Mental Fitness – Lesson 5 – Psychological needs and self-improvement


Greetings and welcome to Lesson 5 of my ‘Introduction to Mental Fitness’ course. If you are new to the course, check out the introductory post first.

Ok, today’s lesson is a long one, so strap yourself in.

As you probably know, in this Mental Fitness Course so far, I’ve been focusing on self-improvement as a lead-in to talking about Mental Fitness as a framework for mental or psychological self-improvement.

Over the last couple of posts, I’ve been looking at what motivates us to self-improve.

I started by looking at what commonly motivates people to want to improve, using the example of getting more exercise.

Then I moved to exploring how you define yourself as a person, as well as who you want to be as a motivator for improvement.

Today I want to explore a source of motivation that applies to all of us, and that has probably been the strongest motivator for me personally in my own efforts at self-improvement.

That source of motivation is psychological needs.

You may have heard about these already but not realised it yet

Many of you will be familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

taken from:

The basic idea is that as human beings we have a variety of needs that if not met can lead to illness or death.

Maslow’s idea of organising these needs into a hierarchy was based on the idea that we generally have to achieve/meet those on the lower levels before moving up to those on the higher levels. You generally need to attend to your basic needs of food, water, warmth, rest and safety met before you can attend to your psychological needs.

In reality, as humans we can be pursuing multiple needs at the same time. For example a meal with friends can meet multiple needs: food, water, rest, friends. If you cooked it yourself, it would also give you a sense of accomplishment.

For most of us here at Flinders, our basic physiological needs have been taken care of. We have food, shelter, warmth, rest and security/safety. This isn’t to say that significant time/effort/resources hasn’t gone into meeting these needs. For example, 50% of my salary goes towards ensuring I have a roof over my head, food in the pantry and access to basic services such as electricity and water. I spend 5 of the 7 days per week earning that salary. But there does comes a point where you are not really conscious of the fact that you are striving to get those basic needs met because your life is already sufficiently structured in a way to get them met.

(Note: we are acutely aware that some students are struggling to get their basic needs met, hence programs like the Flinders Market, Thread Together Van, and the various welfare services offered by FUSA. Please make sure you reach out to us here at HCDS, OASIS or FUSA if you are struggling in one of these areas).

For me, and I imagine many of you these basic needs are being met. The remainder of our time and resources therefore is going towards getting our psychological needs met.

Psychological needs are subjective experiences/feelings that we need in order to be happy and contented. If our psychological needs aren’t met, we suffer mentally and emotionally and run the risk of developing mental illness. For those of you who have struggled with mental illness, you will know how debilitating it can be. And if you are questioning just how damaging not meeting our psychological needs can be, consider the literature showing that actual and perceived social isolation are risk factors for early mortality.

Maslow identified two core psychological needs in his original model (esteem and belongingness). This was later expanded to include cognitive needs (knowledge and understanding, curiosity, exploration, need for meaning and predictability) and aesthetic needs (appreciation and search for beauty, balance, form, etc). I would also consider his ‘self-actualisation’ need to be psychological as it describes a subjective experience of having achieved one’s potential.

Regardless of the specifics of what we call or how we categorise psychological needs, I believe, and I think it is fairly uncontroversial to say that:

1) we all have psychological needs whether or not we are aware of them or care to admit that we have them, and

2) on any given day we are striving to get those psychological needs in the same way as we strive to get our basic needs of food, water, shelter, safety and clean air met.

It is important to stop and consider this for a second. The combination of these two points suggest that you are intrinsically motivated to get your psychological needs met and are either consciously or unconsciously going about life trying to get those needs met. You might be doing this in really healthy ways, or potentially very unhealthy ways. Regardless, you, as an organism are in constant search of getting your psychological needs met.

