Jan 22, 2010

Basic Human Psychological Needs

My experience hiking the PCT in 2009 provided me the perfect setting to reflect upon basic human psychological needs. For over four months I lived a scaled-back existence comprised of simple tasks like walking (for roughly 12 hours a day), eating, sleeping, basic hygiene and gear maintenance, and basic logistics. In addition to the simple everyday tasks, I spent much time talking to other people and sharing experiences. Our conversations alternated between the mundane, the humorous, the raunchy, the social, the personal, and the philosophical.

Here is a summary of the needs I discovered through introspection and comparison with "normal" city life.

Physical needs
(I leave out obvious needs such as "eating, drinking, sleeping, sex")

  1. Physical interaction with one's environment. We have bodies that our built for physical interaction with our surroundings, and we feel better (physically, mentally, and emotionally) when we use them in this way for at least a couple hours a day. This includes large body movements (working out, physical labor, sports, dancing, etc.) and fine motor movements (arts and crafts, playing musical instruments, building things).
  2. Outdoor visual stimulation. It is a natural thing to want to go on a walk and look at the world around you and see what's happening in one's habitat. A stroll through one's neighborhood or a large outdoor market or any place where people congregate is enough for more socially oriented people, while others need to have more natural visual backdrops and need to take walks in parks and forests. 20 to 30 minutes a day is about the minimum.
Social needs
  1. Friendly interaction. The basic minimum is one conversation with a friend per day (for me at least). A "friend" is defined as someone with whom you can let down your barriers and speak and act spontaneously. After two full days with no friendly connections mental fatigue sets in. Normal activities lose their allure, and one really starts to feel down.
  2. Superficial interaction. It turns out friends are not enough. One needs to interact with other people at different levels of intimacy. 4 or 5 superficial interactions a day with strangers or people you don't know well can fill this need (for me at least). You practice developing your social persona, being useful to strangers and receiving utility from them, and sharing information with a wider social circle.
  3. Solitude. Not surprisingly, one tires of continual social interaction. I personally prefer to spend about half of my time alone "doing my own thing." Not getting enough solitude leads to irritability and moodiness. Getting too much of it leads to mental fatigue and deprivation. Solitude does not necessarily mean the absence of people. If two or more people are comfortable enough with each other to not have to always talk or otherwise interact when they are together, then one may attain a state of solitude in the companionship of others. Solitude allows one to think clearly and deeply, engage in complex activity, and feel centered.
Intellectual needs

This category seems to be the weakest of the three, meaning that one can forego them the longest with the least ill-effects. They are also very hard to tease from social needs because they are usually filled through social interaction.
  1. Exchanging information independent of the present time and place. A long but accurate definition. One finds oneself actively discussing topics that have nothing to do with the activities and needs of today. Backpackers inevitably find themselves engaging in social and political criticism, discussing the history of religion, and arguing about how to live a healthy life -- in addition to more proximate concerns such as food, gear, inflammation, and trail logistics. These "abstract" concerns exercise the mind's ability to think generally and convey information that might be applicable to other people as well as oneself.

    There were very few things besides food that I craved while hiking the PCT, and they were intellectual outlets. Despite my very frequent intellectual conversations, I craved stimulating books and the opportunity to write. While I did learn to pick up books (paper and audio) along the way and listen to or read them while I walked, I did not figure out a way of satisfying my need to write. I would have been very happy to have 2 hours a day to write about various topics that I spent so much time mulling over. Journaling can satisfy some of this need, but I simply did not have enough time and paper!

The needs described here may differ a bit from person to person, but I believe they are universal. One of the main things I took away from my experience was that I need to, and want to, organize my life in such a way as to fill every one of these needs. This realization solidified my resolve to not live a typical suburban American lifestyle, which I came to view as even more inadequate as before. Such a way of life is not nearly as good at fulfilling basic needs as a long-distance backpacking trip. Needs for physical activity and interaction are typically very poorly met unless one's work is physical. Also, 8-hour day jobs often overload your need for superficial interaction and fail to meet your needs for friendly interaction and for solitude.

