Humanistic Psychology: The Human Element


Humanistic psychology emphasizes the unique qualities of human beings, such as creativity, free will, and personal growth.

The humanistic approach to psychology is a perspective that emerged in the mid-20th century as a response to psychoanalytic theory and behaviorism. It draws inspiration from various philosophical and psychological traditions, such as Eastern philosophy, Judao-Christian personalism, and existentialist thought. Unlike its predecessors, this approach is concerned with the conscious aspects of human existence and validates individual choices and potential. A group of psychologists, including Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, established a professional association dedicated to humanistic psychology in the late 1950s. Humanistic therapy encourages self-awareness, introspection, and positive social support, and has the potential to guide our culture toward a healthier path.

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What is the Meaning of Humanistic Psychology?

Humanistic psychology is a perspective that prioritizes the comprehensive assessment of individuals and highlights essential concepts such as self-efficacy, free will, and self-actualization. Rather than focusing solely on maladaptive behavior, humanistic psychology aims to aid individuals in achieving their maximum potential and enhancing their overall well-being. It takes a holistic approach to studying human existence by examining aspects such as personal responsibility, spirituality, human potential, values, tragedy, and meaning.

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Contemporary Humanistic Psychology

Humanistic Psychology, Contemporary Practice
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Contemporary humanistic psychology is all about – a potent blend of three ontologies that work together to form a holistic and compassionate approach to understanding human experience.

First up is existential psychology, which puts focus on situated freedom, experiential reflection, and personal responsibility. Then, there’s transpersonal psychology, with its emphasis on spirituality, transcendence, and compassionate social action. Finally, constructivist psychology brings in culture, political consciousness, and personal meaning.

Together, these three perspectives form the foundation for a human science and clinical outlook that values the whole person in context, reconciling dualities such as objective/subjective, individual/species, and nature/nurture. It’s an approach that’s not content with simply viewing the healthy personality as the absence of pathology or a superficial sense of happiness. Instead, it places value on maturity, meaning-making, and personal values like autonomy, commitment, and responsibility.

At the heart of humanistic psychology is the belief that individuals are motivated to continually progress toward higher levels of interactive functioning, and that they possess the capacity for growth and change, no matter their past limitations or future uncertainties. This perspective questions the technocratic assumptions and practices of the natural science approach and instead favors a more empathic and flexible approach to understanding human experience and behavior.

Humanistic psychology poses two fundamental questions to the study of human consciousness and nonconscious processes. The first is to understand what it means to be a fully experienced human being, while the second is to examine how this understanding can illuminate a fulfilled or vital life. Humanistic psychologists reject the reductionist view that individuals can be reduced to mere components and instead focus on understanding where individuals have been and whom they are becoming by examining their life stories or narratives in conjunction with objective data. Moreover, they believe that the societal and ecological conditions that promote or impede the development of social intimacy and personal identity within a community are crucial components of healthy personality development.

The Journal of Humanistic Psychology outlines five basic postulates that underpin the field.

  • First, human beings cannot be reduced to their components but rather supersede the sum of their parts.
  • Second, human existence is situated in a unique context, both human and cosmic.
  • Third, humans possess consciousness, which always includes an awareness of oneself in the context of other people.
  • Fourth, humans can make choices and bear responsibility for them.
  • Finally, humans are intentional, goal-oriented, aware of their ability to shape the future and seek meaning, value, and creativity.

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Examples of Humanistic Psychology

Humanistic Psychology
Diagram illustrating the “hierarchy of needs” theory of Abraham Maslow (1908–1970). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Few examples of how humanistic psychology has influenced various areas of psychology and mental health:

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow was a humanistic psychologist who developed a theory of human motivation based on a hierarchy of needs. This theory suggests that human needs range from basic physiological needs to higher-level needs such as self-actualization and transcendence.

Gestalt Therapy

This is a type of therapy that emphasizes the integration of the whole person, including their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It emphasizes the importance of experiencing the present moment and understanding how past experiences influence current behavior.

Positive Psychology

This is a relatively new branch of psychology that focuses on the study of positive emotions, well-being, and human flourishing. It emphasizes the importance of cultivating strengths, positive relationships, and a sense of meaning and purpose in life.

Mindfulness-Based Interventions

These are therapeutic techniques that incorporate mindfulness practices such as meditation and breathing exercises. They have been found to be effective in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression, and improving overall well-being.

