This paper describes six research principles for revitalizing humanistic psychology and impacting mainstream psychology based on Gergen (2016) and DeRobertis (2016). It demonstrates how Wong’s meaning-centered research and therapy is an extension of humanistic-existential psychology and has impacted mainstream psychology indirectly by following six principles. Furthermore, it also shows how Wong’s (2011) second wave positive psychology is able to provide a new humanistic vision to impact mainstream psychology directly. Finally, it argues that humanistic psychology needs to take these six principles seriously by going beyond phenomenological research and replacing a “tribal” mentality with a pluralistic big-tent perspective since humanistic-existential themes permeate every aspect of psychology.
Keywords: meaning therapy, meaning-centered approach, humanistic psychology, existential psychology, positive psychology, second wave positive psychology, collaborative research, future-oriented psychology
In the past, several leaders in Division 32 of the American Psychological Association (e.g., Churchill, 1988, 1992; Kumar, 2015) have bemoaned the lack of recognition towards humanistic psychology in textbooks. Many proposals have been made to revitalize humanistic psychology (Clay, 2002; House, Kalisch, & Maidman, 2016; Robbins, 2008; Wong, 2011).
Recently, the two lead articles by Kenneth Gergen (2016) and Eugene DeRobertis (2016) in the March Issue of The Humanistic Psychologist articulate a promising blueprint for revitalizing humanistic psychology. From these articles, six important and practical principles can be extracted, which have the potential to both revive humanistic psychology and transform mainstream psychology.
While there are examples from other researchers, as this paper is based on an awards address, it focuses largely on the present author’s research contributions. This paper intends to demonstrate that we can conduct rigorous research consistent with these humanistic principles and impact mainstream psychology indirectly, without waving the flag of humanistic psychology. Moreover, we can directly impact mainstream psychology through the integration of humanistic-existential psychology with positive psychology, resulting in existential positive psychology (Wong, 2009) and second wave positive psychology (Ivtzan, Lomas, Hefferon, & Worth, 2016; Wong, 2011).
Principle 1: Valuing the Voice of Research Participants
The principle of valuing the voice of research participants is probably the most important humanistic principle in psychology research. Gergen (2016) explicitly recommends that “the respondent’s voice [be] prominent in fashioning the conclusions” (p. 9) in contrast to the traditional method of research in which “the researcher’s concepts and assumptions dominate the outcome” (p. 9).
In the researcher-dominant methodology, the researcher develops and tests a hypothesis, manipulates the experimental subjects, and looks for statistical confirmation and interpretations that support the initial hypothesis. Thus, the entire process is tainted by confirmation bias. Consequently, the outcome may only be remotely related to the phenomenon under investigation or the actual experience of research participants. Such traditional research practice may have unwittingly contributed to the replication problem in psychology research (Diener & Biswas-Diener, 2016; Pashler & Wagenmakers, 2012).
To counteract the confirmation bias in research, humanistic psychology advocates the principle of valuing the voice of research participants. When researchers hold a high view of research participants and value their experiences and perceptions, such participant-dominant research can greatly improve the validity and reliability of psychological research findings.
More specifically, this principle holds the high view that a person cannot be reduced to a thing or mechanisms—that the phenomenological experience of research participants should trump the observations and interpretations made by the researcher. The research participant is regarded as a meaning-seeking and meaning-making person, a self-determining agent who strives towards some goal even in a restricted psychology lab.
Examples of Successful Research that Values the Voice of Research Participants
In the 1970s, one of the unresolved problems in attribution research was the lack of evidence for spontaneous attribution. From the perspective of a humanistic psychologist, there was an easy solution—all researchers needed to do was to ask, “What immediately comes to your mind in this situation?” after participants were exposed to various outcomes (Wong & Weiner, 1981). By listening to the participants’ thought processes, Wong and Weiner were able to demonstrate spontaneous causal attributions. This publication has been cited more than a thousand times.
Another example is regarding human learned helplessness research. Seligman and his associates (Hiroto & Seligman, 1975) demonstrated that if college students were exposed to an insoluble problem (e.g., insoluble puzzle), many of them would become “helpless” because, a little while later, they would not work on a problem that was actually soluble. To the present author, their conclusion sounded like a case of confirmation bias, because if college students could be reduced to a state of helplessness simply after a brief exposure to a trivial task, how could they manage to graduate from university or survive in society? By asking participants about their causal attributions during experimental manipulation as well as during the subsequent learned helplessness test in a variety of situations, Wong (1982, 1993) was able to discover that the so-called “helpless” subjects were actually able to make a correct contingency judgement and decided not to waste energy in a situation rigged by the experimenter.
