I’ve been a fan of humanistic psychology for a little over a year now, and this was further solidified after my recent read of Abraham Maslow’s book, “Toward a Psychology of Being.” Humanistic Psychology developed in opposition to Freudian psychoanalysis, and was designed to represent a less sexualized, negative view of human nature. It emphasizes man’s inherent goodness and his natural drive to reach his utmost potential and live up to his own inner essence-i.e., to self-actualize.
However, the more fundamental theory of humanism has been around for much longer than humanistic psychology, which only began to take a foot hold in the 20th century. The philosophy, in some form or another, was recognized as early as in ancient Greece, when Plato stressed the importance of man’s need to fulfill his nature, and realize his capacities and power as a human being. Humanistic traditions were also recognized during the Renaissance in opposition to the prevailing Christian religiosity of the Middle Ages.
Humanism stood in stark contrast to Christianity at the time, which sounded in themes of the worthlessness of man and his insignificance in relation to the supernatural world. It, instead, celebrated the works of human genius and identified the power of human reason to know truths and achieve capacity. The humanistic psychology of the 20th century aligns with these long-standing values and provides just as much valuable wisdom for individuals today as it did hundreds of years ago. Here are five lessons from two of its largest 20th century proponents: Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers:
- Every act against our own inner nature has a consequence to our psyche.
In each moment, we can choose to act in a way that is self-preserving, beneficial, or detrimental and negative. The totality of all these decisions has an irreparable effect, be it positive or negative, on our psychological well-being. Stated differently, there is no stagnation in life, you are either moving towards or away self-actualization with every decision. Choose wisely.
- Man must be True to his inner nature.
“[T]o will to be that self which one truly is, is indeed, the opposite of despair, and this choice is the deepest responsibility of man.” Carl Rogers
This principle recognizes the importance in making decisions that are in accord with most truly enjoy. As we grow older, society and other people begin impose their values upon us. This leads to enculturation, the acquisition of characteristics and norms of a culture, and to us forgetting the little things that truly make us happy—often realized during our early childhood. Maslow calls these forgotten gems our inner subjective delights. And it is the ability to recapture these delights, resist enculturation, and act in a way that is truly satisfying to our inner nature, that allows for self-actualization and fulfillment. When faced with a decision, think back to how your inner child might act, unconstrained by social norms, and act with spontaneity in order to decide which action would truly make you happy.
- A focus on ultimate aloneness and the self-responsibility that comes with that realization.
With humanistic psychology’s intense focus on self-actualization and maximizing your potential comes a simple realization: you, and you alone, are in charge of your life. We, as humans, must be comfortable with this fact and embrace this ultimate aloneness. The concepts of decision, of responsibility, of choice, of self-creation, all depend on us. But with this realization, we can reach our full potential because we become more self-directed and less reliant on external sources and the environment.
We begin to embrace the fact that satisfaction comes from within, and that our inner capacities constitute the wellspring of joy. Along with internal fulfillment comes a powerful, creative force within, allowing us to readily take advantage of peak experiences—commonly called flow. Flow is a high-level of functioning that is immensely gratifying and productive, and embracing our autonomy and aloneness is the first step in accessing this experience. With this aloneness we also can reach our inner depths, which is actually frightening, as it reveals existential problems like death and the meaning of life. But these depths, as scary as they may be, are also the source of all man’s joys, his ability to play, to love, to laugh, and most importantly, to be creative.
- The Intrinsic and Rewarding Nature of Growth and a Shift Away From Valuing Outcomes
This principle is reminiscent of the ancient concept that we are not entitled to the fruits of our action, only the action itself. But it goes a step further: we, as self-actualizing humans, have the inherent capability to enjoy the action as a growth-experience. When we act in accord with our inner nature and engage in our subjective delights, action transforms into growth. Thus, the steady increase of knowledge on a topic, a profession, a person is satisfying even though no end-goal is reach. And eventually, every activity that is designed to bring us further to an end-goal turns into an end goal in itself. This is not a stoic prescription to do the work because work is what humans do, it is a prescription to enjoy the work because it is characteristic of self-actualizing and growth.
- The Value of Acquiring Knowledge to Simultaneously Reduce Fear and Then Facilitate Growth
Maslow explains children frequently reduce their own fear and anxiety by gaining a better understanding of whatever is feared. The ferocious-looking, loud dog sheds its aura of dangerousness when it gently licks your hand; the homeless individual on the corner, begging for money, unkempt and dirty, is no longer frightening when you speak with him and understand his tragedy and suffering. We can engage in the same process as adults. Knowledge about an intimidating topic or situation at school or work helps reduce anxiety in the individual; this, in turn, leaves the person emboldened and courageous to explore new areas that were inaccessible because of fear. What follows? Growth. Thus, don’t shy away from a situation because it is intimidating and difficult, acquire information about it, seek advice, and then act.