These realisations were quite big for me. They led me to closely analyse the different aspects of my life and the extent to which I felt I was getting my needs met by those aspects. I also started reflecting on the psychological needs of those around me, and the extent to which I was playing a positive or negative role in their need satisfaction. I changed my behaviour on the basis of these self-reflections. I got better as a person by paying attention to these needs and adjusting myself accordingly.

Therefore I think an understanding of psychological needs can be incredibly helpful in focusing your self-development efforts. Humans appear to be wired to seek out experiences that enhance their wellbeing, but even more than that, to enhance who they are. We seek to surround ourselves with good people. We seek to accomplish things. We seek to be creative and realise our full potential. Tuning into your psychological needs is tuning into a fundamental set of motivators for improvement.

We talk about psychological needs, but mostly indirectly

What I find really interesting is, that despite the fact that we all have psychological needs, we rarely explicitly talk about them. We don’t arrive home at night after a long day and say “that was tough, 3 of my psychological needs were not met today”. It just isn’t how we speak.

So if we all have these needs, and whether or not they are being met plays an important role in our wellbeing, why don’t we talk about them more often?

One simple explanation is that we are never really taught about psychological needs. I didn’t learn about them at school or anything like that. I only learned about them because I studied psychology. Many people have never been exposed to a discussion of psychological needs.

What I do notice however is that we are often talking indirectly about our psychological needs.

Think about that friend or family member of yours who complains about their job and never seems happy with how it is working out.

OR Think about that time you got a bad mark on a test or assignment and how shitty it felt, even though in the grand scheme it is a fairly minor problem.

OR Think about that feeling you get when you just aren’t quite sure what you are meant to do with your life.

At least one reason why these situations can feel so challenging and have such an impact on us, is because they involve the meeting (or not meeting) of our psychological needs.

That friend who is complaining about their job might really be saying ‘I just don’t feel like I belong at work’ or ‘the boss doesn’t let me make any decisions’.

The reason that failed assignment feels shitty is because it challenges the idea of you being competent at what you do.

And that crappy feeling you get when you can’t think about what to do with your life is there because having meaning or purpose is a fundamental psychological need.

The good news is that if you can understand core psychological needs, you can understand why certain events have such an impact on you, as well as be far more focused in understanding how to address such situations.

So what are these core psychological needs?

There are differing views on exactly which psychological needs are the most important, common or fundamental. I think there are at least 11 that are worth knowing about. This might sound like a lot, but remember we are trying to capture the complexity of the human experience and what constitutes a subjectively good life, so 10 is actually quite small when you think about it. And although there is individual and cultural variation in terms of the rated importance of different psychological needs, there is actually a lot of overlap between individuals and cultures in terms of the core or most fundamental psychological needs.

So in no particular order, here are the 10 psychological needs I think you should consider.


Competence is about being good at what you do as well as knowing you have the capacity to learn more and get better. Competence for a surgeon is about being good at surgery and improving that over time. Competence for an architect is about being good at designing buildings. At university, competence is essentially two things: one is being good at study (like writing good assignments, performing well on exams, getting good grades), the other is developing skills in your chosen area of study. So for me to get a psychology degree, I had to be able to do the psychology assignments, but I also had to develop knowledge and skills that I would use as a registered psychologist. Given how central the need for competence is in university study, it is not surprising therefore that students who feel capable and are performing well at their studies report higher wellbeing than those who are not.


Related to competence is Achievement which is the experience of reaching milestones, achieving goals or completing activities. Achievement is about being able to point specifically to your accomplishments. Achievement, as you can imagine, goes hand in hand with competence, but relates to the tangible products or evidence of that competence – things that we can point to – ‘hey look what I did’. At university, it is grades that constitute the primary ‘achievement’ available to us. That isn’t to say there aren’t other opportunities, but grades are typically what is most visible to students. Not surprisingly, students whose grades slip can sometimes get caught in a vicious spiral of low grades, poor wellbeing, low grades.

