In my last presentation (Wong, 2015), I introduced Viktor Frankl’s concept of the meaning dimension as a necessary spiritual orientation for the good life of virtue, happiness, and meaning. I proposed that meaning mindset (Wong, 2012a) represents the cognitive aspect of self-transcendence (ST). Meaning mindset represents a fundamental perspective change from a success orientation to a meaning orientation that facilitates the discovery of meaning.

In this presentation, my focus is on the motivational aspect of ST. In the literature, ST has long been an important concept in various lines of research, from personality traits and transpersonal psychological states to spiritual care. After reviewing the different conceptions of the multidimensional construct, I conclude that Frankl’s two-factor model of ST represents the most helpful perspective for research and intervention.

Finally, I introduce the 17-item ST Measure based on the defining themes of ST, such as serving something greater than oneself and appreciating and pursuing the classical ideals of truth, beauty, and goodness. The face validity of these items was screened by a group of graduate students taking a course on ST at the University of East London, and the reliability of these items has been established.

I conclude by making the case that Frankl has awakened our awareness of our spiritual need for ST and “enabled us to change the way we act towards the world: to reconfigure our lives in ways that are more satisfying, fulfilling and authentic” (Cooper, 2015, p. 67). In other words, when we are able to step out of ourselves from egotism towards the greater good, we will be liberated and empowered to nurture the better angels of our nature and experience the good life of virtue, happiness, and meaning.


We are living in a challenging time of history. With all the progress in technology, production, and living standards—with all the scientific research on how to improve our happiness and well-being—we still seem to have lost our way. According to a recent Gallup survey (McCarthy, 2015), 72% of Americans still think that our moral values are getting worse. Almost daily, we witness the problems of conflict, violence, terrorism threats, and various kinds of protests. How can we be happy, healthy, and good in the face of these challenges? How can we find our moral compass in a world of moral relativism?

Within this context, Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy helps rehumanize psychology and shows us how to be truly human. By combining ancient spiritual practices with modern psychological research on meaning and purpose, Frankl demonstrates that the new way of acting towards the world is actually the ancient way of self-transcendence (ST), based on our universal capacity for belief in transcendence, meaning-seeking, and meaning-making. From this perspective, ST is a promising path towards human flourishing and social harmony both for individuals and the global village.

Egotism, with its greed, pride and self-righteousness, has been the main source of human suffering and conflicts. If selfishness is the curse of humanity, then ST is a logical antidote. In sum, ST deserves greater attention from the research community for the common good.

Self-Transcendence: Conceptions and Measurements

As a multi-dimensional construct, ST has been defined differently in different areas of research, from transpersonal psychology to personality traits, from spirituality to aging and palliative care. Given the complexity of this construct, which involves the totality of the person—the bio-psycho-social-spiritual being—I suggest that it cannot be understood in reductionist or mechanistic terms. The following review of the literature supports my contention, and it will provide the proper backdrop from Frankl’s two-factor model of ST.

Self-Transcendence as a Personality Trait

It seems intuitive that ST may be a personality trait in some people who are born with the predisposition to serve others or a higher being (e.g., God). Research by Cloninger, Syrakic, and Przybeck (1993) and Piedmont (1999) and has provided evidence that ST is in indeed an independent personality factor in addition to the Big Five personality factors (McCrae & Costa, 1989).

In Cloninger, Syrakic, and Przybeck’s (1993) Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI), ST is defined as ‘‘the extent to which a person identifies the self as…an integral part of the universe as a whole’’ (p. 975). Thus, the person is keenly aware of being part of a larger whole, of a spiritual union with God or nature. Lee (2006) proposed that the ST subscale can also be understood from an existential perspective. Both Cloninger, Syrakic, and Przybeck’s TCI and TCI-Revised (Pelissolo et al., 2005) have been used in hundreds of studies.

Self-Transcendence as a Developmental Process

The term ST has been widely used to describe the developmental process of moving beyond one’s self-boundaries (Levenson, Jennings, Aldwin, & Shiraishi, 2005; Tornstam, 1994) Tornstam (1994) observed the spontaneous process of ST in many older adults, characterized by increasing interiority, and a greater sense of connectedness with past and future generations.

