Why We Need Challenge and Growth – The Hero’s Journey and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

In a previous post, we looked at the reasons that so many of us aren’t happy and that so many of us feel like we’re just struggling to stay on top of things rather than moving forward meaningfully.

We’re too tired and too stressed but stress is not the enemy here. In fact, stress can be a good thing (called ‘eustress’) if we’re stressed about something we care about. The right amount of stress is necessary for anything to present a challenge and it is a challenge that makes us come truly alive.

The problem is that most of us are chronically stressed and we’re stressed about things that we ultimately just don’t care about.

Have you ever wondered why we watch movies and read books? It’s for escapism. It’s so that we can escape the dullness of our every day.

The heroes we read about aren’t ‘unstressed’. Usually, they’re saving the world, fighting bad guys or getting the girl. But the point is that they are going on adventures, they are challenging themselves and they are growing. This is crucial for our own sense of development.

The Monomyth

According to literary theorist Joseph Campbell, every single story in films, books, comics, legends, myths and yes even games is essentially a re-telling of the same tale. That tale is referred to as the ‘hero’s journey’ or ‘the monomyth’ and while different examples of fiction might veer from the structure more than others, most will still make the same critical stops along the way.

These stages include:

  • The ordinary world
  • The call to adventure
  • Refusal of the call
  • Meeting the mentor
  • Crossing the threshold
  • Tests, allies, enemies
  • Approach to the inmost cave
  • Ordeal
  • Resurrection
  • Return with the Elixir

During the first stage, the ordinary world, we find our hero in their ‘normal’ environment and get to know what their life is like.

While things are ‘just okay’ at this point, usually, the hero will experience some kind of pull or desire for adventure. Often the hero feels somewhat out of place like they don’t quite belong.

This is a call in itself but often it will be compounded by a catalyst of some kind – the discovery of a mysterious trinket, new information about themselves or their world, or – quite often – the death of a parent. In superhero stories, the hero will often receive new powers.

At first, the hero will be reluctant to accept the challenge. They’ll turn down the offer of adventure and need further persuasion and encouragement. This is ‘refusal of the call’.

Often, the hero will now meet some kind of mentor – often an older figure – who will give them words of encouragement and perhaps some kind of trinket or weapon that they will be able to take with them to help on their way. This is ‘meeting the mentor’ and in some cases, this will happen later in the story.

Crossing the threshold is the point at which the hero accepts their road ahead and embraces the journey. Sometimes this will literally involve crossing a threshold into a world of adventure, other times it will be a less literal decision to try something new, or to take on a challenge.

Tests, allies and enemies describes the initial challenges faced in this strange new reality. Often this means meeting new allies and facing initial challenges and obstacles that aren’t too hard to overcome.

Eventually, the hero will make progress on their journey into this strange new world and they will begin to uncover its ‘core’. This is often described as the ‘inmost cave’ – the belly of the beast and the most dangerous and crucial part of the challenge.

The ordeal is the biggest challenge that the hero will face – and one that will often leave them battered and defeated. It is at this point that we normally see the end of act two, the point where all seems lost for the hero.

The next stage is when the hero turns things around, sometimes by accepting a higher cause/having a personal epiphany or by going through a literal physical transformation. My favorite examples are Goku’s transformation into a Super Saiyan, or Neo’s into the One. Of course, this theme is also seen very commonly throughout religions and myths, with many messiah’s literally returning from the dead only to be stronger and more formidable than before. In other instances, the hero may receive a reward of some sort – such as an elixir, a weapon, knowledge or love. This may be the ‘MacGuffin’ that motivated the hero to leave in the first place, or it may be something unexpected.

Finally, the hero will journey home and then return with their newfound power and confidence, completing the coming-of-age story. They will often face down evil in their home territory and may face a parental figure in order to become their own person and mature into an adult. They are now masters of both worlds. Of course, sometimes this elixir is love, in which case they will likely live happily ever after.

Finding Your Hero’s Journey

These themes are universal because they speak to our unconscious desires and commonalities. In particular, they speak to aspects of our psychology that are shared across all of humanity as vestiges of our evolutionary history. It is no coincidence that Joseph Campbell was influenced by the psychologist Jung who suggested the existence of a shared ‘collective unconscious’. Jung too pointed out the many recurring themes across cultures, history, and works of art in the form of ‘archetypal characters’.

