“Those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how.'”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
What is the most basic human need?
Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs has been a popular answer to this question. Maslow states a sense of safety and security is our most basic need, aside from food and sleep.
Although Maslow’s theory has its merits, there are many examples of individuals who thrive despite not having these needs met.
Throughout my research with veterans, I talked to many who thrived amidst the chaos of combat.
On the other hand, I’ve also come across many individuals who live in the safest and most secure environments but experience a great deal of despair.
Because of this, there must be something more important than the need for safety and security.
I believe the most important basic need is our need to be needed.
What is this need to be needed?
The need to be needed is an individual’s sense of significance rooted in the sense of being part of a community or cause beyond themselves.
The need to be needed is one of our fundamental desires. We want to feel significant in the eyes of others, even if it is only one other person. We want to feel like we play an important role, whether in an organization, family, or life of another.
The need to be needed is rooted in our need for a sense of contribution to something beyond ourselves.
When this need is unfulfilled in the case of job loss, divorce, or significant life-transitions, we may find ourselves beginning to lack a sense of contribution.
When this sense of contribution goes away, we lose a sense of purpose and direction.
Let’s look take a closer look at how major life transitions affect our need to be needed.
Veterans in transition to civilian life can teach us a great deal about this topic.
The Need to be Needed in the Military
My argument that belonging is more important than safety and security comes from my research on veterans in transition to civilian life.
Many soldiers in combat flourish while knowing they could be killed at any moment. Sebastian Junger, in his book War, writes:
“It’s as if there was an intoxicating effect to group inclusion that more than compensated for the dangers the group had to face.”
Individuals in the combat unit rely on one another to fulfill a specific duty. Each person experiences the highest degree of being needed because their role is essential to the success of a mission.
Compare the high degree of being needed within a combat unit to the prospects facing a recent veteran. Veterans transition to a civilian environment that is much safer, but often fails to provide them with a sense being needed. Rather than flourishing, many begin a downward spiral into despair and suicidal thoughts.
Besides the lack of job prospects in general, employers often fail to recognize how a veteran’s skills can be valuable in a civilian role, and veterans may experience difficulties translating their professional military experience in an interview for a civilian position.
If you’re interested in exploring some life-lessons I’ve discovered in my in-depth discussions with veterans, you can check out my article, 6 Things Veterans Can Teach Us About Life.
When the Need to be Needed is Unhealthy
Although we need to feel needed, we need to be mindful if this turns into a form of addiction. Addiction to the need to be needed can also be called codependency.
Codependency occurs when our desire to contribute stems from a sense of not being enough. We are no longer human beings; we become human doings.
Every basic need has a dark side.
Our basic need for food can turn into an addiction, our need for safety and security can turn into anxiety and obsession, and our need for self-esteem can turn into narcissism.
The dark side of these needs comes from an attempt to fill an inner void with an external substance or behavior.
If our need to be needed is not met, we may overcompensate for our lack of love and belonging by trying to gain acceptance through continually doing things for others.
There are many different forms of codependency, but the most common is enabling someone with addiction by continually doing things for them to keep everything together. This form of “helping” is often an attempt to gain a sense of love.
In reality, the codependent person is operating in a state of complete self-neglect. Their self-worth and identity quickly erode into nothing. This sense of emptiness further fuels the addiction to helping others, giving gifts, or generally attempting to gain a sense of significance.
If this resonates with you and you want to learn how to be more effective in your attempts to help others, check out my article, When Does Helping Become Enabling?
In that article, I present an in-depth distinction between helping and codependent enabling, particularly when helping someone with an addiction. Helping allows you to be the most effective version of yourself in your relationships with others, whereas enabling keeps you trapped in this unhealthy dynamic.
The key to recovering from codependency is developing personal boundaries and starting to focus on self-care. Over time, a person suffering from codependency may build a sense of identity and self-esteem.
We are social beings, and our need to be needed is rooted in this reality.
We can fulfill this need in healthy ways, so long as we maintain personal boundaries, engage in self-care, and have a foundation of self-worth.
We can fulfill our need to be needed when we find a way to make ourselves useful within our social context.
On a public policy level, we need to consider ways to reduce the impact of life transitions on our need to be needed.
Problematic life transitions could include students in transition to the work-world, retirees transitioning out of their profession, veterans in transition to civilian life, professional athletes leaving their sport, and priests retiring from their role.
Humans are fundamentally social creatures, and when our social needs are met, we feel a sense of belonging and purpose.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to build a sense of purpose, you can check out my article here: What Does It Mean to Have a Purpose?