Humanistic psychology theory developed in the 1950s, partially as a response to the abundance of military conflict that characterized the first half of the 20th century. Its two main proponents, Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, published the first research papers on this approach during the 1950s and 1960s. The core belief of the approach is that humans are inherently good, and that a belief in and respect for humanity is important for mental health.
Adjacent to this core belief are several other important tenets of this perspective. The first is that the present is more important and more significant than either the past or the future. Therefore, it is more useful to explore what one can do in the here and now, rather than to make decisions based on what may happen in the future or to constantly dwell on past experiences.
Second is the idea that every individual must take personal responsibility for his or her actions or lack of actions. In the humanistic approach, this sense of personal responsibility is crucial for good mental health. The third belief is the idea that everyone is inherently worthy of basic human respect and dignity, regardless of factors such as race, ethnicity, appearance, wealth, or actions.
The goal of the humanistic psychology approach is that by following these basic ideas, one can achieve happiness through personal growth. Both self-understanding and self-improvement are necessary for happiness. In addition, understanding that every individual has both personal and social responsibility fosters not only personal growth, but community and social involvement as well.
Abraham Maslow, an early proponent of the theory, believed that these ideas were in direct opposition to Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis. One of the most core beliefs of Freud’s theories is that human drives and desires are subconscious and hidden, whereas to Maslow, humans are consciously aware of the motivations that drive their behavior. Essentially, Maslow believed, psychoanalysis accepts that most aspects of life are outside of individual control, whereas the humanistic approach was based in free will.
The humanistic approach has some strong points that make it a particularly useful theory in the modern world. This approach emphasizes the idea that everyone can contribute to improving their own mental and physical health, in whichever way is most useful to them. In addition, these theories take into account environmental factors in shaping personal experiences. The concept of all humans having the same rights to respect and dignity is also useful, in that it encourages racial and ethnic tolerance, as well as reinforcing the individual’s belief in their own self-worth.
Critics point out that the humanistic perspective has few standardized treatment approaches. This effect is largely the result of the importance that free will plays, which makes devising standardized treatments extremely complicated. Another problem is that humanist theory is not a suitable treatment for people with organic mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, preventing it from being regarded as an all-encompassing school of thought.
Despite these criticisms, elements of humanistic psychology have been incorporated into many styles of therapy. The approach, with its emphasis on personal responsibility, social responsibility, and social tolerance, makes it a useful basis for positive personal and social change. Therefore, even though this psychological theory may be inadequate in some respects, it provides some simple and practical tools for self-examination.