Connected with achievement (at least in my mind) is the sense that those achievements have been recognised by others. For example, if I write a blog post that I am proud of, I get a feeling of achievement. That feeling is heightened if someone else notices that post and congratulates me on it. It is why, having completed a piece of work, that even a casual “nice work Gareth” from a colleague is a very powerful gesture. We like to achieve, and we like others to notice those achievements.


Relatedness is about the need to belong. Humans are social creatures and our survival is dependent on being connected to, and engaged with each other. This is the case whether or not you consider yourself a ‘social person’ or not. Relatedness is about knowing that there are people who care about us and people that we care about. It is about feeling accepted and needed by others.

University is a great setting in which to develop a sense of belonging. There is a great diversity of people and interests such that the likelihood of you finding people with similar interests and goals is high. People who I met at university became lifetime partners, friends and colleagues.

We know that students who are socially connected at university generally do better, and certainly those that are isolated (e.g. those studying entirely online) can do worse. We think this is because having social connections is a fundamental need. Keep in mind though that you don’t necessarily need to get your social connectedness through your studies. It might be through family or friends or work, activities adjacent to your studies.


Autonomy is about feeling you have choices and that you are a key agent in shaping how your life unfolds. It is about feeling like you are the author of your life story.

For those of you straight out of high school, you are moving from your life being very much dictated to you by parents and school, to a life where you are required (and able) to make more choices and actively shape what your life looks like. This autonomy often feels quite good but has its challenges as you are now more responsible for how things unfold. This might also be the feeling that some international students get, with the freedom of studying in a new country.

Even for those not coming directly from school, who are coming back to study, it might because of a desire to take a more active role in shaping your life moving forwards. Perhaps you were in a job you didn’t like and wanted to create a new future for yourself. University is a place where lots of people are trying to shape the rest of their future. I think this is at least partly because we want autonomy in our lives.

Positive emotion/vitality

Positive emotion/vitality are about feeling physically and mentally vital. It is about experiencing positive emotions and having a sense of physical health and wellbeing. I include in this the desire for fun and play as these experiences naturally produce positive emotions.  Just because we aren’t kids anymore, doesn’t mean we still don’t want time to play and have fun and I think the desire to feel good holds across the lifespan.

Those of you who have gone through very difficult times or experienced significant physical or mental illness will know just how hard a life without positive emotion and a sense of vitality can be. Whilst feeling good all the time isn’t feasible, we do desire regular pockets of enjoyment in our life and want to feel healthy enough to take advantage of the opportunities afforded to us.


Engagement is about feeling connected and immersed in the things we do, whether it is our work, our hobbies, our friends and family. Engagement is that feeling of being totally lost in an activity, to the exclusion of everything else. I get that feeling when I am working in the garden. Some call it a state of flow.

Full energised enjoyable immersion in what we are doing is not something we can achieve all the time or across every aspect of our life, but people can typically tell you which aspects of their life they feel engaged and connected to.

At university, we find students who seem quite connected to their choice of degree (they feel they made a good choice) and this provides a greater buffer against the normal stressors of a degree (e.g. assignments, exams). Likewise we find students who do not feel engaged with their degree (e.g. feel they may have chosen the wrong degree) and this makes it difficult for them to generate feelings of motivation to do the required work.


Meaning/ purpose/ identity is about knowing what we are meant to do with our lives and who we want to be as a person. In addition it includes whether we feel like we are moving meaningfully towards those things in our life. For example, I know that I want to help people achieve physical and mental wellbeing and that my job here at Flinders allows me to actively work towards that.

Having a purpose is one of the key predictors of a long and healthy life. For those of you who are fresh out of high school or in the early stages of your degree, you might just be at the early stages of knowing who you want to be and what you want to do. This is fine. This is an exciting period of opportunity and possibility for you where you can start considering what it is you want to do in your life or if you already knew, start to make it happen.

Others of you might have returned to study with a specific goal in mind and university is a very specific part of your journey to find or develop your personal meaning.

