Louis Hoffman, SHP President

The emerging humanistic community

Louis talks about the factors that have been relevant to the vitality and growth of our community.

By Louis Hoffman, PhD

Talks of the renewal and reinvigoration of humanistic psychology are abounding these days. For many of us who joined the movement when it seemed to be in a slumber, it is quite inspiring to be part of this growing energy. When I first began identifying with the humanistic and existential psychology movements, if you were not part of the Society for Humanistic Psychology (SHP) and did not have the connections from the outgrowth of the early humanistic psychology movement, it could be quite lonely. When I met other humanistic psychologists we would often lament how lonely and isolated we felt professionally. 

When I joined the movement and found SHP, it seemed conversations of our lost influence and shrinking numbers were common. Many feared humanistic psychology would gradually fade away, especially given that there seemed to be precious few students and early career people joining SHP or identifying as humanistic. At the same time an increasingly large percentage of our membership were retired or nearing retirement. Then things began to change. 

Although many complex factors were part of the resurgence of humanistic psychology, I believe the most important factor is the emergent humanistic psychology community. When humanistic psychology grew in influence in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a strong humanistic community that helped establish it as a force. In the current renewal, it is the new community that really is primarily responsible for the growth in numbers and influence.

There are also many complex factors that have contributed to the development of renewal of a humanistic psychology community; however, I believe two factors stand out. First, in 2007, David Cain organized the First Annual Society for Humanistic Psychology Conference. The conference by itself was an important success. However, more significantly, the conference became an important gathering place for fostering the growth of the humanistic community. 

Since the first conference, each has drawn in new members and new regular attendees. Conference themes and speakers have facilitated bridge building with allies to the humanistic movement and demonstrated the broad relevance of humanistic psychology in contemporary society. In the second year, the conference began very intentionally reaching out to students with activities and opportunities to present. This has helped draw in many students to SHP, who have been increasingly active in participation, presentations, and leadership roles. 

The conference also played a central role SHP's embrace of diversity. In my last newsletter article, I spoke of the history of diversity in SHP. However, this has also been an important part of the growth of humanistic community. In particular, Nathaniel Granger has been an inspiring voice, but also a challenging visionary. At the 2012 annual conference, he made an explicit challenge to SHP and humanistic psychology to make diversity more than a topic we discussed and presented about; he challenged us to become a diverse community and create a home for diversity in humanistic psychology. This challenge has been largely embraced. 

In 2013, the diversity task force lunch meeting drew large numbers, as did many of the presentations. Presentations by various increasingly recognized leaders, such as Theopia Jackson, Shelly Harrell, and David St. John, were the subject of much discussion and left people wanting more. Through the conferences, diversity is becoming something essentially woven into our community. Although it is quite evident that we still have much work to do on diversity, it seems just as evident that it is here to stay. During a presentation on cultural variants in the experience and expression of authenticity that I offered with several very talented students from Saybrook University, I felt evidence that we had turned the corner on diversity issues. In a packed room, there was a good deal of emotion experienced and expressed in a very healing way. While for years we have been fighting to have diversity accepted as an important topic, in this presentation I finally felt we had arrived and now were moving into greater depth. 

The second factor that has been essential in the development of the humanistic community is the Facebook group, which has grown to over 1,000 members at the time I write this. The Facebook community has been a place for intellectual discussion and professional sharing, but even more it has been a place for building relationships and community. As the 2013 conference approached, many were posting in the Facebook community and their own pages about their excitement to meet friends they had only known through Facebook and reconnect in person with people with whom they had become close through attending the conference and staying connected by Facebook. 

Although Facebook may have its limitations, and there are many in humanistic psychology who voice some valid concerns about the influence of technology, it is quite evident that Facebook is playing an important role in energizing the humanistic community. It also has played a vital role in helping empower humanistic voices. Facebook has played a big role in the success of the open letter on the DSM and I am certain it will again play an important role as SHP begins a second effort at voicing concerns about the DSM. 

It is also important to acknowledge the role that Richard Bargdill has played in drawing in new members and building community. During his tenure as membership chair, SHP has continued to grow in many ways, much of this being due to Dr. Bargdill. In particular, his outreach to and support of students is quite inspiring. Without doubt, Rich has already left a legacy within the division through his work as membership chair. 

Looking to the Future

Once before, there was a strong humanistic community and it gradually faded in influence over time. Although I am confident that we will be able to sustain the new community, it is important for us to reflect upon our history and discern what we can learn from our history. Let me offer a few lessons that I would suggest and some reasons why I am hopeful that this time the community will be sustained. 

First, we must never forget the importance of our colleagues who also have the role of being students. It has become cliché to state that we learn from our students, but we must own this lesson on a deeper level than the well-rehearsed lines of a cliché. To embrace student voices means that we are open to how they can creatively apply humanistic psychology and to accept their challenges to our teaching. As I have noted elsewhere, without the leadership and voices of students, it would have been difficult for us to achieve the success with diversity issues that we have been able to accomplish. We must learn together. There is value in experience, and there is value in a fresh view. We must stay in dialogue. 

Second, we must avoid internal divisions and unnecessary fights that weaken our power and influence. Humanistic psychology is still a small group despite our growth. If we want to have a powerful voice and impact, we must stay united. This does not mean that we agree on everything. Certainly, as the adage goes, we can seek "unity in diversity." However, we can do this in a way that continues to demonstrate a deep love and respect for each other despite our differences. 

Third, we must stay engaged with contemporary culture. Humanistic psychology does not need to conform to culture to remain relevant, but it must stay engaged and aware of the essential issues. 

Fourth, we must constantly seek to find new ways to apply humanistic psychology in our contemporary culture. Humanistic psychology cannot remain stagnant and still thrive. This does not mean we need to abandon our roots or forsake those who founded the movement. However, we honor our history by taking it forward, not by being stuck in it. 

Last, we must be intentional about maintaining and growing our community. When I joined SHP, the average age of our membership was in the 70s. This shows that humanistic psychology had not been successful at drawing in significant numbers of new members for quite some time. This is starting to change, but we still have a lot of work to do. 

Let me conclude with a statement of why I am more optimistic about the future and our ability to maintain our community. Much of the early movement was dependent upon individuals who had become stars, so to speak. Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, Rollo May, and others were charismatic figures who were able to draw in many people to the movement. This is often necessary to begin a movement. I do not mean to minimize the importance of many other people who were instrumental to the building of the early movement. Certainly, Rogers and others would not have achieved the success they did on their own. 

The renewal of humanistic psychology; however, will be sustained through community, not individuals. While we do have some figures, such as Kirk Schneider and Irvin Yalom, who could be considered stars of the movement, much of the growth we are seeing is more about community. When talking to people at the last conference about what has encouraged them to continue coming to the conference and consider joining SHP, they readily pointed to the importance of the friendship and community. While it is great to have stars that can attract new members, it is more important to have a vibrant community that will care for each other, nurture each other, motivate each other, and grow together. 


I am excited about where humanistic psychology is at today. For a long time, I have been optimistic about the future of humanistic psychology, but this is different than saying I am excited about where we are at. In the 7-years I have been active in SHP, we have come a long way. We have moved from a place of bemoaning a fading influence to seeing a renewed vibrancy in our humanistic psychology community.