Psychological well-being is complicated. It’s why sites like this one exist. It’s why everyone’s uncle wants to tell you the secret to a happy life, and why all their answers are different.

Some aspects of ‘happiness,’ however, are straightforward. This is one of them:

Well-being is substantially predicated on having one’s basic needs met.

While this website offers science-based wisdom for optimizing well-being, there is a near-prerequisite, (there are rare exceptions, which will be discussed here further), that deserves more attention: peace, stability, and security in one’s life circumstances. When basic needs go unmet, “happiness” becomes extremely difficult to achieve.
This is not always the case, necessarily. And, there is a need for grace and nuance on this topic, which this page will look at in more detail.

The Priority of Basic Needs

In 1943, Psychologist Abraham Maslow published “A Theory of Human Motivation” and presented a “hierarchy of needs.” You’ve probably seen the pyramid representing his theory.

It’s worth noting that Maslow never actually used a pyramid to represent his model. Indeed, much of his work later in life sought to update and integrate his (now-outdated) “pyramid” with more eudaimonic approaches to well-being.

One of the best books available on well-being is Transcend, by Scott Barry Kaufman. It’s not only a comprehensive overview of psychological well-being, expertly distilling broad research from across psychology—it also takes a deep, personal look at the work of Abraham Maslow and offers new, more integrated models for understanding ‘happiness,’ like Kaufman’s sailboat metaphor.

*See an explanation of this model and other recent models in psychology here.

While the hierarchy of needs is an imperfect model, research largely confirms Maslow’s core premise: Unmet basic needs make it very difficult to achieve satisfaction in life.

  • Food insecurity is paired tightly with lower psychological well-being, higher psychological distress, and poorer overall mental health. (Myers 2020)
  • Countries with lower levels of human security—like war, political instability, and high crime rates—rank most poorly in subjective well-being. (Joshanloo 2019)
  • The most unhappy places in the world—countries like Afghanistan and Lebanon—are war and poverty-stricken countries.
  • As many developed countries (like the United States)  experience increasing economic inequality, a widening ‘happiness gap‘ emerges hand-in-hand, as more people fall below a baseline sense of security.
  • Unemployment strongly predicts unhappiness across cultures. (McKee 2005, Boarini 2012, Richter 2020)
  • People living in poverty or dangerous environments report much higher stress, social isolation, and hopelessness compared to those whose basic needs are met (Haushofer 2014, Jachimovicz 2022)
  • Chronic stressors suppress cognitive capacity. (Mani 2013, Csabai 2018, Negrón-Oyarzo 2016) Making short-sighted decisions just to survive erodes one’s mental health.

When most of your energy is going into basic survival, happiness can be very elusive.

Poverty and Hunger Are Traps

The poor and hungry are very likely the most unhappy group of people in the world.When circumstances force people to focus on only their most pressing needs, it comes at the expense of other things, long-term needs being just one part.

Hunger motivates people to work or pay for food, and decreases motivation to work or pay for any non-food reward. (Orquin 2016)Facing prolonged hunger can mean that hopelessness sets in—” learned helplessness” —and other, unused systems of motivation and reward begin deteriorating. These kinds of vicious cycles make it even harder to escape poverty.

Psychologist Daniel Nettle asserts that some self-limiting behaviors common to the economically deprived—specifically impulsivity-hyperactivity, irritability-aggression, anxiety, and persistent narcotic use—are more a result of consistent hunger than from any preexisting differences among social classes. (Nettle 2017)

The poor are vastly underrepresented in politics, and it is no wonder: they’re too busy tending to their survival needs to advocate for their political needs. As the wealth gap grows, the threshold for escaping poverty becomes higher and higher. Economic mobility has been a problem for a while already, even before the crises of housing and food costs that exploded-COVID.

In the United States, economic mobility has been declining for almost 100 years.

Even though we know that poverty has structural causes, just about everyone (especially the wealthy minority influencing modern politics) has theories about the poor—like that they’re lazy or just not trying hard enough.

“It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” ― Martin Luther King Jr.

The very poor don’t just have one of the quietest voices in society. They are also among the easiest for the rest of us to ignore and misrepresent.

We all like to believe that poor people could just pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but again and again, research has shown that this is unrealistic. Upward economic mobility for the poor is the exception, not the rule.  The truth is, individuals have only so much control over their circumstances. Structural issues have a much bigger impact than most of us realize.

Despite what anyone will say, we need to speak humbly when characterizing the poor. It is universally bad for people, and it is not ethical to blame someone for their own hunger or houselessness.

