It’s a simple question. What motivates people? In broad terms there is a notion that there should be some purpose in life, some reason for getting up every day and living. Such reasons are best left to philosophy, which is not the avenue I wish to explore. I want to get to the underlying core of it, the central nature of why we do what we do. I am going to argue that self-preservation is the underlying motive in life and has an impact on our social relationships.

Maslow’s theory on human motivation presents a hierarchy of needs as a five-level pyramid (see diagram below). The most basic needs (eating, drinking, breathing, excretion, sleeping, sex, shelter, warmth) are at the bottom. The next four levels are a progression to higher needs, which can only be met when the lower needs have been satisfied. The concept is that once needs in a given level are met, a person moves to the next higher level and seeks to have those needs met. Most people exist in a transition between levels, however, a person in any given level never regresses to a lower level. A person may temporarily replace a need in his/her level for a need in the lower levels, should life circumstances necessitate it.

This is all well and good, and it is a reasonable theory, but I don’t wish to go too deeply in complexity. I wanted to use it as a background to define some needs and what the stages of needs might be. The main question still remains, what motivates people? It would seem that a desire to fulfill immediate needs and a progression to fulfill higher needs is a strong motivation. It seems to me that there will always be some tradeoff for higher needs compared to basic needs. Hence, there is always some basic lower level need that requires attention, and is prioritized over some higher need. When emotionally stressed the sense of self-preservation takes over at the expense of higher goals. This definitely has an impact on social relationships and can cause misunderstanding between people. The goals that we aspire to play an important part in relationship dynamics.

Why do people do what they do? They do what they do because sometimes they have the luxury of being altruistic, but most often because it is in their own best interest – the need for self-preservation. This kind of encapsulates my premise that self-preservation is the underlying motive in life. Not altruism, but satisfying oneself. There is nothing wrong with this and it is natural and understandable. The extended question we must all ask of ourselves, is whether our needs define us? Can we aspire above our own needs and progress to higher ideals? Do our own needs take precedence over the needs of others? What in this world has ever prepared us for this question? What kind of world would it be if we all decided to give rather than receive, no matter what, even if our self-preservation were to be at risk? Maybe that is the highest goal, the top of the pyramid in human motivation, perhaps to aspire towards a level beyond – the needs of others over our own.