Photo by Lisa Reagan

Become More Peaceful, No Matter the Circumstances

Understand and satisfy your basic needs.

There are numerous ways to categorize or describe a human’s basic needs (Narvaez, 2018). Here is a compilation and brief descriptions of basic needs that have been identified by researchers. Although Maslow (1970) listed his set of basic needs as a hierarchy, empirical evidence undermines that claim. So see what needs of yours need to be met and seek remedies.

Physiological needs like food, shelter, sleep (Maslow, 1970), and bodily integrity (Nussbaum, 2003)

It is amazing to learn that our cousins, small-band hunter-gatherers (who live like humanity did in prehistory), don’t eat that much (are used to feast and famine); sleep comfortably outdoors in homemade shelters, sometimes sleeping off and on day and night (Lee and Daly, 2005). So it matters what your body is capable of (they are stronger) and what you get used to (Wells, 2010). Long fasts seem to be a good thing (e.g., 12 hours or more between dinner and breakfast). Eating fewer calories may also be related to better health. Sleeping in chunks too is normal (Reiss, 2017).

Perhaps one of the most underestimated physiological needs is positive touch. James Prescott (1996), formerly of NIH, emphasized the importance of affectionate touch for proper development. Pets can be a way for some people to get their touch needs met (and the needs of the pet).

Babies especially need nearly constant positive touch (Sunderland, 2006). My lab’s work finds positive touch in childhood to be related to health and social capacities, and negative touch to be related to less self-control and other forms of psychopathology.

Bodily integrity (Nussbaum, 2013) is violated by sexual abuse but also corporal punishment. The detrimental effects of corporal punishment are well documented and linked to greater aggression (Gershoff, 2013).

Safety (Maslow, 1970)

When in a war zone, a sense of safety is hard to come by and occurs only in moments. But most of the time elsewhere, a sense of safety is more about our psychological than our physical environment. That is, we can scare ourselves by how we think. Sometimes early life experience makes us threat sensitive where our stress response is easily triggered even when there is no real danger to our well-being (Lanius et al, 2010). For people who are threat sensitive, self-calming techniques like belly breathing, meditation, and vagal nerve stimulation may be helpful (more below).

Family members need to ensure that one another feels safe when together, as a matter of basic human rights (Nussbaum, 2013). Get help if this is not the case.

Autonomy (Deci and Ryan, 1985)

No animal appreciates being tied down (Panksepp, 1998). Humans, too, expect the freedom to choose actions. As Deci and Ryan have documented, in US classroom settings, children do better when they feel they have choices. The same is true for adults in workplaces. People like to feel like they have some say in what they do. Find ways to make satisfying choices (preferably healthy ones!).

Control (Fiske, 2003)

Avoid the relationships and situations that stress you and deepen your inner calmness. Learn ways to stay calm, no matter what happens. It doesn’t mean you are not mobilized to act but that you are calm enough not to get so distressed you can’t act or think. Various practices that support self-calming include belly breathing (takes some effort to learn but changes metabolism; Kabat-Zinn, 2013).

Learn to switch attention. Just as with a child obsessed with something impossible to achieve, redirect your attention. You could immerse yourself in beauty. Watch and get absorbed into a specific aspect of the natural world—tree, leaves, clouds, sun play, rain, waves, or ripples. Or immerse yourself in feelings of gratitude—count your blessings (Emmons, 2013).

The human capabilities approach includes as a basic need control over one’s environment in political and material ways, factors that are more common in democratically run institutions and societies (Nussbaum, 2009).

Competence (Deci and Ryan, 1985)

Most adults feel competent at work and when laid off or retired, have lost a sense of competence. Self-efficacy is a cherished skill is a protective factor for adolescents (keeping them from risky behavior). That is, having a talent admired by the community can keep you out of trouble.

Self-esteem often runs alongside expectations for what you should have or be. If you have lost your usual ways of feeling competent and your self-esteem is low, change your expectations. Life is often a series of letting go of dreams that won’t work out. Focus on developing your unique gifts, perhaps gifts you did not know you had. Pay attention to your envy. Maybe you feel envious of someone’s accomplishments or fame. Consider envy a signal of work you have yet to do to hone your own skills in that direction.

Self-Actualization (Maslow, 1970)

According to Maslow’s analysis, few people were self-actualizers and they were not being studied. But he developed a set of guidelines for those who want to self-actualize, which I have discussed in other posts—see here and here.

