Basic Survival Needs: What You Need To Stay Alive?

Today, the question: what do we need in life to survive, probably doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves.  Many may only consider what the basic physical needs for survival are and after ticking off a few boxes:  ‘food’, ‘water’, ‘clothing’, ‘shelter’, they drop any further questioning or investigation.  Some may go further while others may simply limit themselves to following what society and culture has told them is important.

Have you asked yourself the question?

Have you ever asked yourself: what do I need in life to survive?  If you’ve asked yourself this question and have made it past the level of basic physical survival, you’ve probably seen how vast the domain of exploration, contemplation and discussion, that opens up, really is. 

However, if you haven’t taken up this question further, now might be a good time to do so before reading on.  What does it mean to survive?

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

One known theorist in the field of psychology during the last century, Abraham Maslow, was very keen to explore the question of needs and survival as well as the facets of the human psyche that it reveals. 

In 1943, Maslow presented a paper entitled, A theory of human motivation’ later known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which illustrated the different fundamental human needs for survival.  

In this hierarchy, which later took the shape of a pyramid, Maslow pointed out that there are some basic survival needs which generally need to be addressed (fulfilled) before being able to attend to and fulfill higher more ‘refined’ needs. 

This was the general principle to begin with until it later evolved when Maslow emphasized the interconnection between different needs and their overlap. 

Today, while Maslow’s pyramid is still very much used by many, both in the field of psychology and in many other disciplines, the different hierarchical levels are generally considered to be in a kind of continuum of interaction and overlap.  Instead of being represented as a pyramid (which in fact Maslow never used as a symbol), some consider them to be more akin to a set of revolving and overlapping spheres. 

Keeping this in mind, let’s have a look at the 5 main needs initially proposed by Maslow, as well as a few elements he later brought forth.  

Basic Survival Needs: 5 Elements You Need to Stay Alive?

At the base of the pyramid are included: food, water, air, homeostasis, sleep, health, and even sex which was included here since it related to the reproductive necessity needed in order to ensure the continuation of the human species.  Elements like clothing and shelter, also belonging to the base of the pyramid, were generally part of the second ‘stage’ which discusses the need for security.

Maslow initially postulated that these basic needs are essential and when not fulfilled they can create pain, suffering, and illness and as a result, prevent an individual from striving towards the fulfillment of his or her higher more refined needs.  For example, an individual on the brink of starvation would not be inclined to fulfill higher, more refined needs such as learning a new language but instead, do everything in his/her power to find something to eat.  

1. Air

In order to live you need air. That’s pretty self-explanatory. There are basics of survival that state that man can only survive for 3 minutes without air, 3 days without water, and 3 weeks without food. Lucky for us, air is plentiful….for now.

2. Water

If you can only survive without water for 3 days (again that’s a rough estimate, as there are many people who have gone up to seven days, even 18 days with no water) then you likely can not do much else with your life until you get clean water to quench your thirst.

3. Food

Undoubtedly food is likely the third most important element the body needs in order to survive. If one can roughly go 3 weeks without food, (and likely many of those days you would have such low energy that you wouldn’t be able to accomplish much) then you can’t really go beyond without having food taken care of.

*However, just a small note here.* It could be argued that hunger does not necessarily need to block everyone from fulfillment and striving towards certain higher and more refined needs.  This is observable when we read accounts of the lives of great zen masters who could deprive themselves of food for long durations since their dedication and purpose was so intensely directed towards something otherworldly, far beyond simple physical needs. Or even those breatharians, that claim they “eat” from the rays of the sun.

However, for us mere mortals, food is still a necessity. And most of us, we need food, daily else we feel less than fulfilled.

4. Shelter

Along with the elementary needs for physical sustenance comes the need to build a good shelter or living environment where security and safety are met. This is understandably high on the list of physical needs.  This will generally take the shape of a shelter or home where we can live and be protected from the elements and possible outer threats. 

This goes along the same lines of self-preservation that motivates us to find food and water.

5. Self Defense

The general need to be free from fear of others, from feeling threatened, from tyranny and war also fit in at this level. In today’s society, we also seek greater levels of financial security which goes hand in hand with the need for job security. Tools like insurance have also been created in an attempt to offer more stable financial security in case of an unforeseen event.  

Much of modern society has been organized to protect the individual from others. Property rights, the right to bear arms, the right to defend yourself all attempt to promote the right to life.

There is a primal innate fear of others and the need to seek security that is hardwired into the human brain. You don’t have to look around very long to notice how much of human behavior is driven by the desire to feel secure.

The Illusion of Security

Before moving on with Maslow’s original theory it is important to point out that many of the basic human needs, while quite simple and even technical, have often taken a psychological form and thus have become much more complex and even distorted at times. 

For example, financial security is one domain that is constantly emphasized in today’s society and it seems that many spend their entire lives engaged in its pursuit, finding out, often too late, that they will never truly achieve any semblance of it.  Instead, they will fall into seeking always more. 

While some financial responsibility and intelligent choices regarding money and wealth can be made in order to establish a certain financial stability, it cannot be said that true financial security really exists. 

Moreover, having some insurance, savings in the bank and a steady job doesn’t protect us from death nor from illness or any other change at the social level.  No security is ever truly secure.  Why?  Because we live in a world of constant change, where markets can crash or we can drop dead at any moment.   

The Only Truth is Change

Understanding the fundamental impermanence of things can be very freeing since it reflects a very real and dominant factor in life, one that we often struggle to accept.  If you don’t agree, just ask impermanence’s primary representative, death.  It will knock on everyone’s door one day or another, most often unannounced. 

