- Spencer Greenberg
What Are All the Things That Humans Need?
Updated: Mar 7
In this blog post, we attempt to list all human needs ranked according to their typical importance. Thanks for the idea, Maslow!
We think there are a number of benefits to understanding needs better, including as a way to better understand yourself and the other people in your life. Take a look at our needs diagram below, then read on to learn about what each of these needs is, how we define a "need" (rather than a "want") and why understanding needs can be valuable.
Why think about human needs?
You may gain a number of benefits from having an understanding of human needs. Here are a few:
Diagnostic: if you or a loved one is feeling bad and you’re looking for helpful things to do, you could start by looking at this hierarchy of human needs. Work your way down from the top and, when you find a need that isn’t being met, you may have a good idea of where to target your actions.
Gratitude about progress: this is a useful framework for recognizing the fact that, for many of us, many of our needs are met almost by default now - what an amazing, historic place to be in! You can pair this with our advice on resetting your psychological baseline to make your life better.
Prioritization: you can use this framework as an aid to reflect on which needs are important to you and which are or aren’t being satisfied. This can be paired with our principles of prioritization to develop a set of ‘quests’ for greater well-being.
Explanatory/predictive: historically, theories of needs have been used as accounts of human motivation that can explain and predict behavior. That’s what Maslow and others have intended for their theories. So, you might try to use this framework to offer explanations such as "He is probably neglecting his relationships because he feels his extended survival needs are unmet". Though, we’re aware that there are long-standing criticisms of this approach. It is definitely not the case that people only seek out lower needs when their higher needs are already met - for instance, someone can regularly not have enough food to eat and yet still pursue love.
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What are human needs?
We define a “need” here as something non-replaceable (i.e., you can’t just substitute it for something else) such that a lack of it inhibits well-being. Following this, we can say that a “human need” is anything which is a need for the vast majority of people (non-human animals, of course, have different needs than humans).
You might casually say on a very hot day that you “need an iced tea”, but iced tea could be easily replaceable with lemonade or iced coffee, so iced tea is not a “need” in the sense we mean. On the other hand, water (if you haven’t had any in a couple of days) really is irreplaceable, and a lack of it greatly reduces well-being. Here we're talking about well-being in a broad sense that includes everything from not dying (as in the need for water), to not feeling miserable (as in the comfort need), to feeling happy (as in the need for mental stimulation).
Someone might say, “I need X if I’m going to achieve Y,” but that’s also not the sort of need we mean here (unless Y is well-being, or a necessary condition for well-being, and X is something non-fungible).
Note: Some theories of needs have defined needs as motivators of behavior. We haven’t done this because (a) we don’t want to unnecessarily commit to controversial theories of motivation, and (b) well-being plays a central role in what almost everyone cares about, so we favor a well-being-first approach to human needs.
Where do needs come from?
Some human needs are biological; they're needs because of our bodies. But, of course, if our bodies changed then they might not be needs! And some people whose bodies have different properties might not have them.
However, human needs can also be instilled in us by the culture we're in. It might be hard to tell whether these needs are universal or whether they're merely contingently instilled by all cultures that we are familiar with. Anthropology could be a useful tool to work out which of these is the case for any given human need. But the fact that some needs are instilled in us by our culture (rather than being innate), doesn't make them any less real; you can’t just forgo satisfying them and expect to be fine!
Why are the needs placed in this hierarchy?
Our organizational scheme places needs into five levels, from highest to lowest average importance:
Level I: Immediate Survival
Level II: Extended Survival
Level III: Mental Health
Level IV: Relationships
Level V: Satisfaction
Immediate survival needs come first because if you don’t satisfy them, you will quickly die. So all other needs usually take a back seat. Extended survival needs are usually next in importance when they are not met (most of the time) because if you don’t satisfy them, you eventually die. The categories after that are harder to rank strictly, but in acute states of poor mental health, it is more difficult to focus on relationships and higher forms of satisfaction, so we place mental health third. After that, we put relationships because they seem to create stronger needs for most people most of the time than the final level (satisfaction needs).
Beyond Level V there is another level, “Intrinsic Values,” but we do not include them as needs per se because, while they are things people want, they differ a lot from person to person, and having them be poorly met often is not sufficient to inhibit well-being. For instance, someone may intrinsically value people all around the world being happy without having their own day-to-day well-being limited by the lack of happiness of strangers around the world. However, we recognize that specific intrinsic values can be needs for specific people (even though they aren't general "human needs" as we define it) - for instance, some people have low well-being due to believing that they can't achieve the big goals that they've set, but there are also many people who don't need achievement to have high well-being.
While most people have all or almost all of the needs from the diagram, the degree to which people experience the needs differs. Hence the order here should be taken as only very approximate. Moreover, some people fully lack some of these needs, especially items lower down in the diagram, so these should not be thought of as universal.
An additional factor is that how much people seek a need depends both on the importance of that need and on the perceived difficulty of satisfying it. For instance, someone who has not had any water in a day will likely be very focused on finding water if they believe it is attainable, but if they believe it is not attainable, they may be focused on other (higher up) needs.
