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Humanistic psychology, which began as a movement against psychoanalysis and behaviorism in the 1950s and 1960s, remains a viable “third force” in psychology, because it provides a unique perspective on mental health and psychopathology. It questions the medical model and the usefulness of the ever-increasing labeling of mental disorders. Instead, it emphasizes the study of the whole person, especially each person’s potentials. It assumes that individuals have the freedom and courage to transcend biological and environmental influences to create their own future. Adopting a holistic approach, humanistic psychology emphasizes the phenomenological reality of the experiencing person in context. This entry describes both historical and current humanistic perspectives of mental health. It also indicates how deficiencies in meeting basic psychological human needs can result in psychopathology.

Historical Overview of Humanistic Psychology

Humanistic psychology can restore human dignity to mainstream psychology by means of values, such as personal agency, freedom of the will, self-actualization, authenticity, and an innate motivation to make life better for the self and society. In terms of methodology, humanistic psychology argues that the subjective and conscious experience of the individual is more important than the objective observation of behavior. Thus, it favors a phenomenological approach over scientific experimentation. The three leading figures of the humanistic movement were Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, and Rollo May. They all shared the orientation described earlier but differed in their views of psychopathology.

Carl Rogers (1902–1987)

American psychologist Carl Rogers was optimistic and positive about human nature. He believed that people are innately good, creative, rational, and motivated by the universal tendency to fulfill their potential and become self-actualized. A positive childhood experience and a supportive environment facilitated self-actualization.

However, people become maladapted and destructive when environmental constraints damage a person’s self-concept and override the positive, organismic-valuing process that enables individuals to make value judgments and constructive choices. The lack of congruence between a person’s “ideal self” and actual self-concept is the main source of psychopathology. Rogers also recognized that people experience existential anxiety when they conform themselves to other people’s expectations rather than accept themselves the way they are. Their growth tendency is arrested, and emotional problems ensue when pleasing others and receiving rewards become more important than listening to their inner voice and creating their own future.

Rogers advocated a person-centered approach to counseling, education, and management. He believed that when there is a supportive, trusting environment characterized by empathy, unconditional positive regard, and congruence (genuineness), individuals have the potential to solve their own problems and find their own ways to move forward. A therapist needs to possess these qualities in order to be effective.

Rollo May (1909–1994)

May shared Rogers’s belief that people have the freedom and courage to be authentic and fulfill their potentials. They are motivated to become fully functioning human beings and develop positive self-identities as beings of worth and dignity. A major source of malady and anxiety is the loss of traditional values and erosion of human dignity. Paradoxically, to preserve their sense of self, people need to learn to give up self-centeredness and reach out to others. In other words, self-transcendence may help restore a sense of personal significance. For May, addressing existential anxiety is more important than coping with situational or realistic anxiety.

However, unlike Rogers, May believed that people are capable of both good and evil. He postulated that the daimon system involving anger, sex, and power has the potential to get out of control and limit one’s potential for authentic living and thus propel a person to engage in evil deeds, when the daimon is not properly integrated with the self. Thus, when one is not able to develop a balanced and integrated sense of self, the daimon system may take control of the person, resulting in psychopathology or self-destructive acts or both.

Abraham Maslow (1908–1970)

Maslow was best known for his hierarchy of needs, a theory of psychological health based on fulfilling innate human needs, culminating in self-actualization. Self-actualized people have fulfilled all their potentials and enjoy a healthy and balanced personality. They demonstrate the best of humanity as described by the B-values, such as being loving and creative. They are not only fully functioning but also spiritual.

In his later years, Maslow realized that some people may become selfish and evil by seeking self-actualization and peak experiences as the highest good. They may act like prima donnas, by being selfish and mean to others. As a result, he revised the hierarchy of needs to include self-transcendence as the highest need, an antidote to excessive preoccupation with self-actualization. He was moving toward the position of Viktor Frankl, the founder of logotherapy, which focuses on meaning seeking and self-transcendence.

Contemporary Perspectives

Although the heyday of humanistic psychology is over, there are signs of a renaissance in contemporary spokespersons who have broadened the base of humanistic psychology to incorporate fresh ideas in transpersonal, existential, cross-cultural, and positive psychology.

Kirk Schneider

Schneider is the leading spokesperson for contemporary humanistic psychology. His approach is more integrative and broader minded than earlier humanistic approaches. He is concerned with the question of why people develop extreme behavior patterns that can be detrimental to mental health. In The Paradoxical Self, he proposed the “paradox principle” to deal effectively with a variety of dysfunctional syndromes.

Schneider also proposed a new theory to account for extreme, destructive behaviors in The Polarized Mind: Why It’s Killing Us and What We Can Do About It. Drawing from existential psychology and historical cases, the book details the polarized mind and shows why it has been a pervasive mental health and societal problem, manifesting as addiction, bullying, violence, and tyranny. He attributes it to dogmatic thinking and deep-rooted anxiety about the insignificance and smallness of one’s life.

To combat polarization, Schneider proposes awe-based wisdom, which encourages acceptance of existential anxieties and vulnerabilities, at the same time embracing the wonder and mysteries of being. When people recognize that they are part of something much greater than themselves, they will have the capacity to be both courageous and fluid in dealing with disappointments, anger, and suffering. In other words, cultivating a nondogmatic sense of awe may inspire a larger, spiritual vision of life and reduce polarized thinking and psychopathology.