Death is also present all around us in nature as the force of transformation.  Where something seemingly ends, a new beginning is born.  Contemplating death can also help us clarify what our deepest purpose or needs are.  What would you do if you only had one month to live? One week. one day?

Unfortunately many ignore the imminent reality of death and impermanence and continue trying to gain more and more wealth, thinking that it will bring them lasting security and therefore some sense of fulfillment or happiness.  While some amount of financial stability is helpful, more than what is needed can actually become a burden and can even inhibit us from fulfilling our deeper needs. 

If you don’t agree, take a closer look at the lives of some of the wealthiest people on the planet or those who are rich and famous. Their lives are filled with tragedy. Wealth doesn’t solve the problems we think.

Higher Human Essential Needs

Psychological Needs

Beyond the base needs mentioned, are the needs relating entirely to our human psychology.  First comes the idea of social needs, including the need to connect to one’s family and friends.  In relation to this, there can be the need for intimacy or emotional connection, as well as an overall need to belong

Social Needs

When family connections or other intimate relationships are not explored or perhaps not possible for whatever reason, people will look for this sense of belonging by joining a group or some kind of organization.  Whatever type of relationship is explored, there is usually a keen desire to belong and/or to feel loved. 

Relating to others is argued by many as helping to stave off or lower the feeling of loneliness, anxiety and depression.  However, in many cases, the challenges and difficulties originating from relationships, when it is not a harmonious one, can also aggravate such feelings. Though as a whole we can not exist outside of relationships (unless you are a hermit) as they form an intrinsic part of our sense of self and help to give us a greater sense of well-being.

Self Esteem Needs

In connection to social needs we also find self-esteem needs. First at a lower level where an individual seeks out the approval of others. How they feel about themselves is in many ways socially and culturally set. The idea of success and of what generates happiness is also very much influenced and often almost entirely fabricated by the media and the advertising conglomerates. 

Whatever sphere of influence remains, is most often taken up by the different collectives and cultures in general which surround us. A new car, a big house or a job where we essentially don’t have to work much and have a bunch of free time, are all goals pushed by our culture and promoted as being part of the ideal life full of lasting happiness and rainbows.    

If the individual evolves further, this lower self-esteem flowers and becomes more grounded in self-respect and self-acceptance. At this point, some argue that a deeper exploration of what really brings fulfillment is possible. 

Here whatever our society is telling us gets placed on the backburner. This self-acceptance naturally leads to or is in close connection with the 5th pillar or echelon, which sees us striving towards achieving our full potential whatever that may be.

Self Actualization Needs

According to Maslow, when our lower needs have been met at least to a certain degree, we can explore more deeply the realm of self-actualization, also known as achieving one’s full potential.  Here individuals explore and contemplate what their deepest life purpose is or what they feel most called to do or explore.  It is about finding your bliss or being the best that you can be at something or in life in general.  

When self-actualization flourishes there is also an impact on the other lower needs.  When you feel more on purpose and in tune with your inspiration, you will probably, naturally feel more purposeful.  No longer going around seeking other people’s approval.

As Harold Whitman once wrote:

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs.  Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go and do that.  Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.” 

Just for clarification, and in circling back, that these higher needs are not separate from and need not necessarily come after all the other basic needs have been fulfilled.

  • Firstly because it is possible to find deep purpose and satisfaction even while dedicating yourself to meeting some of your basic needs. 
  • Secondly, while it may require taking a leap of faith, when we live our lives following that calling, often our other more basic needs fall into place more naturally. 

This is no easy territory, however; the internet is filled with hundreds of self-help gurus who proclaim, you will be successful in life if you breathe in this way for 5 minutes and eat a bowl of kale every day. We are going to call B.S on all that.

The Pinnacle of Human Needs

More than 25 years after first presenting his ideas on the hierarchy of needs, Maslow added further echelons to the ‘pyramid’.  First cognitive and aesthetic needs and finally that of the need for transcendence.

There seems to be less discussion upon these later additions as compared to the cornucopia of information and commentary on the first five echelons.  Perhaps this is due to the fact that most of our society finds itself governed by these five main categories of needs and only a small percentage of people break out, question and explore deeper. 

It should also be emphasized that transcendence is a domain, very little explored and constitutes a subtle space not easily accessible even for those who are less caught up in the fulfillment of lower needs and are trying to actively access it.   


In his exploration of this ultimate and final need, Maslow spoke of a term he himself coined, called, peak experiences.  Such experiences are intimately real and directly experienceable by any individual open enough and having the right aptitude.  

These experiences also referred to as a state of flow, zen, or moments of clarity.  These peak experiences can bring a person beyond the realm of ordinary thought and into a perception that is non-ordinary.

Many say that at this stage, any other lower need seems trivial as compared to the clarity one perceives during a peak experience. Such experiences, as they are peak experiences, do not usually last and are not really goals in and of themselves, but rather come as a result or a culmination.

The Simple Element of Transcendence

Is it possible to view the need for “self-actualization” and “transcendence” as apart of all other needs? 

This is a question that doesn’t need answering as we all have to explore it and enquire for ourselves. If we can perhaps set aside some of our ideas of what comes with the words “self-actualization” and “transcendence” we may begin to see them more plainly.

They needn’t be equated with a grandiose state of mind or only exist in some elevated human, but might be something that is much more simple and real, rather than the heady notions found in psychological theories or spiritual texts.

Can self-actualization not just be a simple expression of clarity where we see things clearly exactly as they are?

Whatever it is, it will likely be up to each one of us to find out. What does transcendence mean for you? 


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