Some consider meaning and purpose as something you find, having sampled from a wide range of life experiences. Others believe that meaning and purpose is developed through hard work and focus on specific areas. The truth is people arrive at their purpose in different ways. In this course, we’ll look at ways you can accelerate or hone this this process.


Safety is often considered a basic physical need, but there are aspects of it that are psychological in nature as well. Security/ order is about feeling safe from the environment, from others, from ourselves (in the case of those who self-harm) – as well as experiencing the world as being (at least in some respects) predictable.

It is about having our life structured in a way that helps reduce unpredictability and danger. This includes fundamental things like having a safe place to live, to be free from the threat of others who wish us harm, and have the money or resources required to meet basic needs; through to the smaller things like regular routines and schedules that make our days feel a little more ordered and having uncluttered and tidy workspaces.

Security/order turned out to be a fairly important psychological need for me. I really like my days to unfold in a predictable orderly way, and any deviations tend to throw me out a bit. This is despite me knowing intellectually that many things are out of my control. I also really like to regularly tidy my workspace and office so I feel a sense of order. Finally, over the past few years I’ve educated myself a lot more on managing money, so I could feel a greater sense of control in preparing for the future.

A sense of security and order comes from being able to exert control on at least some aspects of your life. It is one of the reasons we encourage students at the beginning of a semester to grab a diary or planner map out their classes, tutorials, assignments and exams, as well as period for study, so there are no nasty surprises during the year.


Creativity is about having the ability and opportunity to bring new life, ideas, experiences or objects into being. It is about feeling like we bring something unique to the world. Creativity includes but is not limited to being artistic – i.e. through music or art or dance. Creativity includes bringing new ideas and concepts into reality. It is possible to be creative in even the driest of topics.

Satisfying one’s need for creative expression at uni can be a bit of a mixed bag. To some extent, university training involves you learning what is already known about a particular subject – which doesn’t always feel like a very creative endeavour. However university also encourages you to start thinking for yourself on different issues, which can be the basis of some very creative outputs. All this depends a lot on your degree, and what stage you are at in your degree. Early in a psychology degree for example, you are expected to simply show that you know the existing materials. Later in the degree though you are encouraged to apply that knowledge to develop unique projects.

I’ll talk about creativity more in future lessons, but if you feel there are few opportunities for creative expression in your degree, you might need to consider developing alternative outlets for that creative energy.


Do you know that sense of awe and wonder you get when you are looking at an amazing sunset, a striking building, or an amazing piece of art? I think humans are wired to appreciate beauty and imagination on all scales; from the elegance of a snowflake to the elaborate architecture of a highly decorated cathedral, through to the almost inconceivable size and shape of a galaxy.

I think the psychological need for aesthetics is partly what drives us to decorate our living spaces, nurture gardens and build things. Our mood is better in the presence of things of beauty. Our mood drops when we are surrounded by drab and lifeless.

Satisfying your need for aesthetics can be as simple as taking time outside, watching a documentary or travelling to see something new. You can increase the beauty of the space in which you inhabit through decoration. You can open a picture book or fire up Google Earth to instantly transport yourself to some of the most beautiful places on earth. You can put a telescope up to the sky to see the universe. The key is to deliberately and specifically bring beauty into our lives, even in small ways.



Last but not least is Self-esteem which is about feeling that we have worth as a person – that there are characteristics about ourselves that are valued and recognised by others.

I kinda think of self-esteem as the psychological need that is met, when all the other needs are met. If we feel competent at what we do, feel like we belong and that we are shaping our own destiny, we will be more likely to have high self-esteem. Conversely, when our other psychological needs are not being met, and we feel incompetent, isolated and out of control, our self-esteem is low.

Self-esteem is not about just being told you are a good person. It is about earning that feeling through the way we approach and live our lives.

