Edward Hoffman Ph.D.

The Peak Experience

Abraham Maslow's New Book—Highly Recommended!

A long-forgotten project finally comes to fruition.

Posted Jan 25, 2020

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Abraham Maslow's death, and in many ways, his influence is greater than ever—especially in such practical fields as health care, management, and education. Maslow's concepts of human needs and motivations are also being applied at last to community planning, including transportation and housing. Although the timing was completely accidental, it's therefore fitting that a new book by Maslow is now available—and as his biographer, I can assure you it's definitely worth reading. 

Here's the backstory: It was the fall of 1963, and Maslow was teaching an undergrad course titled "Experiential Approaches to the Study of Personality." By then, humanistic psychology had emerged as the "Third Force" of personality theory and psychotherapy. Its goal? To offer a new, optimistic approach emphasizing human potential and growth—while building on the insights of behaviorism and psychoanalysis.

With Tony Sutich as a collaborator, Maslow had recently co-founded the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, and he felt the time had come to offer fresh, innovative material to students: "a survey of efforts at self-analysis, self-therapy, and self-growth. Dreams and symbol psychology; peak, mystic, and psychedelic experience; archaic and prerational cognition. Recovery of the preconscious."

After a few class sessions, Maslow brought a portable tape recorder into the classroom—and after a class discussion about his proposal to tape the rest of the course starting that day, a full agreement was seemingly reached to do so (including both Maslow's free-wheeling lectures and students' comments). The course ended in early 1964, and Maslow planned to develop the transcribed class sessions into a stand-alone book or the basis for a self-help book but died before the project reached fruition. More than 50 years later, publisher Maurice Bassett and Maslow's daughter Ann Kaplan got together to publish the long-forgotten transcript—and the book was released as Personality & Growth a few months ago.  

Not only does it provide a fascinating picture of Maslow as a college teacher, but we also see his intellectual concerns and passions. In rough rank order, these seem to me to be: (1) peak-experiences and their relevance for understanding optimal human personality; and (2) the importance of knowing one's feelings as a basis for self-actualization.

Much more than in his other writings, Maslow here stressed the concept of what he called "foothill peaks"—that is, mildly elevating moments in everyday life, rather than ecstatic, life-changing episodes. This focus may have reflected Maslow's belief that his students were generally too young to have experienced the powerful "peaks" that come from deep romantic love, marriage, parenthood, or career achievement. Maslow rarely talked about "foothill peaks" after this course ended, but it's worth pondering that he felt these were important enough to warrant class discussion—and individual journal writing, too. 

Perhaps we all have "foothill peaks" in everyday life, but too easily allow these to fade. Based on this book, a useful self-help activity might be to write daily about a "foothill peak" you've had. Today positive psychology calls such activity "retrospective savoring," which is generating considerable research for its emotional benefits. So give it a try.  

Throughout the course, Maslow emphasized that self-actualization is based on self-awareness. Thus, he repeatedly posed experientially-oriented questions to his students, such as "What do you feel when you see a baby?" "What does feeling 'manly' feel like?" "What does feeling 'feminine' feel like?" "What kind of music makes you feel most romantic or erotic?" and, "What did you feel when you were recently watching President Kennedy's funeral on national TV?" 

A few students responded to the latter question, but most of the other experientially-oriented questions were largely greeted by silence. Although we don't know Maslow's classroom tone of voice, facial expression, or body language from this book, he must have felt frustrated by his students' apparent inability to respond to such questions. Was he expecting too much? Would today's college students be better able to identify their emotions—or, thanks to incessant texting, even less so?

Since the 1960s, humanistic psychology has exerted a huge impact on American culture, though the actual formulations of Maslow—and other seminal thinkers, including Carl Rogers and Rollo May—have often been distorted. For this reason and others, Personality & Growth merits close reading.  

References

Maslow, A.H. (2019). Personality & Growth: A humanistic psychologist in the classsroom.  Anna Maria, Fl: Maurice Bassett.