The concept of self-actualization makes intuitive sense, at least for those who have a proclivity for it. Furthermore, the idea of reaching our full potential makes evolutionary sense. In order for natural selection to work optimally, each of us needs to express our genetic potential optimally also. If we all ignored our genetic singularity and conformed to the societal norm, there wouldn’t be enough diversity for natural selection to work. The meaning of life, in this sense, is genetically predetermined. I believe evolution punishes us with a sense of discontent if we ignore our genetic potential.
However, this punishment is not unhappiness. The reward is not happiness either. This is the confusing part. A pursuit of happiness is misleading. We could potentially waste a lot of time in our lives with it. The path to self-actualization is a continuous cycle of ups and downs, both happiness and unhappiness. Without going through the cycle, we cannot achieve self-actualization.
If self-actualization is a war, a pursuit of happiness is equivalent to picking only easy battles without being aware of the war. It’s misleading because “pursuit of happiness” appears even in the United States Declaration of Independence. There is something almost sacred about the concept, yet pursuing it can lead you astray because it’s like trying to have only daytime without any nighttime. Even if something makes you happy, it does not mean you should do it all the time. Doing so would eventually strip the joy out of it. Looking at it from the point of view of self-actualization, you can determine if any given pursuit contributes to that goal. Whether it makes you happy or unhappy should be secondary. Your desire to pursue happiness or to avoid unhappiness is a distracting force if your goal is self-actualization.
Now, what is the difference between self-improvement and self-actualization? Those who pursue self-improvement do not only choose easy battles, but they are not aware of the overall war either.
Self-improvement without self-actualization can feel pointless because there is no goal to prioritize what to improve. From the point of view of self-improvement, it would make rational sense to improve your weaknesses. Let’s say, for instance, you are bad at dancing and are afraid of dancing in front of others. To overcome your fear, you might take dancing classes. This would be “self-improvement.” But imagine Einstein dedicating his life to studying and practicing ballroom dancing. It would have been a waste of his talent. Although confronting your fears is admirable, without the goal of self-actualization in mind, you could end up spending far too much time on obsessing about your fears while neglecting your hidden potentials.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs implies that we all make progress towards self-actualization but I believe that many people are perfectly content with not pursuing the top of the pyramid (staying at the level of “Esteem” or “Love/Belonging”). An easy litmus test for finding self-actualizers is to recall if they have ever talked about retirement. Self-actualizers would find the idea of retirement unappealing because they know instinctively that they would be profoundly miserable in retirement.
Self-actualizers don’t care much for money either because their full potentials do not necessarily coincide with the market demand. If they do happen to coincide, they are likely to be wildly successful, but this is a matter of luck. You don’t have control over what your potential is and what market demands are.
In my opinion, it’s not necessarily a good thing to be a self-actualizer. It can be seen as a blessing or curse because it’s a lot of hard work to pursue it and because you don’t have a choice. If you are born a self-actualizer, your drive for self-actualization is beyond your own control. If you ignore it, the evolutionary forces will likely make you feel miserable. And, worst of all, chances are, there is no success, fame, or recognition at the end of the road. Even if you could achieve 100% of your potential, it does not mean that your potential has any value to our society. You could be an amazing poet but poets don’t make any money in today’s society. All that you could say to yourself on your deathbed is that you tried your best.