Even though this site seeks to empower people to deepen their well-being (mostly assuming your basic needs are met), the best thing we can do for those in poverty is to act (check out some resources from the Service cornerstone) and be grateful for what we have.**This website is a 501c3 non-profit, and is itself a labor of love.

Having your basic needs met is only one element of happiness. Your perception of insecurity also plays a role.

The Subjectivity of Security

The threshold at which people perceive their “basic needs” to be met varies across time and culture. Hunter-gatherers needed less money and material than urban professionals to feel secure. Not only that, but feeling yourself to be in a state of danger or scarcity can stress you out almost as much as actually being in danger. Your subjective perception of security has a real impact on your mental health. Simply being afraid that something could go wrong, leaving you unable to meet your basic needs, can eat into your happiness to a substantial degree.

Check out the Fear section to understand this hindrance to well-being:

Scarcity and the fear of mortal danger—the sort of danger that arises from not having our basic needs met—is baked into our DNA. But fear, the greatest hindrance to psychological well-being, comes in many forms. The amount that this fear can extend its reach is shocking. Whether you’re just above abject poverty, or even ‘middle class’ on the socioeconomic ladder, insecurity—fearing that something could go wrong and you won’t have the resources you need to be healthy and happy—is one of the most powerful motivators.
And there are fears that are universal among humans, no matter one’s socioeconomic status: fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of losing control, fear of losing reputation, and fear of losing emotional connection. (Schönbrodt 2012)
The gray area here is enormous.

Income Satiation

Knowing how drastically poverty can lower your well-being, it’s safe to say that in the modern world, money really is essential to a happy life.  But how much money do we need to be happy?

The truth about money’s impact is not as simple as the adage “Money doesn’t make you happy” or the constant, implied “Money is everything” of today’s ad-ridden world. It’s more complicated.

Everyone is different, and the effects of money/income on one’s psychological well-being can vary greatly depending on the region, country/culture, lifestyle, and individual person.

As a rule of thumb, money does buy happiness, but only up to a point. A 2018 study using the Gallup World Poll that sampled 1.7 million people worldwide found that the “income satiation” point is about $95,000 for life evaluation, and $60,000-$75,000 for emotional well-being. (Jebb 2018) In other words, you need about $95,000 to feel like you’re doing what you want in life, and $60-70k to feel comfortable and secure. Any higher than that, and the returns start to diminish.

And, of course, these numbers are destined to rise with natural inflation and increasing basic costs like housing.

Learn more about Money, how to manage it effectively for well-being, and much more in the Money section.

The fact that income has diminishing returns on well-being is well-known, and it’s consistent with this idea of having one’s basic needs met as a threshold for well-being. But putting a number on it may be misleading. Again, there is so much variability. What informs a person’s sense of security is highly individualized. It depends on a swath of interdependent variables. A person’s sense of Hope and narratives about their life, what cultures and traditions they live with, and other parts of one’s Perspective are all at play here, and they impact each other.

Here’s how one might label the above chart to account for some nuance:

Ultimately, your feelings of scarcity and uncertainty undermine your well-being, almost regardless of your income. Chronic stressors like discrimination, abuse, dangerous neighborhoods, or substandard housing can deplete your well-being regardless of your income level. And no amount of money compensates for illnesses like depression or addictions that hijack the mind.

“The need for safety, and its accompanying needs for stability, certainty, predictability, coherence, continuity, and trust in the environment, is the base upon which all the others are fulfilled.” – Scott Barry Kaufman, Transcend

Basic physical and psychological security provides the foundation, but lasting well-being requires much more than survival alone.

The Need for Nuance

Basic security is foundational. And, we must avoid oversimplifying the roots of poverty and barriers to well-being. Individuals have far less control over their circumstances than society likes to presume. Structural and systemic factors shape opportunities and obstacles in powerful ways, often along lines of race, gender, family background, and more. Victim-blaming mindsets are often ill-informed and can be counterproductive narratives.

Can Society and Culture Prevent My Well-Being?

Living well isn’t impossible in poor circumstances. But the answer is a soft and solemn ‘yes.’ Here are a handful of ways one’s culture/society can build HIGH walls between a person and their well-being, starting with a few related directly to peace, security, and basic needs.

  • By no decision of your own, your country could decide to engage in war. It’s easy to forget how many people in the world are fighting their own, very uphill battles for happiness as innocent bystanders amidst war or genocide.
  • One’s government or culture (and the foreign affairs therein) can suffer corruption, economic instability, or high inequality, causing poverty and making it difficult for large portions of its population to survive.
  • Society can impose times of great social or economic change, in which people experience a sense of instability, anxiously distracted from higher elements of well-being like flow or meaning.
  • Some societies can have rigid ideologies or cultural traditions that keep them from looking beyond their basic needs.
  • Society can force people to work meaningless jobs, or even impose too much structure in a way that minimizes free time for a person to seek out meaningful, enjoyable pursuits.