Clearly, I will have to continue shaping my own counter-culture lifestyle to fill my basic needs. Physical needs can be met in an urban setting by rigorous exercise and physical activities (music, dancing, cycling & walking to one's destinations, etc.) or by taking a physical job that leaves the mind free to enjoy substantial amounts of solitude and moderate levels of social interaction. With a bit of land, my wife and I could practice some agriculture to enjoy a physical connection with our environment. Social ties need to be enjoyed more by developing connections with people who share our interests and values and have time to do things together.

At any rate, a typical urban 9-to-5 job with its ensuing lifestyle demands seems out of the question for me. Physical activity needs to be built into one's lifestyle rather than performed as a guilt-driven afterthought. There need to be many hours a day available to perform interesting, non-compulsory work. Friends need to be drawn in closer, and antagonistic elements need to be moved further away.

That is my formula for leading a happy life and filling my human needs.

I don't mean to suggest here that everyone's happiest lifestyle will be just like mine or that giving up a 9 to 5 job is a prerequisite to being fully happy (though it probably is for a significant number of people). The most important thought here is that our individual psychological needs exist and are quantifiable. In this post I have tried to quantify my own and speculate how they may differ somewhat for different people. I wish everyone could have an experience such as my own (not necessarily backpacking) where they are in near-ideal circumstances for the development of personal happiness over several months. With a bit of reflection, perhaps, this could lead to long-term changes in how you live your life.


Aleesha said...


The "normal" lifestyle in the USA and Australia (among others) is not a good one -- and surely not sustainable, the cost is too high and ultimately self-defeating.

In order to be "productive members of society", we are supposed to have 9-5 jobs, we get 10 days sick/personal leave and 4 weeks holiday (I don't know if it is much different in the USA but I imagine it is relatively similar). The work day is structured in such a way that you need to work for hours on end without a break.

As taking regular breaks in work is physiologically necessary for good functioning, you end up with tired brains, tired bodies, and likely more mistakes and accidents (it has already been established that sleep deprivation has this cost, I haven't seen studies saying that lack of breaks will do it too, but I am confident enough in biology to speculate). Chronic exhaustion from work will lead to a deterioration in health.

Once you get sick, you have 10 days to recover before you stop getting paid. If you become seriously ill more than once a year, you're pretty much screwed. You can use up your holidays, but being sick is at least as exhausting as working, so if you use up your holidays to take care of your health, you may well end up with no time to recuperate from either sickness or work, and the cycle continues.

Add to this the difficulty of receiving medical treatment outside work hours -- you may end up needing to take sick days just to establish what illness you have on top of the time needed for treatments or recuperation.

Sick people don't function as well in the workplace as healthy people (sick people don't function as well at *anything*) which has an obvious cost to businesses that is under-recognised. So much for "productive members of society".

Sickness behaviour is also near-identical with major depressive disorder. Depression is well-established as one of the most costly illnesses to society, and it is a relatively common one too. I have to wonder at a link here.

You've commented previously about the relationship between mental illness and the current state of society -- I think your perspective was that most mental illnesses are actually caused by the situation?

My take on the issue is that many mental illnesses have a genuine biological basis and genetic factors that need to be treated, though I'm not absolving society. As it stands right now, the biological differences that contribute to bipolar disorder (as one example) are maladaptive. They might be adaptive in some other environment, or at least less maladaptive. I think that as society increasingly ignores or devalues health, more and more traits are going to become maladaptive, and those that are already obviously maladaptive are going to become even more debilitating.

A misguided friend told me that this is how it "should be", natural selection at work, but humans are selecting agents too and we shouldn't be selecting for attitudes that abandon the weak just because they're weak (even if you look at it callously, genetic diversity is really important and we don't know what kind of future repercussions their may be for letting everyone with, say, schizophrenia, to die).

So, between the people with moderate to serious physical illnesses and the people with moderate to serious mental illnesses, we have a significant number of people who really *can't* live the kind of lives that we're "supposed" to live. If we try, we compromise our health.

Another problem is that the 9-5 option is presented as the *only* option. Nonstandard lifestyles and career options are usually met with ridicule. If you don't have a financial backing and you're anything less than disabled, you're all but forced into a 9-5 by Centrelink.

