A comparison of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, Peak Experience, and Csikszentmihalyi's Concept of Flow

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Self-actualization is the ability of humans to realize their full potential. Abraham Maslow described it as the human ambition to seek self-actualization and to become everything that one is capable of being. Both Maslow and Csikszentmihalyi discuss how one achieves self-actualization through their ideas of Peak Experience and Flow; however, their interpretations vary, and Maslow is shown to provide further proof of his model.
Maslow claimed that only a few individuals are capable of experiencing self-actualization, citing Albert Einstein and Abraham Lincoln as examples. He also highlighted traits that can be found in people who had reached the self-actualization stage. The characteristics include very original, creative thinkers, and spontaneous, being prepared to face the truth and reality, accepting of themselves and others, gentle-humored, interested in solving problems, happy with their own company, lacking in prejudice, entirely autonomous, have a few deep personal friendships, and not likely to ‘follow the crowd’ (Bland and DeRobertis).

Peak Experiences

Maslow explains that peak experiences are sudden feelings of well-being and intense happiness, with an awareness of the unity of all things and ultimate truth. He described that self-actualizers are the people who are most likely to have a peak experience, which he believes is an experience that can take a person out of their inner self and make them feel both eternal and in touch with their spiritual nature. Such persons feel that they are part of the infinite. According to Nyameh, people that are assumed to have peak experience are seen to have a sense of control over their body and emotions, a feeling of awe, a high sense of awareness, and marvel at the oneness with the whole world (39). He adds that these people have encountered the essence of all things or the ultimate truth. Maslow divided peak experiences into two forms, which include the relative and the absolute. In the relative, the person still has an awareness of both subjects and objects. It is usually like an extension of previous experiences. On the other hand, the absolute involves a spiritual experience that lacks space and time and involves a feeling of unity with all subjects and objects (Nyameh 42). Maslow’s investigations also established that persons who were noted to have peak experiences were always positive and never negative, they were also timeless and had accompanied by a loss of doubt, fear, and anxiety. Such persons felt fortunate or blessed, and the experience changed their views since it reaffirmed the worthiness of their life. Maslow also believed that all persons could have a peak experience; however, many denied ever experiencing one.

Maslow stated that self-actualization is not easy to attain – firstly, an individual needs to go through and accomplish the hierarchy of needs before they could achieve the final stage which is self-actualization. The defined needs are intuitive, and Maslow believed that the right environment would enable people to grow up real and straight as they fulfill their potential. Some of the needs defined are biological and basic, and they are the strongest since nothing can follow without them. There are also low-level needs, and together, the needs address a spiritual understanding as well as other issues. Maslow’s hierarchies of needs are physiological, safety, belonging and love, esteem, cognitive, and aesthetic. Physiological involve the individual having his/her primary needs and functions; oxygen, water, food, and rest. Safety relates to a sense of shelter, security, comfort, and employment. Belonging and love associates with personal relationships, family, sexual intimacy, and feeling welcome. Esteem includes a sense of achievement, recognition, worth, and respect. Cognitive is a desire for understanding and knowledge of the mattes of the world. Lastly, aesthetic involves an understanding of symmetry, order, and beauty (Bland and DeRobertis).

Generally, for Maslow, self-actualizers are persons who have reached their full potential since they are achieving what they were primarily destined for and they have a sense of respect and humility, linked to a strong code of ethics.

Csikszentmihalyi's Concept of Flow

On the other hand, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found out that people find real happiness and satisfaction during a state of consciousness which he referred to as “Flow." People that are in this state are usually absorbed in an activity which is in touch with their creativity. The state, which is an optimal experience, makes people feel alert, strong, unselfconscious, in effortless control, and at the peak of their innate abilities. Similar to the sentiments of Maslow, Csikszentmihalyi insists that to gain happiness is not easy and it must be cultivated by and prepared for each person; by setting challenges that are neither too simple no too demanding for one's abilities.