Belonging, Love, Affiliation (Deci and Ryan, 1985; Maslow, 1970, Nussbaum, 2013)

As social creatures, love needs are central to our becoming. Our relationships form us, nurture us, and guide us. Psychological disorders can stem from a breakdown in loving care in childhood. Our brains malfunction in isolation because they need others to regulate limbic and other systems (Lewis et al., 2004). Thus, it is important to learn to form and maintain friendships. Here is one set of suggestions.

Understanding (Fiske, 2003)

Why? is a favorite question of children learning to understand their world. Sometimes it is hard for adults to know why something happened. But one of my favorite aphorisms for living came from Clint Eastwood as a marine in the movie Heartbreak Ridge: “Adapt and overcome.” This means accepting what happens and moving your way through it. Take challenging experiences as opportunities for learning and growing.

Trust (Erikson, 1950)

Erik Erikson identified trust vs. distrust as a basic stage in the first year of life. One emerges with an inner state of trusting or distrusting the world based on the quality of care received (our species’ expected care is the evolved nest). If seeds of distrust have been planted in early life, it takes some effort to revamp them into basic trust towards the world. Extensive therapeutic or friendship relationships are helpful as is guided immersion in wild nature (Plotkin, 2003).

Purpose and Life Meaning (Staub, 2003)

We all need a sense of purpose, and in fact, those who have one tend to be healthier. In fact, young people who are missing role models and guidance from broader narratives can be susceptible to hate groups (see Picciolini, 2017, for a recent example). If you haven’t yet found your purpose, here is a set of questions to help you find it. A great form of purpose is to help others get their basic needs met.

Play (Burghardt, 2005; Nussbaum, 2013)

One of the best ways to meet many basic needs is through creative physical social play (e.g., chase/tag, spontaneous dancing, or dramatic role-play). These build social joy and flexibility. In young children, the “joy juice” of social play shapes a happy personality (Sunderland, 2006).

Nature Connection and relation to other species (Louv, 2016; Nussbaum, 2013)

Humans are earth creatures and resonate with natural systems. There are healthful effects of attending to nature in small ways, dailyFirst Nation traditions emphasize respect for “all our relations” with animals, plants, and other earth entities as part of living a good life.


Burghardt, G.M. (2005). The genesis of animal play: Testing the limits. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Deci, E., and Ryan, R. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Academic Press.

Emmons, R.A. (1999). The psychology of ultimate concerns: Motivation and spirituality in personality. New York: Guilford Press.

Emmons, R.A. (2013). Gratitude works! A 21-day program for creating emotional prosperity. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Erikson, E.H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.

Fiske, S. (2003). Social beings. New York: Wiley.

Gershoff, E.T. (2013) Spanking and child development: We know enough now to stop hitting our children. Child Development Perspectives, 7 (3), 133-137.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness, rev. ed. New York: Bantam.

Lanius, R.A., Vermetten, E., and Pain, C. (2010). The impact of early life trauma on health and disease: The hidden epidemic. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Lee, R.B., and Daly, R. (Eds.) (2005). The Cambridge encyclopedia of hunters and gatherers. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lewis, T., Amini, F., and Lannon, R. (2000). A General Theory of love. New York: Vintage.

Louv, R. (2016). Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life: 500 Ways to Enrich Your Family’s Health and Happiness.Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.

Maslow, A. (1970). Motivation and personality, 2nd ed. New York: Harper and Row.

Narvaez, D. (Ed.)  (2018). Basic needs, wellbeing and morality: Fulfilling human potential. New York: Palgrave-MacMillan.

Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective neuroscience: The foundations of human and animal emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.

Picciolini, C. (2017). White American youth: My descent into America’s most violent hate movement—and how I got out. New York: Hachette.

Plotkin, B. (2003). Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche.  New York: New World Library.

Prescott J.W. (1996). The origins of human love and violence. Pre- and Perinatal Psychology Journal, 10 (3), 143-188.

Reiss, B. (2017). Wild nights: How taming sleep created our restless world. New York: Basic Books.

Staub, E. (2003). The psychology of good and evil: Why children, adults, and groups help and harm others. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sunderland, M. (2006). The science of parenting. DK Press.

Wells, S. (2010). Pandora’s seed: The unforeseen cost of civilization. New York: Random House.

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