We respond to this story because it is the story that we all shared when humanity was in its infancy. We would all have been born into a small, supportive tribe and then have been forced to venture out into the wild outdoors to discover pastures new and new resources.

We would have battled with monsters, foraged for food and become stronger and more formidable in the process.

And this is still our story to a degree. We still are forced at some point to leave home and to make new friends, to decide what we want in life and to grow as people. And we all strive for actualization – that point at which we will feel we’ve found purpose and peace.

From all my years writing about health, fitness, and neuroscience, what I have learned is that the human body and mind crave challenge and new experience. Our body is constantly changing and if it is not taking on new challenges and having new adventures, then it is moving backward. It is up to you whether your body and mind grow or decay. This is why the brain releases reward hormones like dopamine and serotonin when we successfully accomplish a challenge and it’s why it becomes more plastic when we try to learn new subjects.

This is why we are more likely to enter a ‘flow state’ when we’re in an entirely new environment.

And when it comes to learning, the brain much prefers to learn through action and doing rather than through reading and theorizing.

This is where we get our urge to go out and explore the world and to take on new challenges. We could stay in our comfort zone but then we would not progress forward as individuals or as a race. If we did not all share that ‘call to adventure’, then would humanity be where it is today? Or would we all still be living in caves?

‘We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard.’

This is the best part of the human spirit and it is what exists in all of us. It is why we will continue to do great things and it’s why we become overweight, depressed and mentally weak when we don’t venture outside our comfort zones.

This yearning for adventure is what makes humans great and it is a fundamental, albeit forgotten part of who we are.

Take a look at this ‘monomyth’ and then compare it to the universal story of the modern man that I shared earlier. How different are those two things? So many of us are working hard just to keep living, instead of actually growing or challenging ourselves.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

This can also be perfectly compared to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Abraham Maslow was a renowned psychologist who in 1943 put forward a ‘theory of human motivation’. He posited that our ‘needs’ can be arranged in a kind of hierarchy. At the bottom are our most immediate yet unfulfilling needs, while at the top are our most important needs. Happiness comes from fulfilling those top, crucial needs but we need to satisfy our baser urges first to get to this point.

Maslow described the hierarchy as such:

  • Physiological needs (food, water, air)
  • Safety
  • Love/belonging
  • Esteem
  • Self-actualization

Of course, our priority must always be to satisfy those first two, as without them we will perish. But this does not make us happy or fulfilled. From there comes the need for love, for community and for belonging. Some of the unhappiest people in the world have all the water and food they need, but they are completely alone.

Next comes esteem – a sense of self-worth and affection. This comes from liking who you are, from understanding yourself and from being confident.

Finally, self-actualization is the highest calling for all humans. This is the recognition of our potential and the fulfillment of that potential. This is us finding our calling, our innermost desires and then working toward that. Generally, the happiest people are those who feel their life has meaning, purpose, and direction.

So you see: even if you are happily married with a great family and even high self-esteem, you won’t truly be happy until you are setting goals and growing toward them. And this is what we see in the hero’s journey even. The hero is happy where they are but they feel the call to something greater.

Later, Maslow would add an additional item to his list: self-transcendence. He described this as the highest and most inclusive of the holistic level of human consciousness. Behaving and relating as an end rather than a means. This could be seen as a parallel for the ‘apotheosis’ in the hero’s journey.

What is Your Calling?

Unfortunately, it has become all too easy for us to stay in our comfort zones thanks to the ready availability of… everything. Too often, the greatest challenge we will face on a daily basis is completing an assignment for work. The newest discovery we will make is often taking a different route home from work.

A perfect example of the Hero’s Journey in game form is the new Zelda: Breath of the Wild from Nintendo. This game manages to capture the feeling of challenge, of having to think on your feet and of discovering amazing new things perfectly. When you realize while being chased by an enemy that you can drop a combustible material to use as a trap, that is precisely the kind quick thinking that our brains were made for.

And when you stumble upon a magnificent view, hiding what looks to be a huge monolith, it triggers that same sense of wonder that our brains strive.

Zelda is working because it gives us challenges, discovery, and adventure – even if it is just a simulation.

The brain needs adventure and challenge to be happy. If you’re not finding your own calling and striving for your own discoveries, then you won’t be fulfilled. Forget comfort and focus on making your life a grand adventure. That way you will be happier and healthier.