Authentic Self-Esteem, XII: Humanistic & Positive Psychology

Authentic self-esteem connects two approaches to psychology.

Posted Jul 22, 2019

Authentic Self-Esteem, XII: Humanistic & Positive Psychology

This posting marks the one year anniversary of the blog and I am pleased to note that, so far, it has received over 20,000 hits. All 12 parts were designed to stand on their own. However, they do have two themes in common that create a steady voice on this topic. One is that today some psychologists now define self-esteem in terms of two factors rather than just one. Authentic self-esteem is not merely feeling good about oneself. Rather, it comes from a relationship between competence and worthiness. We “feel good by doing good,” as it were (Mruk, 2019). In other words, the only way we have real self-esteem is by trying to do the right thing when facing a challenge of living, whether it is a large or small one.

The other main theme concerns how there are many advantages to seeing self-esteem this way. For instance, this approach takes care of a serious problem generated by those who criticize self-esteem because narcissists and antisocial personalities often feel good about themselves in a way may look like self-esteem but is not. Understanding it as a balance between the two factors of worthiness (feeling good about oneself) and competence (doing the “right thing" when faced with a challenge) is important. First, it means that narcissism and antisocial behavior do not reflect real self-esteem. Second, those and related conditions reflect serious problems associated with what is known as defensive self-esteem which involves pathological forms of self-deception.  

In addition, the two-factor approach to self-esteem can help make new connections between humanistic psychology and positive psychology, because authentic self-esteem has a place in both fields. Humanistic psychology began as an attempt to understand the positive or healthy side of human behavior over a half-century ago. In order to do that, these psychologists focused on such things as a person’s ability to exercise free will, the human need for meaning in life, and the role self-esteem played in growth or actualization. In order to investigate these more existential and experiential dimensions of human life, humanistic psychologists use more qualitative methods. For instance, they prefer to talk with people instead of doing experiments on them.

Although much newer in origin, positive psychology is also concerned with optimizing personal, interpersonal, and social behavior. Those who developed this more contemporary approach to studying positive phenomena made it a priority to distinguish positive psychology from humanistic psychology. They did so by sticking to traditional research methods and highly valuing experimental work. The hope was this approach would make the new positive psychology more “scientific” than humanistic psychology.

Unfortunately, these “first generation” positive psychologists, as I like to call them, failed to include some important humanistic concepts in their original vision in their attempt to break away from humanistic psychology. Self-esteem was one of them. Fortunately, new forces are now at work to correct that error. One of them is that the two-factor definition makes it more possible to research self-esteem using both qualitative and traditional methods (Mruk, 2013).

Another is that “second generation” positive psychologists are more interested in making connections with their humanistic roots (Linley & Joseph, 2004). Consequently, the definition of positive psychology has broadened out over time. It now includes almost any work on positive psychological phenomena and behavior. For example, newer textbooks on positive psychology often include a section on self-esteem (Carr, 2011).

In the end, I have found it helpful to remember how Maslow described the purpose of one of the first journals in humanistic psychology, namely, the Journal of Humanistic Psychology.

As a "third force” in contemporary psychology it is concerned with topics having little place in existing theories and systems; e.g., love, creativity, self, growth, organism, basic need-gratification, self-actualization, higher values, being, becoming, spontaneity, play, humor, affection, naturalness, warmth, ego-transcendence, objectivity, autonomy, responsibility, meaning, fairplay, transcendental experience, peak experience, courage, and related concepts (1964, p. 70-71).

Notice the similarities of focus and intent found in the first formal description of the aim of contemporary positive psychology by one of its primary founders.

Psychology is not just the study of disease, weakness, and damage; it also is the study of strength and virtue. Treatment is not just fixing what is wrong; it is also building what is right. Psychology is not just about illness or health; it is also about work, education, insight, love, growth, and play. And in this quest for what is best, positive psychology… tries to adapt what is best in the scientific method to the unique problems that human behavior presents in all its complexity (Seligman, 2002, p. 4).

Clearly, feeling good by doing good, which is the basis of authentic self-esteem, is an experience and phenomenon that belongs to both humanistic and positive psychology, and therefore connects them.


Carr, A. (2011). Positive psychology: The science of happiness and human strengths (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

 Linley, P. A., & Joseph, S. (2004). Positive psychology in practice. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Maslow, A. H. (1964). Religions, values, and peak-experiences. New York: Viking.           

Mruk, C. J. (2013). Self-esteem and positive psychology: Research, theory, and practice. New York: Springer Publishing Co.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Positive psychology, positive prevention, and positive therapy. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 3–9). Oxford: Oxford University Press.