We all remember Maslow… don’t we? That noted psychologist who, in 1954, published his famous hierarchy of human needs that we all learned about in high school psychology?
Maslow determined that we all have basic physical and psychological needs that fall into an orderly hierarchy and are necessary to achieve happiness. But, he propositioned, basic survival needs for food and shelter had to be met before we’d benefit from higher levels of need fulfillment, such as the love and belonging or self-esteem.
To test whether Maslow’s theory would hold up under modern scrutiny, two researchers designed a massive Gallup poll of well-being. Almost 61,000 people in 123 countries were quizzed about fulfillment of specific needs and daily feelings of joy and unhappiness as well as on overall life satisfaction. Maslow was correct that people everywhere share the same basic needs, beginning with physical needs and ending with self-actualization (a “fuzzy” term that scientists don’t much like).
However, this survey found that, although Maslow was on target about his list of universal human needs, he was wrong about their orderly nature. People seem to need everything all at once. People can (and do) enjoy the higher-level needs for love and friendship, for example, even if they may be lacking some basic needs. “They’re like vitamins,” said one of the researchers in a recent article in the Atlantic. “We need them all.”
So where do we fit in—midlife women who probably have our basic physical needs met, but who still are actively engaged in life’s endeavors?
While the Gallup researchers were revisiting Maslow, Jaki Scarcello, author of Fifty and Fabulous, was conducting a little survey of her own, interviewing older women between the ages of 45 and 102 around the globe. She wanted to find out what happens when women grow old. How do we evolve?
What she discovered was that many of us do indeed reach Maslow’s highest levels of human development. We become wise, accepting, purposeful—you know, self-actualized—and this at times despite living under difficult challenging circumstances at times.
“I think the Maslow link is that perhaps self-actualization and improved self-esteem are more available to us as we age, which, ironically, may be a time in our lives when our basic needs are once again threatened,” said Jaki.
Jaki calls these the Women of the Harvest.
“Many older women told me they were experiencing a confidence they had never felt before in their lives,” says Jaki, “that they had found their voice, they were daring to do things they had not dared to do before.”
Younger women, on the other hand, tend to look to external sources for validation, to be more invested in appearances, and to be more distressed when basic needs weren’t met.
This serenity and self-acceptance applies to our sexual selves as well. “And so our sexuality is still important to us, but it does not suffer as much interference from self-deprecating mind chatter and from external reactions,” she said.
So, despite the physical and emotional changes of aging, we may be more confident in our own sexuality and look to others less for approval and validation.
“If it seems that the sparkle in a Woman of the Harvest deepens with age, perhaps it’s because her fire is fed in part by the internalization of sexual energy. This beauty is truly no longer skin deep. Instead, it radiates from some knowing place inside a woman who has ceased to need the outer world to know herself,” writes Jaki in Fifty and Fabulous.
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.