COVID-19 and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: How Is Our Motivation Changing?

Mother and daughter using a ladder to pick cherriesUnderstanding human motivation has been one of the goals of psychology founding fathers and current theorists to date. Motivation is often at the core of studying psychological processes in humans and understanding why we do the things we do.

Motivation is defined as “the process of arousing, directing, and maintaining behavior toward a goal” (Greenberg, 2002). Although this definition seems simple, human motivation is often more complex. In light of the current crisis situation we all find ourselves in amid the COVID-19 pandemic, how can one understand their own motivations and the motivations of others?

One way to understand this is to apply a classic theory of human motivation: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The basic premise of the theory is that “people will not be happy or well-adjusted unless they have their needs met” (Greenberg, 2002). Not only are humans motivated by meeting their needs, but their needs are ordered in such a way that if basic needs aren’t met first, then humans will not have the motivation to meet needs that aren’t considered basic. Basic needs are described as lower-order needs, while needs beyond basic are described as higher-order needs.

Motivation and the Five Stages of Needs

In order to understand these hierarchical needs in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, let’s look at each need individually.

1. Physiological needs

The lowest order needs involve satisfying biological needs such as water, shelter, and food. Not only does this level of need require meeting basic needs, but it also requires that one’s body is healthy. A healthy body is also achieved through the proper amount of sleep, exercise, and appropriate balance of healthy foods, free of toxic substances.

2. Safety needs

Once one’s basic needs are met, Maslow believed that the next level of needs are triggered in an individual. The need for safety includes functioning in an environment that is physically and psychologically safe. In addition, the environment must be free of harm or perceived harm.

3. Social needs

These needs are activated once the first two needs are met. According to Maslow’s theory, if the first two needs are not met, then the person will not be activated to achieve higher order needs such as social needs. This need involves feeling loved by others and belonging to a social group. As social beings, humans have the need to connect with others.

4. Esteem needs

Once one feels accepted by their peers, the next higher-order need can be activated. The esteem need is characterized by feeling successful and having others recognize one’s accomplishments.

5. Self-actualization needs

The highest-order need for humans, once all of the above needs are met, is self-actualization. This need involves pursuing one’s maximum level of creativity and becoming all that one is intended to be.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the COVID-19 Pandemic

1. Physiological needs during COVID-19

The current state of our world right now has caused many people to be motivated by more basic needs than they were before this pandemic. Due to the fact that many people’s employment situations have changed, meeting basic needs might now be more of a priority than it was before.

In addition, now that many people are on stay-at-home orders, the option of going to the gym or other things that one typically does to stay physiologically healthy might not be available at this time. Finding creative ways to keep yourself healthy might be all that you can focus on right now, and that is okay.


Try to meet your basic needs first.


Engage in activities that are unhealthy for the body and the mind.

2. Safety needs during COVID-19

If you are fortunate enough to not have to worry about meeting your basic physiological needs during this crisis, you are now motivated to achieve safety. For some, depending on the area you live in and the rate of infection, staying safe and keeping your family safe is your main motivation right now, and that makes the most sense. In addition, if you are an essential worker or married to an essential worker or medical professional, you will most likely be striving to meet this safety need throughout the crisis.


Educate yourself about the facts about the rate of infection in your area.


Put pressure on yourself to achieve higher order needs.

3. Social needs during COVID-19

Perhaps you are fortunate enough to have your basic needs met. Given your current profession and financial situation, this crisis has not greatly affected your basic needs or your safety needs. You most likely live in an area that is not dense in population or rate of infection.

Based on this, you can now focus on having your social needs met. During the current social distancing orders, it might be hard to achieve this goal. If you are at home with a loving family, these needs are met by them. If you are in a home with others, but the environment is not connected, then this time may be particularly challenging for you.


Attempt to connect with others in your home daily through family activities. Attempt to connect with others outside of your home through virtual means such as FaceTime, group chats, and positive social media outlets.


Ignore the attempts for connection from healthy members of your family.


Assume that passive involvement in social media is satisfying social needs.

4. Esteem needs during COVID-19

If you are fortunate enough to have your basic, safety, and social needs met during this time of crisis, your next motivation on the order of needs (according to Maslow) is the need to achieve success and have others recognize your achievements. During this time, these types of needs might not be able to be met because many members of our culture are focused on meeting more basic needs. If you are currently working, you might be having these needs met by supervisors or peers. If you are in a loving home, perhaps your family members are encouraging you in your efforts at quarantine.


Encourage family members and other peers in their current efforts at surviving this pandemic.


Consider giving back to others who are struggling to meet basic needs. Altruism or the act of giving back to others in need was associated with “better life adjustment, better marital adjustment, and less hopelessness and depression” (Southwick & Charney, 2018). This might be a way to meet your esteem needs while also giving back to others who are working hard on the front lines of this pandemic.


Meet your esteem needs through others’ achievements, especially your children. According to Maslow, a human can only meet these high order needs through their own accomplishments. Basing your happiness on how your children are doing puts too much pressure on them, especially during a time of such uncertainty.

5. Self-actualization needs during COVID-19

According to Maslow, this need occurs when all other needs are met sufficiently. In the light of the current crisis that most of the nation is facing right now, the majority of people are not able to focus on these higher-order needs.


Be creative about how you can give back to and help others who are struggling.


Assume that all others are able to focus on their creativity at this time.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is one theory in many theories of human motivation. Some critics have questioned his theory, and like any theory in psychology, there are other competing theories of motivation. If you are interested in this topic, you can also check out this article.

If you are finding yourself struggling to cope during this time, consider finding a therapist in your area or online.


  1. Greenberg, J. (2002). Managing behavior in organizations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall
  2. Southwick, S. M., & Charney, D. S. (2012). Resilience: The science of mastering life’s greatest challenges. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

© Copyright 2020 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Amy Quinn, MA, MS, LMFT

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