President's Commentary

Reclaiming Humanistic Psychology's social transformation agenda

By Maureen O'Hara

Not only is a new world possible, she is on her way. I can hear her breathing. - Arundhati Roy

At the Mid Winter Executive meeting in San Diego in January, along with the usual reports about the business of the division—its finances, governance, nomination, awards, communications, and membership, (see the Board Minutes in this issue) which was conducted with efficiency and grace, there was a passionate conversation about the division's unique vision, its historical contributions and its future. There was some strong sentiment that though we are financially better off than we have been for some time, membership is holding or at least not dropping as fast as APA membership in general, and our Journal continues to be a unique conversation within psychology, concern was raised that students members are not renewing their memberships and our sessions at the Convention are attended by a largely older group. 

The concern was expressed that if the division is to thrive and have a potent role into the longer term future it will have to attract a new generation of younger members with new ideas and a wider vision of the possible. To do that, according to board members, including the student representative on the board Miraj Desai who attended the meeting, we will need to broaden our vision and reclaim the relevance and activism of earlier years of our discipline.

What draws Miraj and others of his age group to humanistic psychology is not so much its philosophy or approach to psychotherapy for their own sake, or even the tales of Dionysian shenanigans at early conferences, but because of the potential in the humanistic world view to provide the psychological, ethical and relational basis for social transformation .  In these powerful times what will draw young people seeking to make a difference into the Society for Humanistic Psychology is re-stoking the transformational fires that once warmed the bellies of our founders,  and involving them and ourselves anew with the challenges and opportunities that face us as a human community.

By all measures the world is experiencing profound and irreversible changes on a global scale. The challenges ahead in governance, economics, sustainability and in consciousness will be extreme.  If climate change, pandemics, failed states, eco-system collapse, economic meltdown, poverty, dislocation and famine, occur on just a fraction of the scale worst case scenarios now predict, what is up ahead for us as individuals and as a species is potentially catastrophic. Even in the relatively affluent US mental distress is skyrocketing with all the major indicators of psychological suffering on a steep rise.  In places like Darfur, suffering is so intense that many have given up the desire to live and are abandoning their children to the elements.  In a recent book I suggest, "the anchors of identity, morality, cultural coherence and social stability are unraveling and we are losing our bearings."

The likely responses to these unsettling challenges in the developed world can be expected to be resistant—showing up as denial, projection, escapism, scapegoating, fundamentalism, intellectual sophistry, neurotic routines, addiction and other understandable but ultimately futile efforts to quell the paralyzing anxiety that such threat and uncertainty brings. Some responses in less privileged places will be even more chaotic—war, violence, genocide, nihilism, social disintegration, alienation and despair—a thousand Darfurs, Chechnyas, and Rwandas.  Pretty grim stuff and unless you have a more hopeful sense of the future it could make you want to head for the hills and stay there.  To those in decaying American cities who cannot leave, hate radio and TV (left and right) offers a steady drum beat of rage-mongers trying to gin up anger and blaming (and worse) as a solution to powerlessness.

But this is not the only possible scenario.  As psychologists and educators, we also know that moments when challenges to coherence and meaning are their most intense and seemingly intolerable can also be moments of greatest learning. These are the transformational moments when can find what Wendell Holmes called the "simplicity at the far side of the complexity" those breakthrough experiences where we can move through the darkness to higher orders of integration and expanded levels of consciousness.

In my view, this is what we as psychologists need to be about.  In the face of what likely faces us, anything less might be interesting--a self-satisfying distraction--but ultimately little more valuable that designing new deck-chairs for the Titanic.

Humanistic psychology is an activist enterprise at its core, the product of concern for the world in earlier turbulent times. From the 1930s, Maslow was a participant in the émigré enriched psychological community of New York City.  He met regularly with Adler, Horney, Goldstein, Fromm and others who had fled the darkening war clouds of Hitler's Germany. The 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor brought the threat home and from that day, too old to serve in the military, Maslow dedicated his efforts to putting psychological knowledge to the service of improving the world. He, and the many who joined him in the new Humanistic Psychology movement, including notably Carl Rogers, Rollo May, Clark Moustakas, Gardner Murphy, and anthropologists Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, saw themselves as involved not only in an academic discipline but in a psychologically informed social movement that sought to prevent repetition of the monstrous behavior that had occurred on a global scale, to heal the casualties of both violence and neglect, and to create the social and interpersonal conditions that would lead to human fulfillment and advancement. Carl Rogers, explicitly sought what he hoped might be law-like behaviors that would enable us to avoid alienation, nuclear war, and ecological devastation and to facilitate the transformative trajectory "formative tendency" he believed existed in nature from the outer reaches of galaxies to the inner reaches of the human heart.