Tornstam (1994) identified eight characteristics of gerotranscendence, comprising two factors. Cosmic transcendence includes an increasing feeling of cosmic communion with the spirit of the universe, while ego transcendence involves a decrease of interest in superfluous social interaction; a decrease of interest in material things; a decrease in self-centeredness; and an increase in time spent in meditation. Tornstam’s Gerotranscendence Scale was based on these characteristics; unfortunately, their psychometric properties were questionable.

Drawing upon Tornstam’s (1994) construct of gerotranscendence, Levenson et al. (2005) developed the Adult Self-Transcendence Inventory (ASTI), which consists of 18 self-report items, reflecting the degree of ST. Participants are asked to rate themselves on a variety of characteristics assessing ST “compared to five years ago.” Statements include, “I feel that my individual life is part of a greater whole” and “I feel a greater state of belonging with both earlier and future generations.” These items are rated on four-point Likert-type scale ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree. A factor analysis identified two factors: alienation and ST, which are negatively correlated with each other.

Self-Transcendence as Spiritual Care in Dying Patients

Understanding ST as spiritual care is a natural extension of the developmental approach to dying patients in nursing care (Coward, 1990, 1995; Reed, 1991). As a person enters the end-of-life stage, the physical world fades away and the transcendental spiritual reality looms large; it is understandable that dying patients with a high level of ST may experience better spiritual well-being (Reed, 1991).

Reed’s (1991) Self-Transcendence Scale is a 15-item measure that identifies intrapersonal, interpersonal, and temporal experiences that reflect expanded boundaries of the self, which is characteristic of later life. This scale has been used extensively in ill and elderly populations, supporting a connection between ST and mental health and well-being (Reed, 2003).

Self-Transcendence as a Transpersonal State

The above conceptions of ST all include a transpersonal dimension, which is the focus of Garcia-Romeu’s (2012) paper. His qualitative research resulted in five main themes related to ST: unifying interconnectedness, beyond ego, higher consciousness, altered states of consciousness, and religious/spiritual beliefs.

Abraham Maslow (1971) is most representative of this transpersonal perspective. According to Maslow, transcendence represents the highest level of human need, and the most holistic levels of higher consciousness, relating to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to nature, and to the cosmos.

In his old age, Maslow was puzzled by two questions: What motivates people who have already actualized? Why do so many self-actualizers still behave like badasses? He found a solution by proposing that the last stage of personal growth is ST. In his posthumously published book, Father Reaches of Human Nature (1971), Maslow stated that self-actualizers will continue to be driven by meta-motivation in order to become fully functioning human beings; they will be devoted to some task outside themselves.

Meta-needs come into play only after the lower levels of human needs have been met. Maslow’s list of meta-needs consists of:

  1. Wholeness (unity)
  2. Perfection (balance and harmony)
  3. Completion (ending)
  4. Justice (fairness)
  5. Richness (complexity)
  6. Simplicity (essence)
  7. Liveliness (spontaneity)
  8. Beauty (rightness of form)
  9. Goodness (benevolence)
  10. Uniqueness (individuality)
  11. Playfulness (ease)
  12. Truth (reality)
  13. Autonomy (self-sufficiency)
  14. Meaningfulness (values)

When self-actualizers devote themselves to a cause greater than self and fulfill these meta-values, they will have peak experiences. Like Viktor Frankl, Maslow believes that these meta-values are universal inner realities in all human beings; they are discovered rather than created; they can be cultivated through self-reflection and pursuing our higher aspirations.

Maslow died before he could fully develop his revised needs hierarchy. Koltko-Rivera (2006) introduced Maslow’s highest human motivational need to a broader psychology audience. By definition, self-actualizers have met all their human needs; therefore, the logical next step for them is to help others actualize themselves, and, in so doing, they experience a self-transcendent peak experience.