If things keep going the way they are on a societal level, we're probably screwed as a species.

Rick said...

Thanks for the comment, Aleesha. I believe that all these things we love to complain about ultimately trace back to the corrupting influence of "free" fossil fuels. Once fossil fuels begin to run out, I expect a cascading set of changes to occur that will make life harder in some ways, but at the same time people's general health will improve. During the Great Depression in the U.S., life expectancy rose 6 years.

For more on this topic, see my essay on the harmful effects of fossil fuels on environment, health, and society:


Anonymous said...

Interesting ideas, Rick.

It actually has reminded my personal style of life in Tallinn where I had just recently stayed for three months.

I lived in backpackers hostel in the oldtown, so I always had opportunity to participate in various parties or to talk with some neighbours of various background and from various countries. And I have made here some good friends, though now - alas - it's difficult to keep them in touch. Also, the oldtown is marvellous, so I took the opportunity to walk around it or further for hour or longer (I don't know why, but I got used to do it almost everyday). There was also at a close distance a good spa centre, where I regularly went to work out and enjoy superb sauna. And finally there were all conditions for intellectual work, including writing. As the time went I took decision not to use alarm clock and adopted flexible time regime, when, for e.g. I was getting up when I wanted to do it (sometimes even at 2pm or later), but on the same I also worked as much as I wanted, sometimes until early morning. And after all it was quite productive journey, though admittedly it could be better, if I were more directly concentrated on my goals.

Often, at the time of wandering around the city, I tended to remember my past daily regime (which overall was not 9-5, but 8-7), and to compare with the present state. The main difference, that I have concluded is feeling of freedom (or self-autonomy), that is much stronger now than it was some time before. Also there was less stress and less need for superficial communication and much more opportunities to care for yourself. Actually, for the first time I have felt the worth (or joy) of introvertness (or loneliness), when you can concentrate just on yourself and do not feel obliged to react to external pressures at all.

After I got back to my country, I have tried to continue (with some changes) such style of life, and so far it succeeds. This is one of the biggest benefits of academic job (in comparison with bureaucratic one), though it might be that I will have to switch it again, since the present style of life (lyric, melancholic and a bit lavish as well) is not very "cost-effective".

However, despite the fact that now I feel much happier than before, I still would not devalue the style of 9-5. There are positive aspect of such lifestyle. Working and living like this you may feel more secure (which is of fundamental importance for everyone), and if you get into right system, you make a good circle of friends, with whom you can both chat and fix common problems, and finally, a constant regime (9-5, or whatever) may help you to develop a healthy discipline to use your brains each day and develop your professional capabilities in a systemic way. In short, though, Rick, you try portray you thoughts as a universal receipt for everyone, there is some bias in conclusions. A flexible daily regime may fit (to some extent) for IEE or other irrational intuits or someone else, but other ways to live a balanced (hence approximate to happy) life should be also not discounted of.


p.s. sorry for my English. It stubbornly doesn't improve ;)

Rick said...

Thanks for the comments, LG! Your English is excellent. And that sounds like a great way to live. I find that not all people are as drawn to nature as I am, but all need the same kind of variety of physical sensations and physical motion and changes of scenery that I do. They just find different routes to achieve this.

Yes, I need to be clearer in my conclusion that my post is about my own self-discovery. I reread the conclusion and saw that it could too easily be interpreted as a call for everyone to give up their 9 to 5 jobs. My intention in writing the post was more to explore my own experience and the conclusions I came to for my own life. I will need to rework the conclusion a bit; it's not my personal conclusions that have universal application, but rather the idea that each of us has a set of basic psychological needs that differ somewhat (but not so much) from person to person, and that these needs can be discovered and formulated quite clearly and should be integrated into our everyday lifestyle as much as possible to promote happiness.

I suspect that if we were able to collect the reflections of relatively happy adults of different sociotypes, we would find that their lifestyles all have quite a few things in common, such as:

- adequate physical and motor activity and direct sensory stimulation (i.e. not TV)
- varied interaction with others, including sufficient intimate/friendly interaction and contact with strangers and more distant acquaintances on a near daily basis
- a certain amount of solitary, "flow-inducing" activity
- some amount of mental abstraction allowing themselves to view their lives in a greater context

One gets the impression that there are many more unhappy lifestyles than happy ones, much like Tolstoy wrote of families.

