Basic Existential Needs and Addiction

In the following blog post I explore addiction and recovery from the perspective of basic existential needs. When basic existential needs are understood as ontological (i.e. inherent and not socially constucted), drug abuse and addiction could be interpreted as pathological satisfiers of fundamental human needs.

From this premise it follows that a recovery process should then be understood not as “curing the addiction” or “treating the disease”, but rather as a lifestyle approach geared towards finding healthy satisfiers, which consequently would alleviate the need to rely on destructive satisfiers (i.e. drugs). This idea would support a community-orientated system of care in contrast to a top-down medical/psychiatric system of care.

Although addiction is related to the reward system of the brain, which can be hijacked, this should first and for mostly be framed through an understanding of basic existential needs as ontological. Simply put, from this perpesctive the “craving’ for the drug is not so much the craving for the pharmacological agent but rather a craving for the unmet need that the drug attempts to satisfy. Therefore addiction can be seen as a pathological relationship with a substance or behavior that attempts to satisfy ontological (not socially constructed) needs.

Chilean economist, Alfred Max-Neef (1991), who developed the theory of human scale development, stated that “[f]undamental human needs [basic existential needs] are finite, few and classifiable and are the same in all cultures and in all historical periods. What changes, both over time and through cultures, is the way or the means by which the needs are satisfied” (p. 18). He went on to say that: “Each economic, social and political system adopts different methods for the satisfaction of the same fundamental human needs. In every system, they are satisfied (or not satisfied) through the generation (or non-generation) of different types of satisfiers [the object or process used to satisfy a need]. We may go as far as to say that one of the aspects that define a culture is its choice of satisfiers…In short: What is culturally determined are not the fundamental human needs, but the satisfiers for those needs” (p. 18).

According to the theory of human scale development, an individual’s quality of life is correlated with the actualization of nine classes of interrelated ontological needs. In this model “no hierarchies exist within the system [as opposed to Maslow’s model]. On the contrary, simultaneities, complementarities and trade-offs are characteristics of the process of needs satisfaction” (Max-Need, 1991, p. 17). According to Max-Neef, (1991) any “fundamental human need not adequately satisfied generates a pathology” (p. 22). In Max-Neef’s model, satisfiers refers to the method of having a basic existential need met (satisfying the need), and various groups of satisfiers are proposed. Five types of satisfiers are suggested: violators or destroyers, pseudo-satisfiers, inhibiting satisfiers, singular satisfiers, and synergic satisfiers.

Violators or destroyers are paradoxical in nature because when they are applied to satisfy a need, “not only do they annihilate the possibility of its satisfaction over time, but they also impair the adequate satisfaction of other needs” (Max-Neef, 1991, p. 31). Pseudo-satisfiers “generate a false sense of satisfaction of a given need. Although not endowed with the aggressiveness of violators or destroyers, they may on occasion annul, in the not too long term, the possibility of satisfying the need they were originally aimed at fulfilling” (Max-Neef, 1991, p. 31). Inhibiting satisfiers tend to over-satisfy a given need, consequently, limiting the possibility of other needs being satisfied. Singular satisfiers tend to satisfy one specific need. They are neutral in relation to the satisfaction of other needs. Synergic satisfiers satisfy a given need and “simultaneously stimulating and contributing to the fulfilment of other needs” (Max-Neef, 1991, p. 34).

From the above description, it should be clear that addictive behavior can be understood as violators or destroyers, and pseudo-satisfiers. Addictive behavior is always directed at satisfying a need, but what differentiates addictive behavior (violators or destroyers) from other methods (or other satisfiers) of having needs met is that it paradoxically destroys the individual’s capacity to meet the need(s) it is attempting to satisfy, as well as the capacity to meet other needs. As an addictive lifestyle progresses, the individual’s capacity to have most of his or her needs met is diminished, until there is a near total reliance on the substance or behavior to meet most basic existential needs.

Within the context of the above discussion, it should be clear that a recovery program and lifestyle is a process of replacing destroyers/violators with synergistic and singular satisfiers.


Max-Neef, M. A. (with Antonio, E., & Hopenhayn, M.). (1991). Human scale development: Conception, application and further reflections. New York, NY: Apex.

(This blog is derived from an passage in my book “An Integral Foundation for Addiction: Beyond the biopsychosocial Model.)