For centuries, humanity has struggled to identify optimal human functioning. Aristotle called the highest human good eudaimonia (i.e., happiness). Carl Rogers defined it as the “fully functioning person.” Abraham Maslow concluded that optimal humans have achieved “self-actualization.” For Erich Fromm, optimal humans valued personal growth and love over material possessions and status. But have these theories withstood the test of time and scientific experimentation? Psychologist Ken Sheldon aptly summarizes the findings in his book, Optimal Human Being, as follows.
First, optimal humans balance their basic needs of autonomy, competence, relatedness, security and self-esteem. For example, a workaholic may have high feelings of autonomy, competence, security and self-esteem, but will have very little relatedness (and an associated ache of loneliness) due to his lack of social connection with others.
Second, optimal humans set congruent goals and make efficient progress towards accomplishing them. The first key to this life strategy is congruence: the goals have to align with one’s personality and talents. The second key is progress: one must continue moving forward towards achievement, and by so doing, will experience a greater sense of confidence and well-being.
Third, optimal humans aren’t superficial. They do not set solely extrinsic goals (money, beauty, status) likely to make them unhappy, and instead set a healthy share of intrinsic ones (intimacy, community and personal growth).
Fourth, optimal humans minimize problematic traits/behaviors and harness beneficial ones most likely to help them accomplish their congruent goals. This may require learning self-regulation strategies or learning more about one’s character strengths.
Fifth and finally, optimal humans transcend themselves. As Victor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning:
Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.
Put simply, optimal humans aren’t self-centered–they transcend themselves, whether that be in the name of a cause or love. Doing this imbues their lives with meaning, creates positivity, and engenders an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction. In sum, many would say that to be optimal is to transcend oneself.