Schneider’s existential-integrative psychotherapy employs concepts such as balancing individual freedom with interpersonal connectedness, self-transcendence, and the paradoxical principle. In sum, an awe-based approach to psychotherapy empowers clients to live and experience a more fluid, humble, and spiritual life and move away from self-centered values, such as consumerism and competiveness.

Louis Hoffman

Hoffman favors a postmodern view that conceptualizes the self as complex and ultimately unknowable. He argues that personal and collective myths are important for making sense of the human condition, human destiny, and mental illness. His main contribution to humanistic-existential psychology is his emphasis on culture, especially cultural myths, in sustaining mental health. Psychotherapy consists of addressing existential anxieties in terms of personal and cultural myths.

According to Hoffman, meaning is of central importance to humanistic-existential psychology. Meaning is holistic and involves cognitive, emotional, interpersonal, unconscious, cultural, and spiritual factors. The dynamic meaning system enables individuals to recognize their own potentials and transcend their limitations and negative emotions. Psychopathology is likely to occur when people cannot accept existential anxieties as normal or universal. Therapy helps clients gain a deeper understanding of the human condition and develop a personal myth that makes sense of the predicaments of life and the limitations of personal freedom.

Paul T. P. Wong

Wong’s meaning-centered approach to humanistic psychology expands Frankl’s work on logotherapy and Rogers’s person-centered approach. The best way to understand the person or the self is to understand the ever-evolving, dynamic meaning system that is the basis of flourishing and resilience. People are more likely to live fully when they have a sense of personal significance and a worthy life goal; they are more likely to survive adversity when they give meaning to their suffering.

Wong shares the core tenets of other contemporary humanistic-existential psychologists. However, unlike them, he is committed to integrating positive psychology with humanistic psychology in both research and psychotherapy. His meaning-centered approach is an attempt to achieve that integration in order to understand the personal meaning that governs people’s everyday lives and enables them to cope with suffering, death, and other existential anxieties.

Wong critiques positive psychology for using a reductionist and molecular approach to meaning and for focusing only on the positive aspects of life. He considers a reformulated humanistic psychology to hold the most promise for creating a better future for individuals and humanity. It does so by virtue of its ability to confront the dark side of human existence and human nature and, at the same time, to affirm the inherent dignity and worth of each individual regardless of his or her circumstances. According to Wong, humanistic psychology not only puts forward a noble vision of humanity that can uplift the spirit of every suffering person but also proposes a research and applied program to transform individuals and society through meaning management.

In meaning therapy, Wong focuses on restoring clients’ sense of human dignity and worth as well as empowering them to find ways to meet their basic human needs for meaning, such as meaningful engagement with life and meaningful relationships. Failing to meeting these fundamental human needs is responsible for many mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and suicide.

Applications of meaning therapy include exploring one’s self-identity and what really matters in life. Meaning is defined in terms of purpose, understanding, responsibility, and enjoyment (PURE). Another major intervention strategy is ABCDE, which stands for acceptance, belief (affirmation), commitment, discovery, and evaluation. It encourages clients to accept whatever life presents them while still believing that life is worth living. Doing so provides for commitment to responsible action, discovering resources and solutions, and evaluating progress. In sum, the therapist helps clients see life and human existence with a meaning mind-set rather than a happiness or success mind-set. This switch from ego to meaning may be effective in resolving personal problems and moving forward.


Since the mid-1960s there have been remarkable scientific and technological progress and material prosperity. However, materialism, hedonism, the digital revolution, cutthroat competition, and exploitation have resulted in the loss of human dignity and perceived worth of individual lives. The value of the humanistic perspective is that it confers inherent dignity and value on human life and each person. This serves as an antidote to the prevailing tendency toward dehumanization, which accounts for many of the miseries in society.

The reformulated humanistic theory can be summarized as follows:

  1. It is person centered and therefore holistic and integrative. The person as a whole is always more than the sum of its parts.
  2. It is meaning centered and therefore encompasses existential psychology, transpersonal psychology, and the positive psychology of meaning.
  3. It affirms the intrinsic meaning, value, and dignity of every human life because of its inherent capacities for spirituality, autonomy, growth, uniqueness, and creativity and because of the personal responsibility to self-actualize through self-transcendence.
  4. It also recognizes the dark side of human nature and the human condition and therefore empowers people to accept, overcome, and transcend their individual and collective shadow.
  5. It affirms the human potential for growth in spite of the limitations of the human condition.
  6. It affirms that the person is a being in the world and cannot be understood apart from his or her social and cultural world and personal circumstances.
  7. It recognizes that mental health can be sustained by cultivating personal growth and cocreating an environment with humanistic values.
  8. It takes a postmodern stance toward research and thus recognizes the legitimacy of and need for different research methodologies in order to understand complex human phenomena.

Further Reading

  1. Maslow, A. H. (1970). Religions, values, and peak experiences. New York, NY: Penguin. (Original work published 1964)
  2. May, R. (1999). Freedom and destiny. New York, NY: Norton.
  3. Rogers, C. (1961). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. London, England: Constable.
  4. Schneider, K. J. (2013). The polarized mind: Why it’s killing us and what we can do about it. Colorado Springs, CO: University Professors Press.
  5. Wong, P. T. P. (Ed.). (2012). The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.


Wong, P. T. P. (2016). Humanistic theories in psychopathology. In H. L. Miller (Ed.), The SAGE encyclopedia of theory in psychology (pp. 438-441). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.