Some aspects of a person’s well-being are structural—out of their own control. While society can’t undermine EVERY aspect of your well-being, it may impose structures that deeply alter it.

All this being said, we need to avoid victimizing mindsets that deny agency and assume helplessness. Resilience research shows that people can find fulfillment and purpose even in very harsh conditions.

Nuance is deeply important on an issue like this one. Judging people in poverty as universally helpless or lazy is ethically questionable. But presuming them universally incapable of happiness or responsibility can also be unjust. Individual stories show tremendous variability. The richest and poorest people exhibit every human strength and frailty. Simple narratives about wealth and happiness often overreach in both directions. A balanced perspective recognizes that conditions matter greatly but do not dictate experience entirely.

There Is Often Hope

Social support, spiritual life, acceptance, optimism, and a sense of meaning and purpose bring us hope and dignity. These things may be more difficult to achieve in dire circumstances. And yet, they are still available to us.

Hope is not something to expect in the face of insecurity. And yet, it is a powerful thing to cultivate in oneself and others in such circumstances.

Perspective is powerful. On this site is a directory—and a metaphorical tribute to the power of perspective—of the many tools that can be cultivated to empower oneself from within.

The section on Hope breaks down the science and strategy of hope and provides ample exercises and resources to cultivate this skill.

The World is Getting Better

Hope is not only there for every person, it’s also there for the world. Even if we can’t feel it.

A 2015 survey asked people in 9 countries, “All things considered, do you think the world is getting better or worse, or neither getting better nor worse?”. In Sweden 10% thought things are getting better, in the US they were only 6%, and in Germany only 4%.

This could be an irony of modern cultures in the ‘developed’ world. It could be from our strong, natural negativity bias. Whatever the reason, by and large we are dead wrong. Over the last 2 centuries, the world has largely been getting much better. There is by far less poverty, less war, less child mortality, more literacy, more education, more health, greater lifespans, and more democracy/freedom than ever before.
China and India, together representing about one-third of the global population,  exemplify the global lift out of poverty. In the last few decades, they have made massive strides in education, and they are poised to be the world’s new middle-class consumers.

These trends are continuing. And with them, the world becomes a ‘happier’ place. That is, more and more people have their basic needs met, making a well-lived life of psychological well-being closer and more available to people than ever.

Happiness is not an answer to physical insecurity. Instead, peace / security / stability are fundamental scaffolds for happiness. We need to lift neighbors up (accelerating the trend) and continue giving more people a chance at happiness.

”Happiness” Indexes

If you haven’t heard of it directly, you’ve probably come across some data from indexes like the World Happiness Report. But have you heard of the many other (often better) indexes for measuring well-being by country? And how well do they actually do at measuring the human condition?

Many entities, especially evident in global “Happiness” reports, conflate security with overall psychological well-being.

In fact, you can be secure (and mislabeled as “happy”) while still being depressed or having generally low psychological well-being.
See our take here:

And…now that humanity is finally getting there en masse. We have new problems to face.

Meeting our basic needs makes a well-lived life available to us. It does NOT guarantee it.

Why is it that even financially stable people can be so unhappy? If the world is improving, why do so many people feel empty and pessimistic about life? What should I do to work on my well-being once my needs for safety and security are met?

The Quest for Meaning and Purpose

If you’re reading this, chances are high that you know someone who is both financially stable AND miserable. Humans are wired to prioritize peace and security, but we are also wired to need a lot more than just that.

Countries with more abundance are, on average, ‘happier,’ but these same countries also face the highest levels of depression and suicide. Wealthy people can be—and often are—very unhappy.

In a world where people must “grind” to escape and prevent poverty:
We get lost in the hustle, and years of prioritizing security can come at the cost of equally fundamental elements of well-being, like connection and positive relationships.

In a world where more and more of our basic needs are met:
Our new challenge becomes not falling into complacency. Comfort feels great, but a well-lived life needs depth and purpose. Achievement and status are huge motivators, but they mean very little without genuine meaning in life.

*On this site you’ll find an extensive section detailing the modern trap of “happiness as a hindrance.”

A mysterious side effect of our modern abundance is a crisis of meaning.

Meaning is powerful. (That’s meaning IN life, not necessarily a meaning OF life). Without it, one can feel happy, but that happiness is like comfort and moments of pleasure amidst fields of vapid hollowness.

Across this site, you’ll find a recurring thesis that meaning is CORE to a life well-lived.