People will differ in how they earn that feeling. For some it will be about building a good career. For others it might be about supporting their family. For some it is a mixture of things.

What should you do with all this information?

At the basic level, I just want you to entertain the concept that you have psychological needs and that some of what you do each day is an attempt to meet those needs.

For example, I’d say that just about every university student is, mindfully or not, trying to feel competent and accomplished. I’m not sure you’d be studying a degree if you weren’t in some way looking to increase your competence and get a degree under your belt.

Then, if you are feeling a little adventurous, consider the reflection questions and suggested tasks below. These will get you thinking in more depth about your own psychological needs and the extent to which they are being met. Discovery of needs that are not being met can then be a motivator for change and self-improvement.

A couple of things before completing those exercises:

  1. Although humans share a common set of psychological needs, there are individual differences in how important each of the needs is to us. For example, autonomy, achievement and meaning/purpose are very important to me, whilst for others it might relatedness, self-esteem and positive emotion/vitality. Realising that we share a common set of needs but we each have our own unique mix is an important thing to realise to when considering the needs of those around you. For example, your partner’s needs might be different from yours.
  2. Even when we share common needs, we sometimes go about meeting those needs in different ways. For example, someone might find a sense of autonomy through their work. For another person it is through their hobbies and interests. The good thing about this is it means we can satisfy our psychological needs in different ways.
  3. Over the course of your life, the psychological needs most important to you might shift. Meaning/purpose/identity weren’t very important to me when I was in my 20’s. It is very important to me now. Your needs now as a student might differ to your needs when you join the workforce. However the concept of psychological needs and the targeted effort that might be required to meet those needs will stay the same.

Ok – that is probably enough for this lesson. Enough to wrap your head around.

In the next lesson, I am going to finish up this mini-series on self-improvement by looking at why your friends, or family, or community or humanity as a whole might want you to improve yourself.

Until then, take care.

Dr G

Reflection Questions

Review the psychological needs discussed in this lesson.

What other psychological needs do you think people have? What other psychological needs do you have? To do this, think about the experiences you need in order to feel that life is worth living (An example might be ‘novelty’ which is the need to experience new and interesting things on a regular basis). What experiences do you need in order to want to get up every day?

Suggested Tasks

If you’ve been following along with the suggested tasks of previous lessons, then you’ll have a notebook or electronic document in which you are completing these tasks.

In that notebook/document, under “Motivation“, I want you to list out the 10 psychological needs, one per line.

The first thing you are going to do is give each need a ranking out of 10, with 1 being ‘not important at all’ and 10 being ‘very important to me’. By ‘important’ I mean how critical is it for you to get those needs met in order to live a contented meaningful life? Feel free to add your own needs to the list. For example:

Competence – 9
Achievement – 7
Relatedness – 5
Autonomy – 8
Positive emotion/vitality – 6
Engagement – 8
Meaning/purpose/identity – 9
Security/order – 8
Creativity – 9
Self-esteem – 5

The second thing I want you to do is then identify which needs you think are being fairly well met in your life at the moment, by putting a tick next to them. For example:

Competence – 9 –
Achievement – 7 –
Relatedness – 5
Autonomy – 8 –
Positive emotion/vitality – 6
Engagement – 8 –
Meaning/purpose/identity – 9 –
Security/order – 8 –
Creativity – 9 –
Self-esteem – 5

Finally, I want you to put a cross against those needs that you think perhaps aren’t being met in your life at the moment. There is no need to do anything about that at this stage, but this will come in handy in later stages.

Competence – 9 – √
Achievement – 7 – √
Relatedness – 5 – X
Autonomy – 8 – √
Positive emotion/vitality – 6 – X
Engagement – 8 – √
Meaning/purpose/identity – 9 – √
Security/order – 8 – √
Creativity – 9 – √
Self-esteem – 5X

This is your preliminary evaluation of the extent to which your psychological needs are being met. We’ll return to this later in the course.

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