Maslow’s hierarchy of needs describes what it takes for individuals and societies to thrive. Maslow described the obvious: Our basic physical needs must be met before we are motivated to achieve “higher-level” functioning. In other words, if we are starving or without a safe place to live, we probably won’t be painting water colors, creating sculptures, or writing symphonies.

A pyramid is often used to picture this hierarchy of human needs, with physiological requirements such as food, water, warmth, and sleep forming the foundation. What the body needs for homeostasis — wellness — is not a mystery even though social and economic forces are always at work seducing us into imbalance — with alcohol, drugs, trans fats, sugar, and more. But once our actual bodily needs are even tangentially met, we will feel motivated to aim at the next level: security. We will turn toward wanting to feel safe (freedom, order, stability).

Security is tricky. On one level it is achievable and on another an illusion. We are driven to keep our children safe, for example, but we also know it is impossible to protect them from all dangers. That goes for ourselves too, which means the need for security is highly exploitable. How many home alarm systems are sold to those who will never need one? Provoking our fear about even unlikely dangers is full-time work for thousands. Daytime television is chock-full of commercials aimed at making senior citizens feel less secure and more vulnerable so that they will purchase that surefire fix. Nationalistic jingoism gins up hostility toward immigrants and stokes unfounded fear of “the other.” Physical needs can be manipulated too, but it is more difficult. No one desperately needs a soy chai latte or instant pot even though the genies of economic culture will try to convince us of that too.

Next up on the hierarchy are belonging and love. The need for affiliation, as a source of identity, and defense against loneliness are essential human needs. While we can be alive without them, we cannot be well without intimacy, love, and connection. Being loved and loving animate the body and mind, freeing and nurturing us to be creative and curious.

No dire deficiencies can exist in these first three levels if we are to be motivated and enabled to reach for the next two: esteem and self-actualization. But going further to describe those seems moot just now.

It is pointless to write about the next levels because most people in this country have an abundance of primary physical needs met yet are easily convinced otherwise. Alongside them, the many who are truly deprived are relentlessly exposed to the opulence of the few. Likewise, many if not most people live in a great deal of safety but remain convinced they are in danger. Collecting massive arsenals doesn’t eliminate their fears. Facebook and other online “communities” reproduce like rabbits but instead of fostering intimacy and connection they contribute to hostility and paranoia while traditional social affiliations are abandoned and social isolation deepens.

Just like following the money tells us where the corruption begins, identifying who benefits from people living in fear, social isolation, and a constant sense of deprivation might tell us where the dysfunction is.

Denim Spirit does not refer to blue jeans; rather, it refers to the ordinary and sometimes casual expressions of human spirituality in everyday life. Cameron Miller is the author of two novels, “The Steam Room Diaries” and “Thoughtwall Café: Espresso in the Third Season of Life.” Both are available through Amazon and the blogger at Email Miller at

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