Abraham Maslow is one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century. His biggest contributions to psychology were his contributions to humanistic psychology as well as his development of the hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s career in psychology greatly predated the modern positive psychology movement, but it might not look the same were it not for him.
This article will discuss some of his formative experiences, his contributions to psychology, and his work’s relationship to the positive psychology movement.
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Early Life, Education, and Formative Experiences
Abraham Maslow was born in New York in 1908 and studied psychology and Gestalt psychology at the University of Wisconsin and the New School for Social Research, respectively (Encyclopædia Brittanica). He was originally interested in philosophy as an adolescent, but soon became frustrated with “all the talking that didn’t get anyplace” and soon switched his focus to psychology, which he felt was more applicable to the real world (Frick, 2000).
Maslow was first drawn to behaviorism in psychology but soon rejected it, though he still “retained a strong loyalty to positivism throughout his life” (Hoffman, 2008). Maslow considered himself a “very timid boy” when he first started his studies, and he partially attributes his later interest in self-actualization and the optimization of the human experience to this timidity and the isolation it caused (Frick, 2000).
It was not until World War II, however, when “as a 33-year-old father with two children … the horrors of mass warfare gave him a sense of urgency” and he pivoted his focus to human motivation and self-actualization (Hoffman, 2008). It is clear that Maslow’s research interests were driven by personal experience and shared experiences, which helps explain his contributions to humanistic psychology.
Soon after Maslow began his career, he became frustrated with the two “forces” of psychology at the time, which were Freudian psychoanalysis and behavioral psychology (Koznjak, 2017). Maslow believed that psychoanalysis focused too much on “the sick half of psychology” and not enough on “the healthy half”. On the other hand, he believed that behaviorism did not focus enough on how humans differ from the animals studied in behaviorism. He thus contributed to the third force of psychology that arose in response to this frustration: humanistic psychology.
Humanistic psychology gained influence for its “appreciation for the fundamental inviolability of the human experience” (Bugental, 1963). One of these factors was the Gestalt psychology-influenced idea that human beings were more than just the sum of their parts, and that understanding humanity would take more than just understanding each part of a person. From this idea sprouted Maslow’s main contribution to humanistic psychology (and psychology in general), his theory of motivation that focused on his hierarchy of needs.
Aside from developing the hierarchy of needs, Abraham Maslow also co-founded the Journal of Humanistic Psychology in 1961 with Anthony Sutich (SAGE Publishing). Maslow cofounded the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology in 1969 as well with Anthony Sutich and Stanislav Grof (Richards, 2017). By starting two influential journals in the field, Maslow ensured his mark on humanistic psychology would outlast even the influence of his hierarchy of needs.
The Hierarchy of Needs
The hierarchy of needs comes from Maslow’s belief that:
“the fundamental desires of human beings are similar despite the multitude of conscious desires” (Zalenski & Raspa, 2006).
In his seminal paper on human motivation, Maslow describes his hierarchy of needs as being made up of five needs, which are“physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization” arranged in a pyramidal manner, with physiological needs making up the bottom of the pyramid (Maslow, 1943). Maslow describes these needs as “being arranged in a hierarchy of prepotency”.
In other words, the first level of needs (physiological) are the most important and will “monopolize consciousness” until they are taken care of. Once one level of needs is taken care of, the mind moves on to the next level of needs, and so on until self-actualization is reached. Of course, this means that according to Maslow, “the average member of our society is most often partially satisfied and partially unsatisfied in all of his wants” (Maslow, 1943).
While humanistic psychology is past its peak of influence, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is still a major, well-known aspect of modern psychology. The hierarchy of needs has recently been adapted for use in hospice care (Zalenski & Raspa, 2006), for use in urban planning, development, and management (Scheller, 2016), and even for the study of policing (de Guzman & Kim, 2017).
Interestingly, the Scheller and de Guzman & Kim papers both adapted the hierarchy of needs to communities rather than to individuals. These recent studies show that the hierarchy of needs has influenced modern psychology in ways that Maslow may not have predicted.