Self-Transcendence as Value Orientation

Shalom H. Schwartz (1992, 1994) has done much research on universal values across different countries. His research questions are concerned with how universal value priorities influence people’s behavior and choices. More specially, Schwartz defines ST as a value orientation that guides people’s priority towards benevolence and universalism. Benevolence means being kind towards others or loving those close to you (e.g., family, friends, and coworkers). Universalism means having a global perspective or seeing the world as interconnected, or seeing oneself as being connected with nature.

Through his research, Schwartz concluded that there are ten types of universal values: benevolence, universalism, tradition, conformity, security, power, achievement, hedonism, stimulation, and self-direction. These ten values could be organized into four broader value categories according to two bi-polar dimensions (openness to change vs. conservation, and self-enhancement vs. ST).

A great deal of research has been done using Schwartz’ value scale and the short Schwartz value scale (Lindeman & Verkasalo, 2005) For example, Caprara, Allesandri and Eisenberg (2012) showed that ST values were positively related with the agreeableness personality factor and prosocial behavior. Shafer, Fukukawa, and Lee (2007) found that managers who scored higher on ST values placed more importance on the role of corporate social responsibility.

Frankl’s Two-Factor Model of Self-Transcendence

 Self-Transcendence as a Primary Motivation

Frankl (1985) criticized Maslow for making self-actualization as a necessary condition for ST. According to Frankl, ST was the ultimate end in life and the main purpose of human existence. Maslow’s self-actualization, Frankl argued, was merely a byproduct of finding meaning through ST. Furthermore, Frankl proposed that individuals could pursue ST in any circumstance, even in the worst imaginable hell like the Nazi death camps. Wong (2005) has provided a similar but more detailed critique of Maslow’s hierarchical model in favor of Frankl’s model of ST.

ST represents a primary spiritual motivation, stemming from the core of our spiritual nature, which is latent in all people, as Frankl has argued; it seeks to express itself in our striving towards the sacred or in dedicating ourselves to serving the common good.

Interestingly, Frankl’s motivational view of ST can incorporate all the above theoretical views. Frankl would agree that some individuals may be born with a stronger propensity towards ST. He would also agree that as we grow older, it is inevitable that we will gain the wisdom of accepting the inevitable decline of the physical self and may pay more attention to spiritual development. During the end of life stage, it is only appropriate that spiritual care focuses on ST. Recently, Breitbart and Poppito (2014) has applied Frankl’s logotherapy and ST to bring spiritual and psychological care to dying cancer patients. By definition, ST is oriented towards the universal values of benevolence and universalism as demonstrated by Schwartz (1992, 1994).

In sum, the motivational factor refers to the behavior of pursuing meaning, defined as ST. It involves a purposeful life that is dedicated to loving others or serving a cause greater than one’s self. It is the spiritual tendency to fully express itself through the liberation from self-absorption and the boundary of the physical self. A fully developed healthy self-concept is leaning towards the disappearing of defenses of the self and its territory and connecting with others, nature, and God. It involves active engagement with what really matters in an intentional and purposeful manner.

The pursuit and attainment of transcendental values leads to deepest satisfaction because it satisfies the deepest yearning of our spiritual nature. That is why Frankl has argued that we become fully functioning human beings only when we lose ourselves in self-transcendental pursuit. Wong (2014a) has translated Frankl’s meaning seeking model into a testable psychological theory and has clarified the three levels of ST—situational, life as a whole, and ultimate meaning (Wong, 2016).

Self-Transcendence as a Meaning-Mindset or a Worldview

As I have stated in the introduction, Frankl has developed a two-factor theory of ST: a motivational factor and a cognitive factor. The cognitive factor has the adaptive value of making sense of life in situations which seem absurd and beyond human comprehension. Its affirmation that life has unconditional and inherent meaning is a matter of faith or belief, which functions as an anchor in stormy days. There is potential meaning in every situation, but it is up to us to discover it through reframing them into a larger, meaningful context. As a case in point, Frankl’s (1985) epiphany that his suffering at the camp would prepare him to teach others how to find meaning in suffering gave him a sense of meaning through reframing the situation in a larger context of ST and future meaning to be fulfilled. This factor represents a complete change of one’s perspective on life. Wong’s (2014a) measurement of meaning mindset was designed to measure this new perspective of seeing the world in terms of meaning and virtue. This worldview will facilitate the pursuit and discovery of meaning, ST, and eudaimonic happiness.