This is not the place to explore what happened to their emancipatory agenda, though I would argue that their work did indeed change the world—at least in the developed West-- such that their seminal discoveries about the importance of the inner world, empathy, deep listening, acceptance, authenticity, respect and transparency in human relationships; group dynamics, the power of democratic organization, importance of good communication, collaboration, participation and empowerment for social change,  have become part of lingua franca of late 20th century life.

But these days no one is looking to humanistic psychology to provide the social theory upon which to build a humane world.  If we want more young people to become involved in humanistic psychology and to reinvigorate our Society in the 21st century we will have to do more than more of the same.We will have to change.

We need to recognize something very important about this generation—much in evidence during the Obama campaign. They are eager to serve and they are more action oriented than theoretically oriented.  The new Edward M. Kennedy National Service Act, intends to put 250,000 young people to work serving their communities.  From what I hear from students at my university, I expect that there will be no difficulty finding the young people who will sign up. In my experience, this is the first generation of students in some time that remind me of earlier activist generations that sought to address social injustices such as racism and sexism, conduct a war on poverty and end a war in Vietnam, experimented with cooperatives, cultivated organic food, and who looked to the human potential movement for more meaningful and less consumerist ways of being.

The proposed Kennedy corps will have plenty of company here and abroad. In his book, Blessed Unrest, entrepreneur environmentalist Paul Hawken estimates that there may be as many as 2 million organizations world "working toward ecological sustainability and social justice" addressing issues from child sex trafficking to nuclear waste, from alternate currencies to green roofs. These groups include global NGOs and local community organizing groups, social entrepreneurs and faith based efforts. Psychologist Chris Stout's recent book, The New Humanitarians offers yet more examples of non-governmental initiatives such as Braille Without Borders that had to first invent a Braille version of the Tibetan language to teach blind Tibetan children to read; International Center on Responses to Catastrophes, that promotes interdisciplinary research on improving relief efforts; and the International Trauma Studies Program at Columbia University. Chris's own organization, the Center for Global Initiatives and he can be contacted via email. Also included in Chris's book is the Common Bond Institute, an organization I am involved with, started by Steve Olwean, a past president of the Association of Humanistic Psychology. For many years CBI has organized conferences in St. Petersberg and the US to help train facilitators who help develop "consciousness and local capacity for conflict resolution and peace" in areas of entrenched inter-group conflict such as the Middle East. Our recent conference in San Francisco, Engaging the Other: The Power of Compassion, brought together humanistic activists from trouble spots from four continents. One Chechen social worker at the conference, who had worked with survivors and bereaved parents from the school massacre at Beslan, told us that only person-centered expressive arts therapy had reached them in their terror and grief.  There are hundreds of other stories, other groups, and more being created every day that are bringing the hope-filled values and empowering practices of humanistic approaches to some of the most pressing challenges of the times.

What links all these efforts is a worldview and a vision of who we are that I would identify as the core values of humanistic psychology. They demonstrate an unshakeable faith in the dignity and goodness of individual people, in the power of solidarity and collective action, in the human capacity for choice, creativity, self-direction and self-healing, in the importance of empathy, and in the power of love over fear. They also share a blanket rejection of the use of violence, manipulation and coercion, and though many of them are willing to struggle against oppression, speak truth to power and some who work in very violent settings may pay the ultimate sacrifice, they share a commitment to the same emancipatory values that are at the heart of the humanistic tradition.

My hope, and that of many on the Board, is that as a Society we will become visibly involved in movements like these.  We don't need to create new organizations—though we can if that is what seems fruitful--but we need to join up and as humanistic psychologists bring our particular take on the human story to the service of the world at this pivotal point in human history.  We must ensure that when psychological knowledge is called for in these challenging situations it is the empowering humanistic vision of psychological potential that gets considered by policy makers, NGO officials and aid workers, rather than the disease and treatment models, that have so come to dominate American psychology of late. And as educators responsible for the formation of new generations of scholars and practitioners, through the design of our curriculum, courses and as mentors, find ways to help our students look beyond psychotherapy to the larger world-building mission that we inherited but appear to have neglected in favor of training clinicians to work in a disintegrating health care system.

There are a million ways to make a contribution.  You don't have to be working as a counselor or psychotherapist to "do" humanistic psychology in "plein air". In my own work, for instance, I have striven to bring my humanistic perspective into settings where I am often the only psychologist--- in a mixed group of economists, artists, teachers, government officials and community members, for example. Yet I have been able to bring a humanistic perspective to my colleagues and make an impact.