List of Human Needs
Level I: Immediate Survival
1. Oxygen – an open airway (between our lungs and the outside world) and a constant supply of air that is at least 19.5% oxygen (and partial pressure of oxygen of less than 1.4 atm)
2. Functioning – freedom from severe/acute injury, bodily damage, and organ failure
3. Safety – no immediate threats from the environment, including from dangerous human or nonhuman animals
4. Temperature – protection from hypothermia or hyperthermia (i.e., one’s core body temperature needs to stay within 95-104 degrees Fahrenheit at all times)
5. Hydration -at least a few liters of water every three days
Level II: Extended Survival
6. Noncontamination – no more than trace quantities of most poisons, radiation, and toxins, and the near total absence of those that can kill even at undetectable levels.
7. Lack of infection – the absence of severe infection (or sepsis) with dangerous viruses, bacteria, fungi, protozoans, helminths, and prions
8. Dryness – a sufficiently dry environment at least every few days (or else our skin will macerate)
9. Sleep – at least ~28-56 hours (depending on the person) of sleep per week
10. Energy – at least ~25,000 calories every three weeks
11. Macronutrients – sufficient quantities of the three macronutrients each month (varieties of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins) plus fiber
12. Macrominerals – sufficient quantities of the essential macrominerals every so often (sodium, chloride, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sulfur)
13. Microminerals – at least a tiny bit of the microminerals every so often (which probably include iron, zinc, iodine, selenium, copper, manganese, fluoride, chromium, molybdenum, nickel, silicon, vanadium, cobalt)
14. Vitamins – sufficient quantities of the 13 essential vitamins every few months (vitamins A, C, D, E, K, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12)
Note: these nutrients/minerals/vitamins may not all be truly essential for survival, and there could be other essential nutrients, vitamins, or minerals that science doesn’t yet know about or that we just haven’t heard of.
Level III: Mental Health
15. Comfort – freedom from intense pain or discomfort (e.g., due to a pinched nerve, migraine, having to pee extremely badly, or a kidney stone)
16. Urge Satiation – freedom from an intense addiction or urge that can’t be satiated (e.g., a heroin user who is in the throes of a very strong urge to use again or someone who is very hungry when there is food just out of reach that they can’t get to)
17. Rest – the ability to stop exerting yourself once you have been engaged in a strenuous physical or mental activity for a long time
18. Cleanliness – a body and environment that doesn’t feel extremely dirty, contaminated, or infested
19. Understanding – not being confused about what is happening around you and being able to make sense of events
20. Choice – the ability to make choices about what we do and don’t do (including freedom from imprisonment, enslavement, and extreme coercion or control)
21. Calmness – the sense that most of the time we, and the things that matter to us, are sufficiently safe (or else we are likely to have chronic anxiety)
22. Self-esteem – the sense that we have value and are capable of doing things that are worth doing.
23. Hope – the sense that there will be value that we can create in the future and that the future will contain at least some good things (or else we are likely to be depressed)
24. Privacy – the ability to do things without being monitored and to have time to yourself without other people there (e.g., when showering, using the bathroom, or just when wanting to be alone)
Beyond this point, we expect it will be more common to see exceptions to the universality of these human needs. Nevertheless, we think these probably all still meet our definition of ‘human needs’. For instance, not everyone has a sex drive or need for community or drive to have children, but the majority of people do.
Level IV: Relationships
25. Trust – a sense that the people in our immediate environment will not manipulate us, trick us, steal from us, use us, or hurt us
26. Social interaction – social interaction with people we like and care about, and the sense that there are people who like and care about us
27. Community – the sense that we are accepted socially in at least one community, and ideally also that we are valued and have a role to play in that community
28. Sex – at least one partner with whom we can engage in sexual activity
29. Romantic love – a romantic partner we have a strong emotional bond with, who loves us and whom we love
30. Non-romantic love – family members or friends that love us and that we love back
31. Children – either children of our own, a partner we plan to have children with, or children of our relatives to help care for.
Level V: Satisfaction
32. Stimulation – sufficiently novel stimuli to keep us interested, or engaging tasks that bring us into a flow state (or else we become bored)
33. Enjoyment – the availability of activities that we enjoy
34. Meaning – goals, relationships, causes, or activities that feel important or meaningful to us, or that we feel we “live for” (or else our lives lack a sense of purpose and meaning)
35. Authenticity – the ability and confidence to behave as our authentic self without facing severe negative consequences
Beyond needs (i.e., non-fungible inhibitors to well-being), there are “intrinsic values,” which are things you desire for their own sake (not as a means to other ends) and which you would want even if they brought you nothing else. By definition, the things we intrinsically value, we want there to be more of.
Some intrinsic values are things we want for ourselves, others we want for our friends, family, or community, and still others we want for the world or universe.
We have categorized intrinsic values into a number of categories, including: longevity, legacy, reputation, virtue, loyalty, justice, fairness, diversity, respect, caring, protection, nature, beauty, purity, spirituality, truth, learning, achievement, and freedom. Normally, we would also include happiness, pleasure, and non-suffering in that list, but those bleed into needs, and so we have left them out in this case to make the distinction between needs and intrinsic values clearer.
To learn more about your own intrinsic values, you can take our Intrinsic Values Test.
An earlier version of this essay was written on July 28, 2021, and first appeared on spencergreenberg.com on September 16, 2022.
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