While the research conducted by Csikszentmihalyi focuses on creative output and the area of work, Bland and DeRobertis (101) explain that Csikszentmihalyi sees the flow status applying to situations and relationships; even adversity times can transform into a productive challenge rather than an impediment. Csikszentmihalyi adds that certain people have developed their flow to the extent that they can successfully translate potential threat into a challenge that is pleasing, and in so doing maintain a central serenity as a vivid and continuous state of mind. Csikszentmihalyi refers to such an individual as an “autotelic self,” meaning a person who is rarely anxious, never bored, involved with all matters, and is mostly inflow. It is possible for a person to believe that such a state is only reserved for a few great people such as the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, or Socrates; but in fact, Csikszentmihalyi gives the examples of ordinary people who find delight daily while working on everyday tasks. He adds by pointing to five ways through which people can cultivate their self into autotelic individuals. They include setting goals that have immediate and clear feedback, being immersed in a particular activity, paying attention to factors that happen at the moment, learning to take pride in direct experience, and proportioning skills to immediate challenges (Nyameh 40).

Csikszentmihalyi comes to a conclusion which is similar to that of Maslow: that true happiness can only come from within oneself. Cakmak, et al. assert that Csikszentmihalyi points to methods in which people have unsuccessfully attempted to find happiness through assigning significance and power to things that are outside their control. According to Csikszentmihalyi, the key to joy derives from how people invest their psychic energy. When people focus their attention on a goal that is consciously chosen, their intellectual energy flows in the direction of the goal, resulting in a harmony and re-ordering of the consciousness.

Both Maslow`s peak experience and Csikszentmihalyi's flow present optimal experiences that we know of. The experiences describe exciting and intense joyous moments in the lives of individuals. In such moments, people feel integrated, whole, and aware of themselves and deeply happy. Both peak experience and flow express a sense of awe, transcendence, meaningfulness, and unity in life. Maslow and Csikszentmihalyi confidently express experiences of a spiritual quality about their optimal experiences. Intense occurrences usually inspire the peak moments. They typically include moments of exposure to great music, art, feelings of love, or the great beauty of nature or even memories of tragic events.

Similar to Csikszentmihalyi in connection to flow, Maslow believed that all persons are capable of experiencing peak experiences; however, persons who achieved self-actualization are more likely to experience them. Despite the fact that many characteristics such as absorption, loss of time, and spontaneity are shared, peak experience differs from the concept of flow in the presence of the rarity of its occurrence, the sense of self, and having a close to mystical quality regarding it.

By looking at both works, it is certain that different from Csikszentmihalyi with his concept of flow, Maslow believes that the peak experience is a good thing. Maslow indicates that the experience is mystical, rare, exciting, deeply moving, and lifting. Besides, he argues that when a person has a peak experience in such moments, he/she becomes a self-actualizer. During the peak experiences, any person temporarily takes on many of the characteristics found to be self-actualizing individuals. Besides, as Maslow indicates, any person who is at the peak experience is less irrational and more creative. Also, while observing Maslow`s research, he emphasizes that the peak-experience makes one more accepting and more loving, and so he becomes innocent, spontaneous, and more honest (Cakmak 608).

Alternatively, Csikszentmihalyi discusses the dangers associated with the flow. He claims that enjoyable activities that can produce flow have a side that comes with an adverse effect. As much as they are capable of improving the life of a person by creating order in one`s mind, they are capable of becoming addictive, at a point where the self-becomes a captive of an order that is imposed and is thus unwilling to cope with life`s ambiguities. Like everything else, the flow experience is not good. It is only productive in that it can make one`s life more meaningful, intense, and productive; it is good since it increases the complexity and strengths of the self (Cakmak 607).


Maslow produces a better explanation of peak experiences, which are sudden feelings of well-being and intense happiness, with a personal awareness of an ultimate truth and the unity of all things. He further defines as self actualization, which is a desire to fulfill the fullest potential. In connection to Csikszentmihalyi, he states that people find real happiness and satisfaction during a "Flow," which is a state of consciousness. However, unlike Maslow, he believes that this peak feeling of fulfillment is dangerous and should not be attained.

Works Cited

Bland, Andrew M., and Eugene M. DeRobertis. "Maslow’s Unacknowledged Contributions to Developmental Psychology." Journal of Humanistic Psychology (2017): 0022167817739732.

Cakmak, Esra, et al. "Overview of the Dissertation Process within the Framework of Flow Theory: A Qualitative Study." Educational Sciences: Theory and Practice 15.3 (2015): 607-620.

Jerome, Nyameh. "Application of the Maslow’s hierarchy of need theory; impacts and implications on organizational culture, human resource and employee’s performance." International Journal of Business and Management Invention 2.3 (2013): 39-45.

September 21, 2021


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