In essence, humanistic psychology’s argument with mainstream psychology is not qualitative versus quantitative research; rather, it is whether participants rather than researchers should fashion the outcome. The above examples illustrate that if researchers simply ask, “What was going through your mind?” or “What was the reason for your response?” in the psychology lab, they may be surprised by the participants’ revelations, which may question many of the widely accepted conclusions even currently found in textbooks. Indeed, such a simple participant-dominant method may revolutionize psychology research and challenge well-established psychology findings.
Principle 2: Developing Nonreductionist Yet Rigorous Research Methods
According to DeRobertis (2016), “The burden has fallen upon humanistic psychologists to develop research methods to accommodate ‘nonreductionist’ understandings and yet still be considered rigorous and scientific” (p. 22). In other words, such rigorous qualitative research needs to have some kind of quantitative component (e.g., Wong & Watt, 1991). Without a quantitative dimension, no matter how rigorous the phenomenological research may be, it will not be accepted by mainstream psychology as reaching the same standard of precision, objectivity, and replicability. That is why DeRobertis challenges humanistic psychologists and graduate students to become well-versed in quantitative research methods and combine them with nonreductionist research. The challenge for humanistic psychologists is moving beyond qualitative research methodologies while engaging in rigorous quantitative research in order to be taken seriously by mainstream psychology. Although it is true that humanistic psychologists also do quantitative research (e.g., Friedman, 1981; Proctor, Tweed, & Morris, 2015), very few of them have published quantitative research in mainstream journals. Moreover, I wonder how many humanistic-oriented universities teach advanced quantitative research methods and encourage quantitative dissertations.
Successful Research Combining Qualitative & Quantitative Methods
One example of such mixed design was Wong’s (1998) use of the implicit theories approach to discover people’s beliefs about what contributes to the best possible meaningful life. He identified main themes of meaningful living through content analysis and then developed rating scales based on these themes. The resulting Personal Meaning Profile (McDonald, Wong, & Gingras, 2012) is useful not only for providing an overall presence of meaning, but also the amount of presence of different sources of meaning.
Another example was resolving the longstanding controversy whether life review or reminiscence contributes to the well-being of the elderly. The results in the literature were all over the map, from positive to negative. For Wong and Watt (1991), the simple solution to this longstanding controversy was to value the voices of seniors and identify the main themes of reminiscence based on content analysis. They performed word counts of the various themes, and results established that some themes are positively associated with well-being, whereas some were negative correlated; this paper has been widely cited and included in Clinical Digest.
The above two studies were based on a rigorous mixed design, without compromising the non-reductionist position by following the first principle of valuing the voice of participants. It is sad to see many dissertations and papers purely based on qualitative research completely ignored by mainstream psychology and textbooks because of the perceived lack of research rigor. If humanistic psychologists do not listen to DeRobertis’ (2016) challenge, they will continue to be ignored.
Principle 3: Focusing on the Vital Role of Meaning in Individuals
Recent research has confirmed that meaning is at the heart of the human experience and well-being (Batthyany & Russo-Netzer, 2014; Hicks & Routledge, 2013; Wong, 2012a). Gergen (2016) has come to the same conclusion, “People typically act according to their understandings or beliefs” (p. 5). He also concludes, “It is difficult to overestimate the significance of ‘sense-making’ in the patterning of cultural life” (p. 5). In the past 30 years, Wong’s main research focus has been on the role of meaning in basic human processes.
Meaning-Seeking and Meaning-Making as Part of the Organismic Valuing Process
Wong’s research on spontaneous attribution has established that people are both naïve scientists and philosophers (Wong, 1991; Wong & Weiner, 1981). Human beings are by nature meaning-seeking and meaning-making creatures who constantly make sense of their experiences in real life as well as in psychology laboratories. These findings reinforce the first principle of valuing the voice of research participants.
Wong’s research on appraisal demonstrates that the human capacity to appraise is important in the stress and coping process (Peacock & Wong, 1990; Wong, 1993); coping is effective to the extent that it congruent with the stressor as appraised and the resources available (Wong, Reker, & Peacock, 2006). The Stress Appraisal Measure (Peacock & Wong, 1990) has been translated in numerous languages and included as an American Psychological Association approved test instrument.
Recently, Wong’s research focuses on the global belief or worldview that life has inherent meaning. This spiritual and existential perspective may shape our decisions and behaviours in a variety of ways. The Meaning-Mindset Measure (Wong, 2012a) enables us to study how global meaning is related to eudaimonic well-being and resilience.
Wong et al. (2016a) have developed a Self-Transcendence Measure in order to test the meaning hypothesis of the good life (Wong, 2014). It will enable us to discover whether self-transcendence, as a spiritual motivation, is indeed positively associated with virtue, happiness, and meaning (Wong, 2015a, 2016a).
