What Do You Want? (The Pyramid of Human Desires)

Let me start with a bold declaration. Each of us – every human being – wants to be healthy, happy, and in harmonious relationships with others and the world around us. Of course, we pursue many other things, like sex, wealth, power, status, and immortality, but these are only derivative and secondary as compared to our desire for health, happiness, and harmony.

Our desire for health is probably beyond argument. No one wants to be sick or injured, to live with chronic pain or terminal illness. True enough, we don’t always (or even very often, consistently) do those things that support and promote our health – and by this I primarily mean our physical health. We may have grown up in a household where junk food was a staple and portions were not controlled.

So even if we don’t do, or even know what and how to do what would make us healthy, we still want to be healthy.

When it comes to our desire for happiness, this too might be indisputable except for the fact that we all seem to hold different definitions and pursue it in ways that are in many instances radically divergent. And if a certain percentage of humans are unhealthy, it would seem that an even higher percentage are unhappy – by which I don’t mean just momentarily anxious, frustrated, disappointed, or grieved, but chronically (even in some cases clinically) so.

All around us is news of tension, conflicts, violence, and suffering, generating unhappiness on large scales: Bad people doing evil things to hurt other people who don’t deserve it. We have only to look into our own lives, however, to understand that this kind of consequential unhappiness – unhappiness that follows as a consequence of other things – is not the full picture. In fact, these very things are themselves clear symptoms of an underlying and antecedent unhappiness.

People hurt other people and cause unhappiness because they are already unhappy themselves, and are either trying to make themselves happy by taking control and manipulating others, or else by spreading their unhappiness to others in hopes of feeling less lonely in their own misery.

In the list of things every human being wants – health, happiness, and harmony with others and the world around us – is an implied hierarchy of value: the Pyramid of Human Desires.

Health is most basic and provides a foundation for the others. When we are healthy, our energy and attention can be turned toward things that interest and inspire us, things that excite us to learn and challenge us to grow, things that motivate us to live generously and take personal responsibility.

These are things that support and promote our happiness in life. To be clear, we don’t (and can’t) find happiness in these things. In other words, our unhappy craving will not find satisfaction in them if we pick them up and gobble them down with the expectation that they will make us happy at last, or lastingly happy.

Similarly, when we are happy, the way we engage with others and the world around us is more harmonious than when we are not happy. If instead of coming to others and the world around us with a preexisting cultivated sense of happiness, we try to find our happiness in others and in the world around us – because we don’t have it yet or know what it really is – we will cause damage and harm to others as well as to ourselves.

The harmony we seek, in other words, is dependent in many ways on our ability to cultivate happiness and share it with others.

This would suggest that large-scale and chronic conflicts among humans and human groups (races, tribes, sects, nations, and parties), along with the widespread suffering they cause, can be traced in their causality to a failure in managing our own individual happiness. We mistakenly believe that something or someone outside us will make us happy – or perhaps merely less anxious, frustrated, disappointed, or depressed – and acting on this mistaken belief is what generates (or at least perpetuates) our tensions and conflicts with others and the world around us.

Which brings us back down the Pyramid, to the desire for and commitment to our health. Each step downward confirms a second principle in play, to the one just reviewed in going up.

Just as harmony with others and the world around us provides a salutary context for happiness in life, so does the cultivation of happiness sustain in each of us a chronic mood of inner calm and centered awareness. The science of psychosomatic health verifies just how essential is our chronic mood – and by that is meant the baseline internal state and emotional energy of our nervous system – to our general physical health. Many dysfunctions and diseases of the body can be understood and best treated as signs of an underlying systemic (i.e., psychosomatic or “mind-body”) imbalance.

Before we can effectively address and resolve the conflicts among us, we need to bring to this work the gift of our own happiness and a deep commitment to the cultivation of inner peace. The wisdom traditions of the world have taught this for millenniums. If you take a second look at this shared depository of spiritual wisdom, you’ll soon begin to see the Pyramid of Human Desires (health, happiness, and harmony with others and the world around us) bringing it all into focus.

Published by tractsofrevolution

Thanks for stopping by! My formal training and experience are in the fields of philosophy (B.A.), spirituality (M.Div.), and counseling (M.Ed.), but my passionate interest is in what Abraham Maslow called "the farther reaches of our human nature." Tracts of Revolution is an ongoing conversation about this adventure we are all on -- together: becoming more fully human, more fully alive. I'd love for you to join in!

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