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Approaches of Humanistic Psychology

Humanistic Psychology
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Humanistic psychology comprises various approaches to counseling and therapy that prioritize the uniqueness and value of individuals. These approaches include:

Person-Centered TherapyDeveloped by Carl Rogers, this approach emphasizes the client’s capacity for self-direction and understanding of their own development. The therapist provides a non-judgmental and accepting environment that encourages the client to arrive at insights on their own.
Existential PsychotherapiesThis approach is rooted in existential philosophy, which emphasizes the idea that humans have the freedom to make sense of their lives. Existential psychotherapy encourages clients to explore the meaning and purpose of their lives and resolve conflicts between their freedoms and limitations.
Gestalt TherapyThis approach focuses on the present moment and encourages clients to look beyond preconceived notions to understand how the present is affected by the past. Role-playing is a crucial part of Gestalt therapy, allowing clients to express their true feelings. Non-verbal cues are also significant indicators of the client’s emotions.
Depth TherapyThis approach involves exploring the unconscious mind and hidden emotions to achieve a greater understanding of oneself. Depth therapy draws on concepts from psychoanalysis and other therapeutic approaches.
Holistic HealthThis approach emphasizes the interconnectedness of physical, emotional, and spiritual health, and encourages individuals to take a holistic approach to their well-being.
Encounter GroupsThis approach involves bringing individuals together in a group setting to explore their emotions, relationships, and personal growth.
Sensitivity TrainingThis approach involves group activities designed to increase empathy, self-awareness, and communication skills.
Marital and Family TherapiesThese approaches involve working with couples or families to improve communication and relationships.
BodyworkThis approach involves using physical techniques to promote emotional healing and well-being, such as massage or yoga.
Positive PsychologyThis approach emphasizes the importance of positive emotions, behaviors, and attitudes in promoting well-being and personal growth. It focuses on strengths, optimism, and resilience.

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Therapeutic Principles in Humanistic Psychotherapies

Humanistic Psychology
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Humanistic psychology’s founders believed that while personality development could take place in different social contexts, therapy offered the most direct path to authentic growth. Humanistic therapy is a phenomenological approach that aims to help clients live according to their values and take an active role in their progress.

In humanistic therapy, clients are seen as holistic individuals who are not defined by their past or environment. They are viewed as experts on their own experiences, potential, and social contexts, giving them a central role in the therapy process. The therapist respects their autonomy and supports their choices about change.

Contemporary humanistic psychotherapies share several evidence-based principles of practice. An authentic therapeutic relationship is vital to effective treatment. The therapist seeks to empathetically enter clients’ subjective experiences and provide emotionally validating interpersonal encounters. A supportive therapeutic relationship helps clients develop comfort in looking inward and coping with emotional distress.

The therapist’s interventions aim to stimulate clients’ immediate experience and ongoing awareness throughout therapy. Clients’ integrative, formative tendencies toward growth, personal agency, and meaning-making are emphasized. Collaboration is key to the unfolding process of therapy and clients’ disclosure of personal narratives, which build a shared understanding and trust.

Humanistic therapists view clients as unique individuals with complex emotions, behaviors, stories, and capacities that cannot be reduced to a diagnostic label. Rather than focusing on deficits or pathology, they help clients uncover their strengths and unrealized potential.

Criticisms of Humanistic Psychology

Humanistic Psychology
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It is important to note that while humanistic psychology has been praised for its innovative approach and research-based explanations, it has also been subject to criticism.

One of the main critiques of humanistic psychology comes from those who view it through the lens of natural science. They argue that the humanistic perspective lacks precision and specificity, and its emphasis on subjectivity makes it impractical and undisciplined. Additionally, some critics believe that the focus on individualism is shortsighted and indulgent. They associate humanistic psychology with the excesses of counterculture and criticize it for promoting narcissism.

Another significant criticism is that humanistic psychology’s emphasis on the integrity of the individual is oppressive in a multicultural, global society. The concept of self-actualization, which is central to humanistic psychology, is seen as biased towards a Western worldview and moral relativism. Critics argue that it hinders the development of a global perspective that takes into account diverse cultures and perspectives.

However, defenders of humanistic psychology argue that many of these criticisms are based on misinformation and negative stereotypes. They point out that the founders of humanistic psychology, such as Maslow and Rogers, were committed to natural scientific work and developing empirical methods. They also argue that humanistic psychology has made significant contributions to the field, including paving the way for developmental psychology’s resolution of the nature/nurture debate and promoting a more holistic, dialectical, and systemic approach.


Bland, Andrew & Derobertis, Eugene. (2017). The Humanistic Perspective in Psychology. 10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_1484-2.


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