A world-wide surge of interest in what human beings could be and could become started in the 1940s, grew slowly in the 1950s, grew much faster in the 60s and finally reached its full flowering in the 1970s. Today it is consolidating itself, and becoming much more widely accepted. It is now part of the mainstream, rather than being something new and unfamiliar. It is no longer unfashionable to admit that you are interested in understanding yourself and what you might be or become. In fact the ‘new’ positive psychology movement has much in common with humanistic psychology, and the ‘new’ approaches to coaching have taken much from the humanistic tradition, particularly when working with organizations.

In the process of change and development, a number of different names and titles have been used. Sometimes it has been called ‘third force psychology’ (the other two being psychoanalysis and the orthodox academic behavioural-cognitive approach); sometimes the ‘self-awareness movement’ (because awareness seemed to be quite a key word); sometimes the ‘human potential movement’ (because of its insistence that the average and the normal are actually less than average and less than normal); and sometimes just ‘personal growth’, because of its belief that people could continue to grow beyond their usual limits, if they were allowed to. Today it is less of a movement and more of a tendency or approach within the whole field of self- development. The full story can be followed now in books like de Carvalho (1991), Moss (1999), Rowan (2001) and Whitton (2003).
In the early days, one man was the pioneer of this way of looking at the world: Abraham Maslow. He was an academic psychologist who later became president of the American Psychological Association. He put forward the key idea of self-actualization: the idea that our purpose in life is to go on with a process of development which starts out in early life but often gets blocked later. He was joined by others such as Carl Rogers (another president of the APA), Charlotte Buhler, Roberto Assagioli, Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir, Kurt Goldstein, Sidney Jourard, Rollo May, Clark Moustakas, Ira Progoff, Jean Houston, Alvin Mahrer and others. It is important to point out that humanistic psychology is not to be reduced to Maslow and Rogers, as if they were the sufficient definition. Others who are important include Rollo May, Jacob Moreno, Fritz Perls, Alvin Mahrer and many others, as the books just quoted make clear. The Maslow/Rogers reduction is all too common in today’s textbooks.

One of the most characteristic features of this approach is that it lays a great deal of stress upon personal experience: it is not enough to read about it in books. And so this movement produced a unique kind of institution, which had never existed before – the growth centre. A growth centre is a place where you can go and be encouraged to meet other people and meet yourself. This idea of meeting yourself is unique. No one had ever talked about that before, except in a rather forbidding way connected with illness or personal problems, or perhaps as part of a religious group. But the growth centre is for everyone who feels that there is more – there doesn’t have to be anything wrong with them. And there they find an encouraging atmosphere. If you go to one, you will find yourself in an atmosphere which enables you to open up and trust the situation enough so that you can move forward – maybe even sometimes leap forward – in self-understanding and human relationships. It is open to all – you don’t have to be sick or troubled in order to go. In the USA the Esalen Institute is still going, and so is the Open Centre in England.Today there are fewer growth centres than there were, because the approach has been adopted much more widely. Most courses which teach about dealing with other people now include some emphasis on understanding yourself, and use humanistic thinking and humanistic methods – often unacknowledged. They have to, because any attempt to understand or work with others on any kind of emotional level has to involve some self-understanding, some self-awareness. And this is the heartland of humanistic psychology.In the year 2000 there was a big humanistic conference, called Old Saybrook 2, and this led to a bursting forth of new books and new thinking about the humanistic approach. The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology (2001) put together over 700 pages of new thinking covering vast ranges of the psychological landscape; the very important Handbook of Action Research (2001) is not entirely humanistic, but does have important humanistic and transpersonal material there; Humanistic Psychotherapies (2002) comprised another 700 pages of research and practice.In today’s world, with its fierce challenges and fast changes and hard lessons, we have to know ourselves much better, and how to relate to others much better, if we are to survive at all. But we can do much more than survive – we can realise our potential. We can be all that we have it in us to be.Read a further extract on the theory of Humanistic Psychology:  John Rowan – Theory of Humanistic Psychology.The text above was taken from a booklet – the Guide to Humanistic Psychology, written by John Rowan.