Maslow’s Hierarchy & Addiction: A Blue Print for Remaining Sober

Portrait of a young couple hanging out at a park and looking up towards copy space

Contributor: Daniel Angres, M.D., serves as the Medical Director of the Positive Sobriety Institute as well as Chief Medical Officer of RiverMend Health Addiction Services.

Young couple looking upBehind our actions is an attempt to fulfill some need. We have biological instincts that drive certain behaviors. But there is also the desire to fulfill other needs, a drive to reach our fullest potential and reach beyond our basic instincts.

In 1943, a psychologist named Abraham Maslow first presented his ideas on what motivates human behavior in an influential paper titled “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Maslow worked to develop a theory of human motivation that could accommodate for the influence of biology and environment while still recognizing the reality of free will.

The Five Basic Needs

Unlike the existing schools of thought of Maslow’s time that focused on problematic behavior, Maslow studied cases of success. He examined the habits of happy and successful individuals and attempted to understand the psychology that drove their actions.

In his paper, Maslow set out five fundamental human needs, or hierarchy of needs. Visually depicted as a pyramid, they fall into the following categories beginning with the base:

  • Physiological needs – food, shelter, and clothing
  • Safety – physical safety
  • Social needs – connections with other people
  • Esteem – achievement, recognition, and confidence
  • Self-actualization – realization of full potential

From Basic to Complex Needs

Maslow observed that these five basic needs do not produce the same motivational influence. Instead, there is a hierarchy that dictates that the lower needs, physiological being the lowest, must be met first. Once these lower needs are fully satisfied, only then do people become interested in fulfilling their other needs.

For instance, it is very difficult to be overly concerned with your safety or interested in the approval of others if you are cold and starving. Only when you are fully nourished will you begin to consider your need to feel safe, free of violence and physical harm.

Maslow’s Hierarchy and Addiction

Happy friends together outdoorOnce you achieve a feeling of reasonable safety and have continued to satisfy your physiological needs, only then does the need to fulfill your social connections become a motivational factor in your behavior.

The disease of addiction affects people from all walks of life. While each path to recovery is unique, the goal is the same: to achieve and maintain a healthy and sober life. For years addiction therapists have understood that certain components must be present for a rehabilitation program to be successful. Mainly, certain needs must be met and in a particular order.

For instance, therapists have long recognized the futility of engaging an individual in talk therapy when their body is suffering the impact of detoxification. Mirroring Malsow’s hierarchy, the goal of any treatment program is to first meet the most basic, physiological needs. Only when these fundamental needs are met can safety be considered, followed by social needs, esteem, and ultimately self-actualization.

The Hierarchy of Recovery

The journey to a healthy and sober life takes time. While addiction may be viewed as sliding backwards along Malsow’s hierarchy of needs, recovery is the process of moving forward. While the exact steps taken vary from person to person based on individual circumstances, they generally follow the same hierarchy outlined by Maslow.

Physiological Needs

libraryPhysiological needs include food, water, sleep, clean air, and anything else that supports basic survival. During the addiction recovery process, this basic need may also be met through detoxification.

For the recovering addict, ensuring that these needs are met can mean the difference between feeling in control as opposed to feeling stressed and frustrated. Due to the strong biogenetic component of addiction, these negative emotions can cause intense feeling of deprivation, therefore triggering a relapse. Keen awareness and understanding of this basic need supports lasting sobriety and allows for progression up the hierarchy of needs.


As the path to lasting recovery continues to unfold, safety needs begin to surface. Seeking safety helps to create predictability and certainty in a chaotic world. This added sense of security creates an environment that supports lasting recovery.

While not all elements of life can be controlled and predicted, the added sense of stability allows for social, esteem, and self-actualization needs to be addressed.

Social Needs

Once the physiological and security needs are satisfied, social needs come into play. An important aspect of the recovery process is the involvement of supportive friends and family who provide hope and acceptance creating a non-judgmental atmosphere. These are the people who believe in believe in the power of the recovery process to create lasting, sustainable change.

These individuals provide a support network and can include family members, friends, and other recovering addicts from support groups and communities.


Super happy smiling guy“What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself.” – Abraham Maslow

There are two basic esteem needs: self-esteem and the need for appreciation and respect. These two forms can also be called internal esteem and external esteem.

Internal esteem needs relate to feelings of self-worth. These include the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. Part of the path to recovery is to redefine these stories. By recognizing that the past does not equal the future, lasting change can be made through reshaping this internal dialogue.

Earning the respect of other community members fulfills external needs. This is therefore dependent on who those community members are. Choosing to earn the respect of those individuals who are healthy and supportive is critical.

Self-Actualization: An Evolving Concept

Over time, Maslow examined his original understanding of self-actualization. He began to recognize that this need went beyond simply realizing one’s fullest potential and included devotion to a higher purpose. An altruistic drive is at the heart of this need.

A key to any addiction recovery path is giving back to others. This is the step, like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, that comes when the other fundamental needs are addressed. This process of self-transcendence teaches the ability to be present in the moment and less in one’s thoughts.

By moving beyond the destructive nature of addiction and supporting others on their path to recovery, a sense of a higher purpose becomes the source for lasting happiness and success.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

Have you successfully remained sober? Has the concept of Maslow’s hierarchy influenced your experience?

About the author:

Dr. Daniel Angres is a national expert in psychiatry, addiction, and physicians’ health programs. Currently, he serves as the Medical Director of the Positive Sobriety Institute as well as Chief Medical Officer of RiverMend Health Addiction Services.

Dr. Angres is nationally recognized for his expertise in addiction and dual disorders evaluation and treatment medicine. He has specialized in working with addicted professionals for 30 years.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addiction. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on July 1st, 2015
Published on

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter Ekern is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He contributed and helped write a major portion of Addiction Hope and is responsible for the operations of the website.