanted to be. Ben set to ignore the previous expectations set upon him, and soak up all life had to offer. He began to write and recite poems at the local town hall, something he had always wanted to do. This brought him a great sense of fulfilment. Ben still gets stressed from time to time and focuses that energy on exercise and poetry rather than lashing out at people. Ben is grateful that he is able to experience the breadth of emotions and utilises them for his poetry. Ben feels as if for the first time in his life he is succeeding and he is loving every minute of it.

ERG theory of motivationEdit

ERG theory developed by Clayton Alderfer offers a re-development to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Alderfer proposed a characterisation of Maslow's hierarchy into Existence, Relatedness and Growth (Alderfer, 1969). These categories are explained further in Table 7. Along with the re-characterisation, Alderfer also proposed progression and regression as part of the ERG (Alderfer, 1969). This established the concept, that once lower needs are satisfied a person will invest more into a higher category in the hopes to satisfy. Conversely, when the needs of a higher category become frustrated the person will regress and invest more into the lower category to strengthen it, in the hopes of satisfying the higher need later (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Alderfer's ERG Theory - showcases the three categories, existence, relatedness, growth, and their relationships of satisfaction and strengthening.

Table 7.

ERG theory categorisation, definition and related features of Maslow's hierarchy (Alderfer, 1969).

Category Definition Features of Maslow's hierarchy
Existence Needs concerning the basic material required for human survival Physiological and safety needs
Relatedness Needs concerning the desire for maintaining or establishing interpersonal relationships Belongingness, love and extrinsic self-esteem needs
Growth Needs concerning the desire for personal development. Intrinsic self-esteem and self actualisation needs

Case Study:

Dean is a park ranger and is constantly seeking new places to explore. He takes his health and physicality very seriously and prides himself on his ability to hike long trails. Earlier this year Dean and his wife separated, ever since he has been focused on the park its upkeep and development of new hiking trails. He has been experiencing feelings of depression and loneliness since the separation and doesn't have any real friends, family members or work colleagues to talk too. He feels that no one will like him, and suffers from low self-esteem.

Which of Deans needs is not being met according to ERG theory?


What motivates self-actualisation?Edit

This is a question that theorists have pondered over, resulting in a range of theoretical perspectives. Utilising these theories together provides a framework of key concepts which determine motivation.

The fully functioning person, self-determination and its sub-theories outline the pursuit of the intrinsic as a key to determining motivation (Reeve, 2012; Rogers,1995; Ryan & Deci, 2000; 2017; 2020).

Conceptual selves and their relationship play a role in determining motivation. Theories such as congruence and self-discrepancy outline the motivational impact of negative feelings. These feelings are avoided with the alignment of the selves, the actual, ideal and ought (Higgins, 1987; Rogers, 1995).

The satisfaction of needs can also determine a person's motivation. ERG theory and Maslow's hierarchy suggest that satisfying basic needs are a motivating factor (Alderfer, 1969; Maslow, 1970). Self-determination theory outlines that actualising motivation relies upon satisfying autonomy, competence, and relatedness needs (Ryan & Deci, 2000; 2017; 2020).

Traits aiding in the maintenance of self actualisation are explored through a range of theories. Including, self-determination and Carl Rogers's fully functioning person. Being autonomous plays a vital role across these theoretical perspectives (Rogers 1963; 1995; Ryan & Deci, 2000; 2017; 2020). Traits such as responsibility, acceptance, creativity, and intrinsic engagement also help to maintain fulfilment (Rogers, 1995; Ryan & Deci, 2000; 2017; 2020; Wehmeyer & Powers, 2007).


Self actualisation is a process of achieving one's fullest potential. Achieving this requires intrinsic motivation. This motivation has been explored by a range of theories discussed above. These theories provide concepts that help us understand self actualisation motivation. People can be motivated to avoid negative emotions. In turn pursuing the alignment of self, a satisfaction of needs and intrinsic goals. People are also motivated to develop a sense of autonomy, belonging and richness in life. To embrace all that life has to offer through creativity, relationships and intrinsic interests.

Ultimately, the pursuit of self actualisation is the greatest aspirational goal one can achieve. For people to become motivated they must seek the intrinsic in all aspects of their life. This will provide the drive for a person to experience a greater richness of life.

See alsoEdit


Alderfer, C. P. (1969). An empirical test of a new theory of human needs. Organizational behavior and human performance, 4(2), 142-175.

Goldstein, K. (1939). The organism: A holistic approach to biology derived from pathological data in man. American Book Publishing.

Goldstein, K. (1940). Human nature in the light of psychopathology. Harvard Univ. Press.

Higgins, E. T. (1987). Self-discrepancy: A theory relating self and affect. Psychological Review, 94(3), 319–340.

Ivtzan, I., Gardner, H., Bernard, I., Sekhon, M., & Hart, R. (2013). Wellbeing through self-fulfilment: Examining developmental aspects of self-actualization. The Humanistic Psychologist, 41(2), 119-132.

Krems, J. A., Kenrick, D. T., & Neel, R. (2017). Individual perceptions of self-actualization: What functional motives are linked to fulfilling one’s full potential? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(9), 1337–1352.

Maslow, A.H. (1970). Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper & Row.

Oudeyer, P. Y. (2007). What is intrinsic motivation? A typology of computational approaches. Frontiers in Neurorobotics, 1.

Reeve, J. (2012). A self-determination theory perspective on student engagement. In S. L. Christenson, A. L. Reschly, & C. Wylie (Eds.), Handbook of research on student engagement (pp. 149–172). Springer Science + Business Media.

Rogers, C. R. (1995). On becoming a person: A therapist's view of psychotherapy. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Rogers, C. R. (1963). The concept of the fully functioning person. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 1(1), 17.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2020, April). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation from a self-determination theory perspective: Definitions, theory, practices, and future directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 61, 101860.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. The Guilford Press.

Sheldon, K., & Kasser, T. (2008). Psychological threat and extrinsic goal striving. Motivation And Emotion, 32(1), 37-45.

Tripathi, N., & Moakumla, . (2018). A Valuation of Abraham Maslow's Theory of Self-Actualization for the Enhancement of Quality of Life. Indian Journal Of Health And Wellbeing, 9(3), 499-504. Retrieved from

External linksEdit