The Development of Self-Transcendence Measure

The Self-Transcendence Measure (STM) was designed as a psychological instrument to measure our primary motive towards ST. This 17-item scale (Appendix A) was primarily based on Viktor Frankl’s (1985, 1986) concept of ST as the end value for seeking and serving something greater and beyond oneself; it was also based on Wong’s (2014a, 2016) recent conceptualization of Frankl’s meaning-seeking model.

More specifically, the 17 items were generated according to four dimensions of ST:

  1. Stepping out of oneself to pursue a worthy life goal that is greater than oneself.
  2. Appreciating and pursuing the classical ideals of truth, beauty, and goodness as something intrinsically worthwhile.
  3. Feeling or experiencing the higher consciousness of being connected with something greater than oneself, such as God, the cosmos, or nature.
  4. Forgetting self-interest in showing kindness or caring for others or animals.

The face validity of these items was screened by a group of 30 graduate students taking a course on ST and by three psychology professors (co-authors of this scale) at the University of East London. Some of the statements were reworded as a result of their feedback.

The inter-item reliability of STM has been established. We are currently conducting factor analysis and various kind of validity tests.

Concluding Discussion

For any observant individual, life is full of conflicts and misery in spite of our efforts to pursue happiness and success. I suggest that this sorry state we find ourselves in may be precisely due to self-centered pursuit. Thousands of years of wisdom from both the East and the West and contemporary psychological and philosophical research all point to a different direction for human flourishing—that is, ST.

In a paradoxical way, ST leads to virtue, meaning, and eudaimonic happiness as a byproduct without having to directly and intentionally pursue these values. Another paradoxical aspect of ST is that those motivated by ST motivates are most likely to be individuals who are secure in themselves, believing in their own self-worth, and having proper self-compassion.

Research has demonstrated that ST is a source of meaning and well-being (Wong, 1998, 2012b). Emmons’ (1986, 2003) research on Personal Goal Striving Theory can also account for the connection between ST and well-being because some of the goals associated with well-being, such as spirituality and generativity, are clearly examples of ST. Future research will clarify the importance of ST in all kind of happiness, including attunement with oneself, with others, and the world as a fundamental state of happiness and well-being (Haybron, 2013; Wong, 2014b).

I suggest that the STM represents an important instrument in advancing second wave positive psychology (PP2.0; Ivtzan, Lomas, Hefferon, & Worth, 2015; Wong, 2011) for several reasons. Firstly, it measures a sustainable well-being that is less dependent on positive emotions and positive circumstances. Secondly, it shifts the focus from behavior and cognition to the spiritual dimension that really separates human beings from other animals. Thirdly, it acknowledges that ST is the most promising path to moral virtue, eudemonic happiness, and existential meaning.

It is worth noting that Frankl’s theory of ST was influenced by his painful experience in the Nazi concentration camps. He wants to make sure that a good theory of ST needs to pass the Hitler test—that is, someone like Hitler can never lay claim to have lived a worthy self-transcendent life. That is why he was at pains to emphasize the conscience test, objective values, and ethical responsibility towards others. Similarly, Levinas (1972/2003) also emphasizes that a fully functioning human will transcend self-interest in order to be ethically responsible for the Other.

I will make the case that to treat others with human dignity, respect, and other humanistic values, we need to exercise our freedom and responsibility to rediscover and cultivate our own need for ST and spirituality according to a number of existential and humanistic authors, such as Viktor Frankl and Abraham Maslow.

To attain ST is our crowning humanistic and spiritual achievement, which enables us to move from instinctive selfishness to a state of selflessness. Paradoxically, it is in pursuing our spiritual need of ST that we are able to fully realize our potentials for self-actualization.