Abraham Maslow and Positive Psychology
So what does Abraham Maslow have to do with positive psychology? According to humanistic psychologist Nelson Goud, “the recent Positive Psychology movement focuses on themes addressed by Maslow over 50 years ago” (Goud, 2008). Goud also believed “that Maslow would encourage the scholarly approach [positive psychology] uses for studying topics such as happiness, flow, courage, hope and optimism, responsibility, and civility”.
More than anything, both Maslow and proponents of positive psychology are driven by the idea that traditional psychology has abandoned studying the entire human experience in favor of focusing on mental illness (Rathunde, 2001).
Some scholars claim that Maslow helped conceive of humanistic psychology based on his:
“conviction that none of the available psychological theories and approaches to the study of the human mind did justice to the ‘healthy human being’s functioning’ and ‘modes of living’ or to the healthy human being’s ‘goals of life’ (Buhler, 1971).
To proponents of positive psychology, this reasoning should sound familiar. In fact, Maslow even used the term “positive psychology” to refer to his brand of humanistic psychology, though modern positive psychologists like Martin Seligman claim that humanistic psychology “lacks adequate empirical validation” (Rennie, 2008).
It is clear then that positive psychology is concerned with similar parts of the human experience as Abraham Maslow was, and that Maslow would have approved of the positive psychology movement. At the end of the day, both proponents of positive psychology and Maslow believe(d) that humanity is more than the sum of its parts, and especially more than its illnesses or deficiencies.
To a positive psychologist, optimizing the life and well-being of a person who is healthy is just as important as normalizing the life of a person who is sick, and Abraham Maslow helped legitimize that idea within the field of psychology.
A Take Home Message
Despite originally being interested in philosophy, Abraham Maslow first entered the world of psychology through behaviorism. Before long, Maslow’s frustration with the limitations of behaviorism and psychoanalysis led him to help develop humanistic psychology and his hierarchy of needs. This hierarchy of needs continues to be relevant today.
Beyond the hierarchy of needs, the lessons of humanistic psychology have been partially picked up by the positive psychology movement. Specifically, both movements focus on humanity beyond mental illness and beyond treating symptoms. To illustrate this point, positive psychology does not necessarily focus on increasing well-being solely for the sake of eliminating anxiety but instead focuses on increasing well-being for the sake of improving people’s lives and improving society.
Maslow was driven by a similar desire to help people live the best lives they could, acknowledging their unique humanity along the way. The personal experiences that most shaped this desire for Maslow were his childhood isolation and his powerful reaction to the horrors of World War II. May his response to these experiences serve as an inspiration to us all.
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- De Guzman, M.C., Kim, M. (2017). Community hierarchy of needs and policing models: toward a new theory of police organizational behavior. Police Practice and Research 18(4), 352-365. doi:10.1080/15614263.2016.1242425
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- Koznjak, B. (2017). Kuhn Meets Maslow: The Psychology Behind Scientific Revolutions. Journal for General Philosophy of Science 48(2), 257-287. doi:10.1007/s10838-016-9352-x
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- Rathunde, K. (2001). Toward a psychology of optimal human functioning: What positive psychology can learn from the “experiential turns” of James, Dewey, and Maslow. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 41(1), 135-153. doi:10.1177/0022167801411008
- Rennie, D.L. (2008). Two thoughts on Abraham Maslow. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 48(4), 445-448. doi:10.1177/0022167808320537
- Richards, W.A. (2017) Abraham Maslow’s Interest in Psychedelic Research: A Tribute. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 57(4), 319-322. doi:10.1177/0022167816670997
- Scheller, D.S. (2016). Neighborhood Hierarchy of Needs. Journal of Urban Affairs 38(3), 429-449. doi:10.1111/juaf.12229
- Zalenski, R.J., Raspa, R. (2006). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: A framework for achieving human potential in hospice. Journal of Palliative Medicine 9(5), 1120-1127. doi:10.1089/jpm.2006.9.1120