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To Flourish, Humans Are Motivated by Four Universal Needs

Are you satisfying these needs at work? Could you?

Key points

  • Psychology research has revealed four universal human needs related to flourishing and living one's best life.
  • Although these needs are not necessary for survival, they are necessary for job satisfaction.
  • Whether for yourself or those you lead, the set of universal human needs is a useful checklist for evaluating the likelihood of job satisfaction.

One area of psychological research focuses on people’s needs, which lead to motivations. Results indicate that there are universal needs that transcend cultures and history, motivating humans in general to do what it takes to satisfy them. Primary on the list are survival needs, such as food, water, shelter, and safety. Once these needs are met, however, what does it take for people to flourish, feeling most engaged and that they are living their best life?

The Big 4 Universal Needs Related to Flourishing

Different writers may use varied terminology to describe what has become known as the “Big 4” universal human needs or motivations. I’ve taken the liberty of using pairs of terms that each start with the letter C, with hopes that doing so makes them more memorable. (There is no particular order of importance on this list.)

  • The first we might refer to as Contribution or Calling. That is, we need to feel as though our life has meaning or purpose. That isn’t to say that it has to be a grandiose sense of importance, but rather that what we do means something to others or to the world generally; that what we do is productive and purposeful.
  • The second universal need we might call Choice or Control. Generally we prefer more rather than less choice and more control over what we do and how we do it. In fact, humans tend to actively resist encroachment on their autonomy.
  • The third universal need could be termed Competence or Capability. That is, it is important to feel as though we do a pretty good job at what is important to us, and perhaps at least as important is the perception that we are improving or have opportunities to grow more effective.
  • Last on our list is Connection or Community. It’s not that we need to be liked by everyone, but it is important to have a set of people who like and respect us; a group we consider our tribe.

These Big 4 universal needs or motivations apply to all of us, but there is probably variation in their relative importance to each person. If I asked you to rank order the four from most to least important, your rankings would probably not perfectly match mine.

How to Use the Big 4 Yourself

Knowing about the Big 4 allows us to use them as a checklist for evaluating our current job, a possible promotion, or a potential new job. It’s not a must that our job satisfies all four needs, but given how much time we spend at work, it would be ideal if it did. The greater the extent to which all four needs are connected to your work, the greater your likely job satisfaction. To promote retention, job satisfaction, and professional development for those you lead or supervise, consider how the Big 4 needs relate to each person’s roles and tasks and modify accordingly.

What if your work doesn’t satisfy one or more of the essential motivations? Are there other aspects of your life that do, or that could? Are there ways you might alter your work in light of what aspects of the Big 4 seem lacking? If not, are there possibilities for a more rewarding move, either inside or outside your organization?

Of course it is possible to maintain a position that does not offer much with regard to satisfaction of the Big 4 needs, and your choice to do so may have to do with meeting other needs (like a reasonable income). However, to flourish, it is worth asking, at least on occasion, how the Big 4 relate to your current situation, with an eye toward proactively making changes to maximize your engagement and life satisfaction.

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