The above specific processes are aspects of the organismic valuing process, covering both the spiritual-existential dimension and the “experiencing dimension” (Rogers, 1951). Human beings are not only experiencing organisms, but also spiritual beings capable of symbolic meaning-making and self-transcendence. Wong’s research on meaning-making processes has expanded Roger’s original concept of the organismic valuing process and generated a great deal of new research interest.
Principle 4: Participating in Multiple Worlds of Meaning-Making
Given that meaning is both personally construed and socially constructed, meaning is highly sensitive to individual and cultural differences. Gergen (2016) concludes that “we participate in multiple worlds of meaning-making” (p. 5). Thus, no single perspective can claim to represent the truth and a collaborative research effort is needed.
When we adopt a pluralistic and multi-disciplinary approach towards research, the old reductionist versus holistic debate in epistemology is no longer useful. This pluralistic approach is probably the most promising way to understand complex human phenomena such as meaning and well-being.
That is why, since 2000, Wong has organized numerous Meaning Summits and invited meaning researchers with different theoretical stripes to dialogue around the same table, with the belief that only through multiple perspectives can we create a broader and fuller understanding of meaning (Medlock, 2016; Wong, 2016b).
Sir John Templeton’s (1995) influential concept of “humble science” serves as the foundation for multidisciplinary research. As part of the research group on Virtue, Happiness, and Meaning of Life supported by a Templeton Grant, the present author presented his existential perspective (Wong, 2015a, 2016a); feedback from philosophers, theologians, and other psychologists have been very helpful in shaping his research on self-transcendence.
Principle 5: Re-orientating of Disciplines for Creativity & Contribution
Humanistic renewal calls for reorientation and reformulation. Gergen (2016) proposes “a re-orientation of the disciplines in ways that open new vistas of creativity and new means of contributing to the surrounding society and beyond” (p. 5). Schneider’s (2009) research on awe represents such a reorientation. Wong’s meaning-centered approach also represents a promising way of reorienting Rogers’ (1979) person-centered approach. His reformulation of humanistic psychology has led to the following new developments in theory and practice: (a) from organismic valuing to meaning-seeking and meaning-making; (b) from person-centered therapy to meaning-centered counselling and therapy; (c) from self-actualization to self-transcendence (Wong, 2016c); (d) from a single focus on what is good to dialectical principles (Wong, 2011, 2012b); and (e) from existential positive psychology (Wong, 2009) to second wave positive psychology (Wong, 2011).
Wong’s (2010, 2012d, 2015b, 2016c) meaning-centered therapy (MT) focuses on people’s natural capacity for meaning-seeking and meaning-making. MT sees the person or self as an ever-evolving dynamic and dialectical meaning system, which provides the basis for both flourishing and resilience. It recognizes both the bright and dark sides of human existence. van Deurzen (2014) has said it well, “It is only in facing both positive and negative poles of existence that we generate the necessary power to move ahead” (p. 159).
In practice, MT empowers clients to meet the basic human needs for meaningful engagements with activities and relationships even in the absence of the ideal conditions specified by Rogers (1951). MT assumes that failing to meeting these fundamental human needs is responsible for many mental health problems. It also recognizes that mental health can be sustained both through cultivating personal growth and co-creating an environment with humanistic values of equal opportunity, justice, and compassion.
The meaning-centered approach (MCA) can also be extended to contribute to society in new and creative ways. A few possibilities of influencing individuals and society through meaning-centered research and interventions includes the MCA to addiction recovery (Wong, Thompson, & Wong, 2013), good work and organization leadership (Wong, Ivtzan, & Lomas, 2016), positive education (Chang, 2016; Wong, 2012c), well-being (Wong, 2014a), and palliative care (Wong, 2006).
Another noteworthy reformulation is to move from self-actualization to self-transcendence (ST) as the highest level of human development (Maslow, 1972). In his old age, Maslow was puzzled by two questions: What motivates people once they have achieved self-actualization? Why do so many very successful self-actualized individuals still behave so badly? He was able to resolve these puzzles by proposing ST as the highest level of personal growth.
From a different angle, Frankl (1985) sees ST as a primary motivation stemming from our spiritual core. The will to meaning is basically a spiritual motivation to pursue something greater than oneself—i.e., ST. However, he sees self-actualization as a by-product of ST. We are able to actualize our potential and become fully functioning human beings only when we pursue ST as the terminal value because we will be liberated from egotism and all its perils (Swartz, 1992, 1994).
