From Survival to Personal Growth: Self-Realization

From Survival to Personal Growth: Self-Realization
Beatriz Caballero

Written and verified by the psychologist Beatriz Caballero.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Darwin taught us that we all come into the world with a set of resources that help us survive, some way or another. Like Abraham Maslow said, survival is the foundation, and self-realization is at the top of the hierarchical pyramid of our needs.

Abraham Maslow was very interested in the traits of people who function in a more fulfilled, healthy, adjusted, and well-adapted way. According to him, everyone has the potential for self-realization, motivated by intrinsic desires to become the best kind of person they could be.

Eduardo Punset explains that, unlike other animals, our life cycle allows us to set two different yet related goals. One is the upkeep and care of one’s body. And the second is be happy. The increased life expectancy of our species plays favorably into the second.

Happy woman smiling at the sky.

Characteristics of self-realization

In 1963, Abraham Maslow started to see that self-realized people have some traits in common.


  • perceive reality accurately.
  • accept themselves, others, and nature.
  • are spontaneous in their thoughts and emotions. Usually, they are more natural than artificial.
  • think about philosophical issues.
  • are independent.
  • have a fresh perspective when it comes to associating knowledge and ideas.
  • often experience “oceanic feelings”: feelings of being one with nature and transcending time and space.
  • are respectful to others.
  • form close relationships, but with few people.
  • appreciate the process of doing things for their own sake.
  • possess a philosophical, considerate, and non-hostile sense of humor.
  • rely on creativity in problem-solving.
  • live somewhat detached from the culture they’re in.
  • are strong, independent, and confident enough in themselves that they may appear insensitive.

Intense self-realization: a peak experience 

Maslow used the term “peak experience” to refer to moments of intense self-realization. Here you have the feeling of being connected to your surroundings. And then psychologist Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi (1975-1988) developed the concept of flow.

Flow means those times when your perception is very clear and you lose all sense of time. You feel something like admiration, awe, even ecstasy. It may happen passively, while listening to a song or contemplating a work of art. That said, flow usually happens when a person is completely immersed in an activity.

Flow is made up of a few major components:

  • clear, reachable objectives
  • a high degree of concentration and focus
  • direct and indirect feedback
  • a balance between one’s skill level and a challenge
  • an intrinsically gratifying motivation

“The main goal is intimate self-realization of the Self, which shouldn’t be neglected for secondary goals. And the best service one can give others is the liberation of oneself.”
-Buddha Gautama-

Happy woman listening to music: self-realization.

First flow, then happiness

The truth is that you can reach a state of happiness and self-realization through a conscious process. It happens when your attention is focused on “something” that later produces a pleasant sensation.

Csikszentmihalyi used the word flow to describe intense but effortless concentration, even while having fun. It is rarely motivated by external factors at the beginning, and never at the end.

But such experiences don’t have to be pleasant. As the author says, when we flow we’re not happy, but we can’t be happy without these experiences of flow. Remember that happiness is intimately related to our internal states. Flow implies that you are focusing completely on the task.

“In a certain sense, people in a state of “flow” are not aware of the experience at that present moment. However, when they reflect, they feel that they have been fully alive, fully realized, and involved in a ‘peak experience’.”
-Gardner, 1993-

The three steps to flow

The sequence of the flow looks like this:

  • Action: You do something and focus all of your attention on that thing.
  • Vision: Once the action is completed, you think about what happened. Looking at it retrospectively, you value the experience.
  • Emotion: In order to experience happiness, you focus inward. That’s when you’ll be able to say in hindsight that you are happy.

Csikszentmihalyi’s philosophy sees the verb “to live” as a harmonious fusion between doing, thinking, and feeling. Setting goals and reaching them without feeling like it’s a sacrifice doesn’t just help you get to the top, self-realization, but also to flow towards happiness.

“If you want to understand the word ‘happiness’, you have to view it as a reward and not as an end.”
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery-

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.