Fundamental Human Needs

Fundamental Needs


If you are anything like me, the use of the word ‘need’ is wrapped up in the everyday minutiae of life.

“I need a new phone”

“I need the plumber to come around and fix the shower”

“I need to eat a bag of chips whilst watching Netflix”

“I need sleep”

There is probably no better time of year to illustrate this than Xmas, which has honestly descended into a “buy shit I don’t need” catastrophe.


It is far less common for me to use the word ‘need’ to describe the core conditions I need to function and thrive as a human being – i.e. fundamental human needs.

The word ‘fundamental’ is defined as “forming a necessary base or core; of central importance”. Therefore a fundamental human need is one that is of central importance to our existence.

I don’t hear people talking about fundamental human needs very often (it isn’t your standard dinner conversation topic), but having a language to talk about fundamental human needs can be very helpful. Understanding which needs are being met in our life, and importantly, which are not, can give us vital clues as to what changes in our life might bring us the greatest happiness or well-being. Understanding human needs can also help us focus our efforts to improve the well-being of those around us.

My goal in this post therefore is to give you a basic language for thinking about fundamental human needs and some self-reflection exercises you might engage in to think about the extent to which these needs are being met in your own life and how you might meet them in others’ lives. The language of needs described in this post comes from an article by Manfred Max-Neef, a Chilean economist, known specifically for his work in this area.  I am not pretending this post is an accurate representation of his work in this area, but I think the selection of needs he describes is comprehensive and applicable to most.


Fundamental Human Needs


Subsistence refers to those core things we need for survival. Water, food, shelter, and work. Without these, we don’t have the conditions necessary for good physical and mental health. I tend to take these needs for granted, having been raised in a middle class white family in Australia, but for many people, even in developed countries, accessing these core things is a daily challenge.


Protection includes both those things in our immediate personal environment that keep us safe (e.g. a safe and secure home, a trusted adult), but also those services within our society that provide a safety net in times of crisis, such as healthcare/hospitals, social security, insurance, and employment.


Affection is the sense of love, intimacy and connection achieved through friendships, family, partnerships and relationships with nature (e.g. animals, plants). Commonly it is about having at least one person in our live with whom we can share our deepest feelings, and reciprocally provide the same level of deep support.


Understanding is knowledge, essentially. The opportunities to learn (e.g. schools, mentors) and achieve mastery in one or more areas. This is not just formal schooling, but also independent activities to better understand the world (e.g. taking up a hobby, devouring documentaries or non-fiction books).


Participation is about being part of a group(s) and having specific responsibilities within those groups. This might be associations, planning committees, groups attached to specific hobbies or community/neighborhood groups. Group membership brings a sense of belonging but also a range of other positive benefits such as social support and sense of purpose.


Sounds decadent, but leisure is about have periods of time or activities that you find fun and relaxing; where you don’t have any responsibilities and you can dream and play. For some this might be parties, for others sitting in a park with a book. Regardless of activity, leisure time is time where we feel at least temporarily unencumbered by the challenges of life.


Creation involves opportunities to bring into the world something completely new. To use your imagination and inventiveness to build, design or invent. There are many ways to create: write, build, play (e.g. music), make art, dance, talk with others, join a group.


Identity is about having a sense of who you are. Understanding what makes you alike and unlike other people. It is about having an understanding of yourself, of who ‘you’ uniquely are; likes and dislikes, passions, dreams, skills, interests and purpose.


Freedom is about feeling like you are in control of your own life; that you have autonomy and equal rights. This can operate at the smaller group level, like being in a family where you are encouraged to take your own direction, but also involves living in a society or community where your rights and freedoms are respected as equal to all others.


Max-Neef does not consider Transcendence a fundamental need (not consistent across cultures), but I see it as one that is important to a lot of people. Transcendence is a sense of connection with a power or truth or ideal that is more than ourselves. It is often ‘achieved’ through religious and spiritual beliefs but it is possible to find a higher purpose in more grounded concepts such as giving, unconditional love and compassion and respect for nature.


Self-reflection exercise

Warning: this self reflection exercise has the potential to leave you feeling a bit crappy, because it gets you to focus in on whether your needs are being met. These feelings typically pass after a couple of days. If they hang around, it might be that you need to pull a close friend, family member, or professional aside and chat through the issue in more depth.


Think about each of the fundamental human needs and your own life. To what extent are each of these needs met in your own life?

Do you have all the basics for survival? (subsistence)

Do you feel safe? (protection)

Do you have at least one person in your life with whom you can share your deepest and darkest fears? (affection)

Do you have a learning goal (it might be your studies, a hobby, or even just reading a good book)? (understanding)

Do you play a role in a group or club? (participation)

Do you make time to simply relax and have fun? (leisure)

Do you feel that you are bringing something unique into the world? (creation)

Do you have a sense of who you are? (identity)

Do you feel like you are in control of your life? (freedom)

Do you feel a connection with a concept or ideal that is higher than you? (transcendence)

If you answered no to any of these questions, take time to consider if this is an area of your life where you might be able to experience significant growth. I wouldn’t expect that you would know immediately how to address it, but you can certainly start brainstorming ways that you might.

Some needs can be difficult to achieve without help (e.g. subsistence, freedom, protection). Remember as Flinders Students, there are multiple services available to help you during your time as a student.

Some needs are also difficult to achieve without some kind of personal commitment to growth (e.g. identity). That might be as simple as taking some time out to think about your life and make some new goals, or more complex, like making some significant life changes in order to achieve greater control (e.g. freedom). Remember that in Australia, we are generally very lucky that there are services available to help people in need. Start with the services at Flinders and go from there.



Helping others exercise

It took me many years to realise the world didn’t revolve around me (trust me, it was a tough reality to accept). Reflecting on how you might help meet these fundamental needs in the lives of others is an equally good exercise to engage with, particularly during this Christmas season.


Think about someone you care about and think about giving them a ‘gift’. Ask yourself what gift you might be able to provide that helps them with one or more of the fundamental needs.

Something that helps them meet their basic needs (e.g. food vouchers, part-time work)

Something that helps them feel safer (e.g. improvement to their home security, awareness of services in their area)

Something that increases the quality of your friendship or relationship with them – makes you closer (e.g. a letter expressing your positive feelings towards them)

Something from which they can learn new stuff, especially in relation to a topic they’ve expressed interest in (e.g. a photography course for a keen photographer)

Membership to an organisation or group related to an interest of theirs

Time for leisure (e.g. looking after their kids for a while)

Something to spark their creativity (e.g. a book on painting or writing)

A gift that is consistent with something you know they love (e.g. a plant for a person who loves gardening)

A gift of freedom (e.g. encouragement and support for them making a significant change in their life)

A gift of transcendence (ok, I admit. I really don’t know how to do this. Happy to take suggestions).

The suggestions above are just that, suggestions. Also note that I use the word ‘gift’ quite broadly, not just encompassing gifts that we might wrap and give as presents. Supporting someone to make a significant change in their life is a type of gift.

One of the sneaky surprises of this exercise is that in thinking about how you might meet some of these needs for another person, you may uncover a way to meet them in your own life 🙂


Want to comment on this article, or ask me a question about the health and well-being services available to you as a student? Feel free to comment below, abuse me on Twitter (@Dr_Furber), contact me on Skype (search for ‘eMental Health Project Officer Gareth’), or email me (


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Psychological Tools

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