Phenomenology and Self-actualization
At the heart of the humanistic approach is a commitment to phenomenology, or understanding a person’s own unique first-person perspective on his life. Rather than describing how a person typically behaves (as in the trait perspective), or how a person’s unconscious dynamics operate (as in the psychodynamic perspective), a proponent of the humanistic perspective seeks to step into another person’s shoes and experience the world as he does. The goal is to understand a person’s conscious experience by under-standing his construal, or interpretation, of the world around him.
A second defining feature of the humanistic approach is its conception of human motivation. As we have seen, drive theories commonly view humans as being engaged in a never-ending struggle to remove some internal tension or make up for some deficit. However, a release from anxiety and tension does not account for everything we strive for. We sometimes seek things for their own sake, as positive goals in themselves, and Maslow (1968, 1996) insisted that psychologists consider the full range of motives, not just those that arise from physical requirements such as food, water, and the like.
These concerns led Maslow to propose his hierarchy of needs , in which the lower-order physiological needs are at the bottom and the striving for self-actualization—realizing one’s potential to the fullest—is at the top. Butwhat exactly does self-actualization mean?
Maslow answered this question largely by presenting case histories of people he and his collaborators regarded as self-actualized (Figure 15.22). Some of them were individuals he had personally interviewed (the healthiest 1% of college students); others were historical figures (e.g., Thomas Jefferson and Eleanor Roosevelt) whose lives he stud-ied by means of historical documents. As Maslow (1968, 1970, 1996) saw it, these self-actualizers were all realistically oriented, accepted themselves and others, were spontaneous, cared more about the prob-lems they were working on than about themselves, had intimate rela-tionships with a few people rather than superficial relationships with many, and had democratic values—all in all, an admirable list of human qualities.
These traits, and Maslow’s roll call of self-actualized individuals, might make self-actualization sound as though it were possible only for the few and the powerful. Not so. Even though self-actualization is rare, one of the major themes of humanistic psychol-ogy is that we each have within us the impulse to self-actualize. Indeed, one of the other major humanists—Carl Rogers (1902–1987)—regarded this as our one basic motive, and he argued that we often manage to self-actualize against extraordinary odds, much as a plant improbably pushes through a crack in concrete. (C. R. Rogers, 1951, 1961).