There is also a dark side to ST. Kruglanski (2006) makes the observation that terrorists could use ST as a tool to justify their violent means to serve the end of a “greater good”. But Frankl’s theory will preclude such twisted logic because ST by definition is based on the values of benevolence and universalism. ST represents a loving and virtuous way of relating to ourselves and others. Therefore, a proper understanding of ST should reduce conflict and terrorism.

I am pleased that the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin is also conducting a Project on Self-Transcendence, Virtue and Happiness (Kesebir, Dahl, Davidson, & Goldman, n.d.). Their research is based on Buddha’s teachings that suffering is rooted in confusion about the nature of the self. Thus, they reason that ST is a promising way to move beyond an isolated sense of small self by recognizing its impermanent and interdependent nature.

The present Chicago project comes to a similar conclusion and also focuses on ST as the pathway to virtue, happiness, and meaning, but through a broader frame of reference that includes wisdom traditions from the West and the East and contemporary research on ST.

I believe that Frankl’s two-factor theory and our STM will contribute to future research on the vital role of ST in developing virtue, happiness, and meaning. I encourage other Virtue Scholars to make use of STM in their research. I will present the validity data of STM and my proposed behavioral test of ST at our next research meeting.



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Appendix A: Self-Transcendence Measure

© P. T. P. Wong, I. Ivtzan, T. Lomas, & O. Kjell, 2016

See second version, Self-Transcendence Measure-Revised (Wong, Ivtzan, Lomas, Kjell, & Peacock, 2017)
See third version, Self-Transcendence Measure-Brief (Wong, Ivtzan, Lomas, Kjell, & Peacock, 2017)

Please respond to the following statements by circling the most appropriate response to the scale, from 0 (not at all) to 4 (a great deal).

1. What really matters in life is the contribution I have made to this world. 0 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4
2. My suffering is more bearable when I believe that this is for my family or for a higher purpose. 0 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4
3. My life is meaningful because I live for something greater than myself. 0 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4
4. I have contributed effort or money for the betterment of society or humanity. 0 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4
5. I accept with equanimity that suffering is an inevitable aspect of human existence. 0 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4
6. I have learned how to immerse myself in the beauty around me. 0 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4
7. I focus on discovering the meaning potential in every situation. 0 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4
8. I believe that my impact on others will continue even after my death. 0 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4
9. I have fulfilled my potential in order to give my best to the world. 0 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4
10. I care about other people’s well-being, even when they are unrelated to me. 0 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4
11. My purpose in life is to serve others, even when it entails personal sacrifice. 0 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4
12. I feel that at a deeper level, I am connected with all other human beings. 0 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4
13. My life extends well beyond myself to future generations. 0 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4
14. I have experienced deep satisfaction from serving a higher purpose or common good. 0 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4
15. I feel spiritually connected with God or with nature. 0 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4
16. I have devoted myself to pursuing the ideals of beauty, goodness, and truth. 0 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4
17. My spiritual or religious faith enables me to rise above my limitations and physical existence. 0 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4


Overall in your life, do you experience self-transcendence, a sense of connectedness reaching beyond yourself, or not?

Please answer the question by writing 5 descriptive words below that indicate whether you experience self-transcendence or not.

Try to weigh the strength and the number of words that describe if you experience self-transcendence or not so that they reflect your overall personal state of self-transcendence. For example, if you experience self-transcendence then write more and stronger words describing this, and if you do not experience self-transcendence then write more and stronger words describing that.

Write descriptive words relating to those aspects that are most important and meaningful to you.

Write only one descriptive word in each box.

____________________     ____________________     ____________________     ____________________     ____________________


Wong, P. T. P. (2016, June). Self-transcendence as the path to virtue, happiness and meaning Paper presented at the research working group meeting for Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life Project, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois. (Funded by the John Templeton Foundation) (Abstract retrieved from https://virtue.uchicago.edu/page/paul-t-p-wong-june-2016-working-group-meeting-topic)