You’ll find meaning in life presented in 4 Cornerstones: Love, Service, Expression, and Discovery. In the Love Cornerstone, you’ll find a handful of sections, each with their own pages, exercises and resources, on cultivating connection and positive relationships (the #1 predictor of psychological well-being).

Looking elsewhere on this site, you’ll find that it is in many ways a response to our modern crisis of meaning. It is packed with guides and resources on the skills of well-being, from Enablers like Gratitude to models like the ‘Bliss Map’ for work.

If you haven’t already, you can check out this page for a guide to using the site. The best place to start is by using the Assessment Center to evaluate your personal factors of well-being.

In Summary…

  • Meeting one’s basic needs is fundamental for further pursuing psychological well-being.
  • Poverty, discrimination, conflict, and instability each exact a heavy toll on well-being. Those lacking security quite understandably dedicate their energies to securing it first.
    • To thrive happily is an unrealistic expectation placed on those struggling to survive.
    • It is not impossible to achieve psychological well-being while living in poverty or insecurity, but that is the exception, not a standard to project.
  • Once basic physiological needs are met, a sense of security is both a strong motivator and highly subjective.
    • Once survival needs are met, higher motives emerge, but are not automatic.
    • Wealth beyond basic needs serves our well-being across a large subjective area, where our needs for security and higher psychological needs are mixed.
  • This topic is importantly nuanced.
    • While helping those in poverty remains vital, inner freedom and responsibility exist too.
    • The world is getting better on metrics of peace and security.
    • Hope, perspective, and resilience are powerful tools for well-being, even those living with insecurity.
  • Meeting basic needs allows—but does not guarantee—well-being.


  1. Boarini, R., et al. (2012), “What Makes for a Better Life?: The Determinants of Subjective Well-Being in OECD Countries – Evidence from the Gallup World Poll”, OECD Statistics Working Papers, No. 2012/03, OECD Publishing, Paris,
  2. Csabai, D., Wiborg, O., & Czéh, B. (2018). Reduced Synapse and Axon Numbers in the Prefrontal Cortex of Rats Subjected to a Chronic Stress Model for Depression. Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience, 12., J. M., Frey, E. L., Matz, S. C., Jeronimus, B. F., & Galinsky, A. D. (2022). The Sharp Spikes of Poverty: Financial Scarcity Is Related to Higher Levels of Distress Intensity in Daily Life. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 13(8), 1187–1198.
  3. Jebb, Andrew & Tay, Louis & Diener, Ed & Oishi, Shigehiro. (2018). Happiness, Income Satiation, and Turning Points Around the World. Nature Human Behavior. 2. 33–38. 10.1038/s41562-017-0277-0.
  4. Joshanloo, M., Jovanović, V., & Taylor, T. (2019). A multidimensional understanding of prosperity and well-being at country level: Data-driven explorations. PloS one, 14(10), e0223221.
  5. Haushofer, Johannes & Fehr, Ernst. (2014). On the psychology of poverty. Science (New York, N.Y.). 344. 862-7. 10.1126/science.1232491.
  6. Mani, A., Mullainathan, S., Shafir, E., & Zhao, J. (2013). Poverty impedes cognitive function. Science (New York, N.Y.), 341(6149), 976–980.
  7. Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396.
  8. McKee-Ryan, F. M., Song, Z., Wanberg, C. R., & Kinicki, A. J. (2005). Psychological and physical well-being during unemployment: A meta-analytic study. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90(1), 53–76.
  9. Myers C. A. (2020). Food Insecurity and Psychological Distress: a Review of the Recent Literature. Current nutrition reports, 9(2), 107–118.
  10. Negrón-Oyarzo, I., Aboitiz, F., & Fuentealba, P. (2016). Impaired Functional Connectivity in the Prefrontal Cortex: A Mechanism for Chronic Stress-Induced Neuropsychiatric Disorders. Neural Plasticity, 2016.
  11. Nettle D. (2017). Does Hunger Contribute to Socioeconomic Gradients in Behavior?. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 358.
  12. Orquin, J. L., & Kurzban, R. (2016). A meta-analysis of blood glucose effects on human decision making. Psychological bulletin, 142(5), 546–567.
  13. Richter, E. P., Brähler, E., Stöbel-Richter, Y., Zenger, M., & Berth, H. (2020). The long-lasting impact of unemployment on life satisfaction: results of a longitudinal study over 20 years in East Germany. Health and Quality of Life Outcomes, 18(1).
  14. Schönbrodt, F. D., & Gerstenberg, F. X. R. (2012). An IRT analysis of motive questionnaires: The unified motive scales. Journal of Research in Personality, 46(6), 725–742.