Edward Hoffman Ph.D.

The Peak Experience

The Life and Legacy of Abraham Maslow

Why Abraham Maslow still matters

Posted Sep 04, 2011

Positive psychology is in vogue these days--just look at how many books have "happiness" in the title. Studies on topics like resilience, well-being, and gratitude have made their way from academic journals to mainstream magazines. More than 200 colleges and universities in the USA offer courses in the field.

This burgeoning interest represents a huge shift in psychology. For decades, the emphasis in both theory and practice has been on dysfunction, pathology, and repairing emotional damage. Then, in 1998, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman used his position as president of the American Psychological Association to promote the scientific study of happiness, and later, of flourishing. 

Though Seligman is credited with coining the term positive psychology, the idea of focusing not on what's wrong with us, but what's right with us, originated with another noted psychologist 40 years earlier: Abraham Maslow. He was known for his groundbreaking studies on personality and motivation, and his concepts like self-actualization, peak-experience, and synergy have become part of our everyday language. A brief look at his life and legacy might prove worthwhile.  

Maslow was born in New York City, in 1908, to struggling Russian-Jewish parents. After floundering at two New York State colleges, he transferred to the Univerity of Wisconsin in 1928. There, he found his academic footing. Abe, as everyone called him, decided to major in psychology for what he saw as its practicality and social usefulness. He wanted a career that would "help change the world"--and never stopped believing that social science could accomplish this goal.

During the 1940s, Maslow developed his influential hierarchy of inborn needs. As a professor at Brooklyn College, he sought to understand and explain all human motivation by integrating all existing approaches including Freudian, Adlerian, behaviorist, and cognitive-gestalt into one cohesive meta-theory. Maslow argued that each approach had its valid points but
failed to encompass the big picture of personality. He theorized that people are motivated by their needs, which he conceptualized as a pyramid with five levels--starting with the most basic physiological needs at the bottom and rising through progressively higher, more psychological needs.

During World War II Maslow pioneered another field: the study of emotionally healthy, high-achieving men and women: those he would later call self-actualizing. Starting by analyzing the traits of his beloved mentors--anthropologist Ruth Benedict and psychologist Max Wertheimer--Maslow became increasingly excited by his investigations. He wrote in his diary, "I think of the self-actualizing man not as as an ordinary man with something added, but rather as the ordinary man with nothing taken away. The average man is a human being with dampened and inhibited powers."

Maslow interviewed many high achievers and discovered to his surprise that they often reported having peak-experiences in their lives: that is,moments of great joy and fulfillment. The psychologically healthier they seemed, the more frequent such transcendent moments. Most of his interviewees weren't conventionally religious. Yet, they often used language that was almost mystical in describing their peaks of happiness--usually related to feelings of accomplishment or family life.

In 1954, Maslow published his landmark book, Motivation and Personality. It synthesized nearly 15 years of theorizing about human nature, and it catapulted him to international acclaim. His tone was bold and confident: "The science of psychology has been far more successful on the negative than on the positive side...It has revealed to us much about man's shortcomings, his illnesses, his sins, but little about his potentialities, his virtues, his achievable aspirations, or his psychological health." Especially in such growing, practical fields as education and business management, Maslow's optimistic view of human nature and creativity aroused tremendous interest. As head of Brandeis University's new psychology department, he also exerted international influence in bringing humanistic thinkers like Victor Frankl and DT Suzuki to lecture before students and faculty.

During the 1960s, Maslow's career blossomed. Entrepreneurs sought his advice on motivating their employees. On the West Coast, where new ideas on what he called "enlightened management" were taking root in the high-tech field, his approach to employee engagement had particular impact.In those years, Maslow popularized the term synergy to describe work teams in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. When employees were encouraged to work together to maximize their personal strengths through interesting, challenging tasks, Maslow correctly predicted, their productivity and innovation would soar.

Stricken by a major heart attack in 1967, Maslow relocated with his wife Bertha to the San Francisco Bay area for its milder climate. Despite ill health, he continued to write, teach, and consult--and his commitment to human potential never wavered. "I have a very strong sense of being in the middle of a historical wave," he wrote. "One hundred fifty years from now, what will historians say about this age? What was really important? My belief is that...the `growing tip' of mankind is now growing and will flourish."

Maslow was right in myriad ways. Long after his death from a heart attack in 1970, his ideas continue to impact and inspire millions around the globe. It's been an honor and privilege for me to
write his biography and present his enduring legacy.

Copyright by Edward Hoffman, Ph.D.

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