In early March of this year for instance, on a project with the International Futures Forum located in the U.K, I met with the Executive Director of one of Britain's leading arts organizations.  Our conversation explored the role of the arts organizations in developing on a cultural level the psychological capacities needed to thrive in the new 21st century contexts.  We were looking at his organization as a model partnership site to learn how institutions can become incubators to  "grow" people whose psychological development could fit them to thrive as persons who will be at home in this new world.  The Director knows that his responsibility to help people grow themselves into a new psychology is more than to the artists in his company, but is to all his employees and to a wider world that is out of balance. He understands the value of not knowing, of sitting in the messiness with what Fritz Perls called the "creative indifference" needed to attend to and meet the emergence of what has never yet been. Only for the Director this is no longer an individual "heroic artist" kind of thing.  For him it is the humbling recognition that the road to a new civilization, if we find it will be made not in the theoretical or the abstract, but in the walking.

A combination of big picture vision and concrete actions on the ground has been the focus of my life as a humanistic psychologist. Though I spent many rich years as a psychotherapist, I now seek to learn how we can link the micro world –the inner life of unique individuals— with what we need to know about macro scale processes of culture, society and ecology.  We need a humanistic social psychology that will honor the complexity of individual beings, but at the same time consider the larger social forces that can humanize or dehumanize and make the manifestation of individual fulfillment either more likely or more difficult.

I know that many of our members are engaged in work beyond the consulting office.  But I find it sad that so far it plays little role in our conferences, curriculum, listserv conversations, journal publications, dissertation topics. When psychologists are quoted in the media, discussing issues of public importance, it is far more likely to be a neuroscientist or cognitive behaviorist than a humanistic psychologist who is quoted.

As a community we have work to do to re-engage with the public sphere.   At the Mid Winter Board meeting it was observed by many that this generation of students and lay people do not know who we are or what humanistic psychology has to offer.  Text books usually cover humanistic psychology as a historical afterthought before rushing off to push CBT as the only game, as if client-centered therapy and Maslow's hierarchy of needs are all that is left of humanistic psychology worth talking about.  The entry on humanistic psychology in Wikipedia is dull, stuffily academic and includes a heavy dose of critique. It says nothing about the social transformation agenda, Rogers' nomination for the Nobel Peace prize—the only psychologist ever to be so honored.

The conclusion from the Mid Winter meeting is that we intend to become more outward looking. And we will approach this first through an expanded menu of media for communication.  We believe the public wants to hear the humanistic story.  Brent Robbins and his team's work on the Society's blog, has already resulted in his being interviewed about corruption in the drug research world. Go there and add news about what you are doing and how people can get involved.   We are also expanding this Newsletter, and creating new electronic sites for discussions.  In addition thanks to the tireless efforts of our Council Rep, Art Lyons the Society is one of a coalition of Divisions for Social Justice, which ensures that Convention programming addresses critical social issues. The Toronto Convention has an invited presentations by Tony Marsella, former President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, and Ken Gergen whose work at the Taos Institute takes on larger social issues, most notably new concepts about aging, and the Society Conference at the University of the Rockies in Colorado in October will also address a larger range of issues beyond therapy.

I will finish with a quote from Rogers, who on the day he died received word that he had been nominated for the Noble Peace Prize.  Rogers spent the last twenty years of his career working to ease inter-group tensions in apartheid South Africa, heal the wounds of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, working with leaders to try to resolve the Contra-Sandinista war in Nicaragua and helping open dialogue in the pre-Perestroika Soviet Union:

If the time comes when our culture tires of endless homicidal feuds, despairs of the use of force and war as a means of bringing peace, becomes discontent with the half lives that its members are living—only then will our culture seriously look for alternatives….When that time comes they will not find a void. They will discover that there are ways of facilitating the resolution of feuds. They will find there are ways of building communities without sacrificing the potential creativity of the person. They will realize that there are ways, already tried out on a small scale, of enhancing learning, of moving towards new values, of raising consciousness to new levels  (Rogers, 1980).

Some of us believe such a time has come and the culture is looking for serious alternatives to business as usual.  This is why I am a humanistic psychologist.  I have to believe that one way to enlist a new generation into our movement and ensure that we make our contribution to a more human world this is the kind of bold agenda that we need to reclaim.


Hawken, P. (2007). Blessed unrest: How the largest social movement in history is restoring grace, justice, and beauty to the world. Penguin Group: New York. 

Rogers, C. (1980). A way of being. Houghton Mifflin: Boston.   

Stout, C. (2009). (Ed.) The new humanitarians. Inspiration, innovations, and blueprints for visionaries. Praeger: New York 

Leicester, G. & O'Hara, M. (2009). Ten things to do in a conceptual emergency. Triarchy Press: London. (available for free download from or the publisher