Anonymous said...

yes.. talking about TV, it should be forbidden - for the sake of human-being, society... and nature ;)

personally, indeed I feel much happier when now I do not have any TV at my appartment. The less frivolous temptations are in place, the more time for meaningful activity is.


however, I still struggle with overconsumption of Internet. It's complicated, since on the one hand it's necessary for work and also place where you could find a lot of interesting information and ideas(for e.g. - this site), but on the other hand - it's also one of the easiest way to kill the time that you could use for much more reasonable purposes. But I think I will invent something ;)

And finally about the very term of "happy". It might be the case that it is too strong wording to call some mode of living as "happy" or "unhappy" lifestyle. Once you use such word, you already get open for discussion with very broad range of intelectuals - from ancient Greek philosophers, Chinese and Indian wisemen to priests of Christian and other religions and finally to modern economists of happiness. It might be a deliberate move to try to grasp the existence of human-being as much as possible (which is only good), but one has take into account that the question "What is a happy life and how to achieve it?" is one of the oldest fundamental questions (or secrets) that human civilization tries to uncover. It means that there is no simple answer to it, and also that if you try to search for it, you still might have to reconsider what has already thought about that.

So what you have provided so far, I would call not formula to happy life, but "(well-)ballanced life" - the term which is more modest, but might not lose the essence of initial thought (maybe even more precise).

Of course, discussions how to reach happy life and what does it mean, of course are very interesting, and (at least for me) are motivating indeed. However, one could also ask whether an individual has to seek for happy life at all? Or to put in other terms, whether the happiness is afterall the most important goal of human existence? As far as I think for mysel, I feel sympathy to another conception of (meaningful) life, which emphasises a help to others. Such conception is advatageous at least in one aspect that an individual who due to one or another reason cannot feel happy (for e.g. is heavily traumatised), still can be useful for others, and in such a way may contribute for the benefit of others - from relatives to more abstract or broader ideas as, for e.g., the Earth.

Rick said...

Good comments, Liutauras. I thought about talking about a "well-balanced" life, but it seemed too trivial a name:) My realization on the PCT was simply that I was consistently happier than I ever had been. I don't know if my life was well-balanced, though.

In talking of happiness, I distinguish between short- or mid-term fluctuations in state and one's long-term condition, which seems to be dependent upon a host of complex factors that determine one's psychological "quality of life." To improve one's life long-term, one needs to focus on improving one's life circumstances. Admittedly, this is a typically extraverted approach, whereas introverts tend to focus on the role of one's attitudes, i.e. how you choose to respond internally to circumstances.

Of particular importance is your immediate social / socionic surroundings. "Happiness" or "Quality of life" possesses inertia; if your psyche has been traumatized by years of living with people who did not match you well, 3 months of living with a compatible dual may not be enough to begin the process of serious change. Or, vice-versa, if you have been blessed with positive set of socionic interactions for many years, 3 months of living with the opposing quadra probably won't traumatize you seriously. The same holds true of other factors determining long-term quality of life, such as lifestyle habits, physical activity, interpersonal interaction styles, self-knowledge, etc.

So I think it is definitely possible to speak of a "higher" or "lower" plane of existence for each individual, though difficulties may arise when trying to construct a category system that is applicable to all people.

On the topic of the Internet, this has been relevant for me as well, because so much of my work for years now has had to do with writing and websites. I gradually came to believe that it was not good for me to have constant Internet access, as this made concentrating on writing more difficult, and I tended to spend too much time online. For the first time in years, I no longer have continual Internet access. We have to go to the kitchen, where there is a single cable. There are four people in the house who have to share the Internet. While this sometimes creates stress, I have found the overall effects very positive. While I occasionally spend a few hours reading about different stuff online anyway, I no longer have the feeling that I'm spending too much time online. My writing output has also increased significantly because I can work in my own room without distractions. Since you and I seem to have similar ascetic tendencies (an austere life is good for mental activity), perhaps something similar would work for you.