DeRobertis (2016) also expresses the sentiment that, at the individual level, we experience the unfolding of “increasingly self-transcending, conscientious agent of truth and ethics” (p. 26). From the perspective of ST, we become fully functioning in four worlds—the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual. Indeed, human beings are spiritual beings motivated by ST and the ecstasy of joy (Haidt, 2012).
Principle 6: Providing a Vision for an Ideal Future Through Collaboration
This is probably the most important principle for humanistic renewal. It challenges us to reorient our focus from past glories and a tribal mentality towards a bright vision for the future through an inclusive big-tent mentality. As Gergen (2016) posits, “The potentials of a future-forming psychology will be particularly realized through collaborative relations with other disciplines and the society at large” (p. 3). In a similar vein, DeRobertis (2016) proposes that humanistic psychologists ought to “place greater emphasis on publication and communication with psychologists outside of our own Division” (Churchill, as cited by DeRobertis, 2016, p. 27).
Second Wave Positive Psychology
Existential positive psychology (EPP; Wong, 2009) represents a promising future development for humanistic-existential psychology that seeks to integrate existential themes with positive psychology (PP) research in two significant ways. First, existential psychology makes positive psychologists realize that human experience cannot be understood simply in terms of overt and quantifiable behavior, because human beings are capable of asking questions that elude such metrics and that aspire to subtle, subjectively rich spiritual well-being. Second, existential psychology reminds positive psychologists that an adequate account of human experience and well-being cannot be based only on the positive; it has to include the totality of human experience, both positive and negative. In other words, to properly study the positive and noble themes in psychology, it needs to accept and embrace the dark side of life. Therefore, EPP represents not a transitional stage, but an ideal framework of research in PP as well as existential psychology, as demonstrated in the later development of second wave PP (PP 2.0). PP 2.0 formally incorporates dialectical principles and new research agendas (Lomas & Ivtzan, 2016; Wong, 2011; Wong & Worth, in press).
In simplest terms, PP 2.0 aims at bringing out the best in people in spite of and even because of the dark side of life through dialectical principles. The dark side encompasses hardships and heartbreaks, the existential abyss and despairs. Instinctively, these dark moments are undesirable, but, from a humanistic perspective, they are beneficial in developing our character strengths and exercising our spiritual muscles. Therefore, they are an essential part of the process of fulfilling our ultimate destiny of becoming fully functioning human beings.
This new development has found traction and led to numerous publications (Ivtzan et al., 2016; Lomas & Ivtzan, 2016; Wong, Ivtzan, & Lomas, 2016). Most recently, it culminated in an International Meaning Conference (www.meaning.ca/conference) with “Spirituality, Self-Transcendence, and Second Wave Positive Psychology” as the main themes. It attracted more than 200 participants from all over the world, showcasing a great deal of creative research involving humanistic-existential themes. Thus, the conference demonstrates that broad humanistic-existential themes can permeate and impact psychology under the big tent of PP 2.0.
The appeal of PP 2.0 is that it affirms the basic humanistic values of justice and compassion and harnesses the positive potentials of the dark side of human existence in a way that is consistent with the above six research principles. A few years ago, Wong (2011) suggested that the most promising direction for a renaissance of humanistic psychology was to reclaim positive psychology. This was not intended to be a turf fight, but rather to provide a unique positive humanistic vision for mainstream psychology and the well-being of all people. Now, we have the six research strategies necessary to implement such a vision.
The main contribution of the present paper is that it identifies six research principles to restore humanist psychology’s rightful place within mainstream psychology. The present author recommends that Gergen’s (2016) and DeRobertis’ (2016) papers be taken seriously by humanistic psychologists and their graduate students. They have provided a realistic blueprint of a bright future for humanistic psychology.
According to Google Scholar, by following these principles, Wong’s research has been cited by many textbooks and mainstream psychology journals. Just imagine collectively what kind of impact humanistic psychologists can make, if they all actively engaged in rigorous and quantitative research based on these six principles!
Indeed, humanistic psychologists have played an important role by providing a critical voice from their unique perspective, but they can do much more to impact mainstream psychology and humanity by making significant contributions to research and interventions.
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Wong, P. T. P. (in press). Meaning-centered approach to research and therapy, second wave positive psychology, and the future of humanistic psychology. The Humanistic Psychologist.
This was originally presented as Wong, P. T. P. (2016, August). Meaning-centered approach to research and therapy, second wave positive psychology, and the future of humanistic psychology. The Carl Rogers Award Acceptance Address presented at the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Denver, CO. (Partially supported by the research grant on Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life from the John Templeton Foundation)
© 2017 American Psychological Association. This paper is not the copy of record and may not exactly replicate the final, authoritative version of the article. Please do not copy or cite without author’s permission. The final article will be available, upon publication, via its DOI: 10.1037/hum0000062