Many of us have become obsessed with family history over the years; whether that be due to catching the bug after watching one of the numerous genealogy tv shows, or having a burning question about a mysterious grandparent you never met. Maybe, like myself, you were raised on stories of bygone days from family elders, and have always been fascinated with the past. Whatever the reason, we each share that love of all things ancestral, and are hooked on discovering more about our forebears.
But why do we find it so addictive? Why do we get so much pleasure from dusty old documents? Well this is my theory – Genealogy is one of our basic human needs. Let me explain. So you may have come across ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Basic Human Needs’ pyramid. Here is my version of his vision. (You might have seen other designs which have labelled the categories slightly differently, but this is my interpretation.)
I believe genealogy satisfies the needs in several of these classifications.
Ok, so maybe we don’t need to know about our ancestors to actually survive. The urge to examine just one more census return may feel more important at times, than preparing dinner or going to bed, but we could survive without it; unlike food/water/air/warmth/ shelter/good health. However, the next three groups are what we all need in order to grow and flourish. Subsistence is not enough for our well-being, we need to feed our souls.
This is the need that genealogy sates in abundance. Our deep-rooted desire to feel part of something bigger is greatly accomplished when we learn where we come from. Knowing that we are a product of generations of love, trust and respect, gives us something tangible beyond our own existence. Ok, we may have the odd skeleton in our history, but there must have been affection somewhere along the lines or we wouldn’t be here! That affiliation to a group of people allows us to feel included.
Discovering that sense of belonging when we find out a great-aunt shared the same love of art, or a second cousin twice removed was also a keen pianist, is something that strengthens our confidence. When documents reveal a long line of strong women, or sea-faring men, we might identify with those traits. It can make us re-examine and consider what qualities we have ourselves. We might have a talent or skill that gets overlooked in day-to-day life. Remembering our competencies can make us feel good. Similarly, the thrill we have when we finally find that missing piece of the puzzle in a family mystery, sometimes leaves us literally jumping and shouting for joy! (Well I certainly have done a little victory dance or two in my time). The problem-solving and achievement that comes with genealogy, satisfies the need to feel triumphant.
Maslow (and the various interpretations of his work), gets rather deep here, but I’m going to try to keep it light. Our cognitive needs like curiosity, exploration, the quest for knowledge and understanding, are all addressed when researching our family history. Considering our ancestors’ experience of historical periods and events, learning about their place in society and how that would have affected their opportunities and choices, opens our minds to empathy, allowing us to be less judgmental. Whilst genealogy may not lead us to accomplish all our life goals, it does help us gain a deeper comprehension of identity and perhaps, awareness of our own potential.