Some Thoughts on an Integrative Humanistic Psychology

Inspiration for a humanistic foundation for psychology

Posted May 20, 2011

It was refreshing to see an article in the New York Times recently (see "A New Gauge to See What's Beyond Happiness," May 17, 2011, p. D2) that called essentially for a humanistically transformed positive psychology. Even the founding figure of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, is now looking beyond "cheeful moods" to investigate what he terms a "flouishing" and meaningful life. Sound familiar? It should, because this is precisely the line of investigation that humanistic psychologists have advocated for over five decades of research.  This blog is a call to all Psychology Today readers who are inspired by what appears to be the new humanistic revival in psychology.   Although it was written several years ago, this call is even more urgent today...    

Now is the time for humanistic psychology to move toward serious cultural and professional integration.  By this I mean that in order for humanistic psychology to realize its hard-won gains in many areas of psychology--from clinical to positive psychology, and from the psychology of religion and spirituality to peace psychology and the neuroscience revolution, it needs to be much more proactive.  It needs to reach across many more chasms of cultural and professional divides,  if it is to live up to its founding impulse to re-envision and reenergize mainstream American psychology--which in my view, it very definitely can and should do.

As I emphasized in The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology, "we stand at an incredible threshold in our discipline....The question is, will we coalesce...to forge a generous science of humanity, or will we devolve into a competing anarchy of factions, or worse yet, a monolithic elite?" (p. 672).

This is not a time to either factionalize or close ranks-the outcome in both instances will mean will be devitalizing, both for humanistic and mainstream psychology. This is a time for recognizing humanism's great legacies of existential, transpersonal, and constructivist theorizing, but also, concomitantly, our common ground, not only among these great legacies, but among related and even divergent legacies.  For example, existential and transpersonal oriented psychologists often squabble about the nature and meaning of transcendence, but they both share a curiosity and indeed zeal about investigating that nature and meaning.  Advocates of holistic therapies largely differ with those who advance manualized or medicalized therapies, but they collectively recognize that from a consumerist standpoint, they each have a valued position.  Finally, supporters of phenomenological methodologies frequently clash with adherents of quantitative-experimental paradigms, but as a growing number of researchers have shown,  the respective approaches can complement and indeed counterbalance each other.  To concretize this proposal, consider the collaboration between a social phenomenologist and a neuroscientist. The neuroscientist could map out the brain activity of a stress reaction, which could in turn lead to medication, which, in its turn, could help people to cope.  The social phenomenologist, on the other hand, could investigate the experience of the stress reaction, unpack its personal and cultural dimensions, and facilitate an even hardier remedy.

The upshot of this elaboration is that cutting-edge humanistic psychology is an integrative psychology.  It is a psychology that can reach out and bridge with a diversity of viewpoints, but which does not lose the fulcrum, the incarnate person, through whom all the viewpoints must pass.  Put another way, humanistic psychology focuses on what it means to be fully, experientially human, and how that understanding illuminates the vital or fulfilled life; it "embraces  all dimensions of human awareness and subawareness but particularly as those that have "meaning, impact, and significance for each given person" (p. 673).  Like our humanistic forebears, contemporary humanists prize the heart or personal dimension of human experience, but unlike them, we now have the benefit of an expanded insight into our personalism, such as a recognition of its interdependence with the socio-economic system,  its linkage to being or spirit, and its tie to tragic limitation, along side of and beyond the autonomous self.

The key here is depth and subtlety of inquiry; not preemptory definitiveness.

In short, the new humanistic psychology reflects an expanded psychology of humanity.   It has the tools and resources necessary for a sweeping cultural and professional reformation. Now it needs to demonstrate those tools, showing just how a "heart-based" approach can augment "established" subfields-from the psychology of development to the psychology of religion, and from psychotherapy to biopsychology. The next task is to invite more dialogue-meetings, papers, collaborations-with all who are within hearing distance, but it is up to us to amplify our voice.

                                                    Reference

Schneider, K.J., Bugental, JFT, & Pierson, J.F. (2002).  The handbook of humanistic psychology; Leading edges in theory, research, and practice.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishing Co.

Note: This article was slightly adapted from its original appearance in the Association for Humanistic Psychology "Perspective," June/July, 2005, p. 8.