There Is No One Way to Live a Good Life

There Is No One Way to Live a Good Life

Psychology September 27, 2017 / By Scott Barry Kaufman
There Is No One Way to Live a Good Life

Humanistic psychology is an uplifting, compassionate view of humanity.

I'd like to offer you two models of human development.

The first is what you might call The Surrender Yourself model of development. According to this model, the lowest kind of happiness is having your basic food and health needs met. Then there is achievement-- the pleasure we get from earned and recognized success. Then there is generativity, the pleasure we get from creative expression and having a large positive impact on the world. Finally, the highest and most noble kind of happiness is complete surrender, and the glowing satisfaction we get when put all of our being toward some noble cause.

The second model we might call the Fully Human Model. In this conception, the focus is on helping you find your own unique path to fulfillment. The hierarchy is not arranged from least noble to most noble, but instead is a hierarchy of prepotency. According to this model, our most important needs are food, shelter, and safety. Without these most prepotent needs met, people do not even get an opportunity for further growth as a human. These most prepotent needs include a lack of environmental instability and chaos in the environment, as well as a lack of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse from trusted loved ones. Once those needs are met, it's important to have our love needs met, which include a sense of belonging and connectedness to others. Then, with that foundation, we can pursue authentic and earned forms of mastery, satisfying our need for the esteem from others. Then, with such security as a person and a grounded sense of competence and self-worth, we can try to pursue our most unique purpose, hone our authenticity and core values, and then, with that strong foundation and knowledge of who we are and what makes our own unique life worth living, we can authentically transcend our selves, contributing our full humanness to increase the human condition.

Which model do you prefer-- the Surrender Yourself model of human development or the Fully Human model of human development? I value and respect whichever model you prefer. My point is not to convince you that there is a single right model that works for you. Instead, I put forward this exercise to argue two other things.


Source: Wikipedia










In his most recent Op-Ed, David Brooks put forward what he calls "The Four Kinds of Happiness". According to this model, you are having healthy development to the extent to which you are "surrendering" yourself to others. Then, as a straw argument, Brooks misrepresents Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs, as well as the theories of fellow humanistic psychologist, Carl Rogers. The two models of human development he pits against each other are actually much more similar than he realizes, except that the first one is much more a value judgment of what you should become, instead of a hierarchy of prepotency of needs, which is what Maslow proposed. Next, Brooks reviews Eli Finkel's new book "The All-or-Nothing Marriage" (which truly is an excellent book), and criticizes Finkel for placing the framework within the mutual growth model of love put forward by the humanistic psychologists, and argues instead for a complete surrender model of love. I find both of these things highly problematic, and even potentially dangerous.

Let's start with the first point, about the misrepresentation of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. The past few years it has been pure intrinsic joy to attempt to read everything-- published or unpublished-- that was written by the humanistic psychologists. I read over 1000 pages of Maslow's personal journal, as well as have visited library archives looking at unpublished notes, correspondences, and the like. I would even go so far to say that I feel a deep friendship with Maslow, even though I fully recognize it's not a very symmetrical relationship.


It's very clear, especially in his later writings, that Maslow strongly believed in the importance of transcending one's self and finding one's unique purpose that best helps others. Here's the truth about what Maslow actually thought about self-actualization, and then later in his life what he actually thought about the importance of self-transcendence. As we'll see, both self-actualization and self-transcendence are not at odds with each other, but they actually need each other.


In an unpublished essay written in October 1966 called "Critique of Self-Actualization Theory" Maslow attempted to make humanistic psychology's tacit assumptions explicit. Among various explicit axioms of self-actualization, he noted that:

"A[n] assumption of self-actualization theory is that it very strongly requires a pluralism of individual differences.... Such a true acceptance of individual differences has several key implications that should be stated means that we try to make a rose into a good rose, rather than seek to change roses into lilies. It implies a kind of Taoism, an acceptance of what people really are; it necessitates a pleasure in the self-actualization of a person who may be quite different from yourself. It even implies an ultimate respect and acknowledgment of the sacredness and uniqueness of each kind of person.. In short, humanistic psychology involves an acceptance of people as they are at their intrinsic core and their regards therapists as simply Taoist helpers for them. We strive to enable to become healthy and effective in their own style."

This is the most direct statement of self-actualization I could find in any of Maslow's writings. He goes on to argue that effective counselors are those who truly respect the other person's "inner core" and regards the role of psychotherapists as "horticulturists", whose task is to help the other person grow "in his or her own style toward self-fulfillment."

In this paper, he makes two other points worth pointing out. Additionally, he argues that having good values is absolutely essential over "neurotic" values, which tend to develop under conditions of extreme insecurity and unsafety. However, he argues that we must not treat the choice of values as separate from societal influence, arguing that it's essential to have "good conditions for choosing-- which necessitates full access to information, to the truth. Useful information must not be hidden. This notion applies to undemocratic governments that censor the news or give out slanted news. It also applies to the one-newspaper town in our country or to corporations or labor unions that act as monopolies. It also means being able to choose without fear or social pressure." 

Under optimal conditions, Maslow believed (perhaps too optimistically) that people naturally move toward full humanness. Carl Rogers believed the same thing when he spoke of the "self-actualizing tendency" of humans.

Finally, for the purposes of this article, and contrary to Brooks depiction, I'd like to point out another statement Maslow made in this paper:

Finally, it must be stated that self-actualization is not enough. Personal salvation and what is good for the person alone cannot be really understood in isolation. Social psychology is, therefore necessary. The good of other people must be invoked, as well as the good for oneself, even though it must be demonstrated how these are-- or may be-- synergic. To some extent, the individual's interests and those of his or her team or organization, culture, or society may be at odds-- even though an overall principle of synergy may prevail. But, in any case, it is quite clear that a purely intrapsychic, individualistic psychology, without preference to other people and social conditions, is not adequate.

The humanistic psychologists were deeply interested in "human nature and its heights" and this very much included morality and compassion, but this also included authenticity, responsibility, and respect for individual differences. These concepts weren't pitted against each other in some simplistic and cartoonish way, but were integrated in a mature framework for humanity.


It's a tragedy that virtually every single psychology textbook in existence presents the incomplete version of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Toward the very end of his life, Maslow was working on an unfinished theory, which included "self-transcendence" at the top of his hierarchy of needs. In his descriptions, self-transcendence involves furthering a cause beyond the self and experiencing a radical shift in perspective, including a communion beyond the boundaries of the self through "peak experience".

During the last few years of his life, Maslow was enamored by the Buddhist "Bodhisattva Path" to enlightenment. Here is a snippet of an interview with Maslow somewhere between November 23, 1968 and January 24, 1969, just a few years before he suddenly died of a heart attack at the age of 62:

"Well, we can talk about self-actualizing people at different levels much more than I ever thought 10 years ago. For one thing there’s this becoming acquainted with people who had everything. I mean everything in my terms, in psychological terms rather than automobiles, and yet who could be quite unhappy and not know their way and stagger, and stumble around and do all sorts of dopey things, and stupid things. Then there was another differentiation that I had to make, that of people who were basic-need gratified, neurosis free, and using some capacities well, and yet being “merely healthy” as I call it, the “merely healthy” as over against the transcenders. Well, I think the difference comes from those who have peak experiences and those who don’t, more or less. That’s what I described first for self-actualizing people who are transcenders mostly, people in whom the basic-need gratification would automatically lead to the value system which implies also the Bodhisattva path. That is, the helping service to humanity or the helping of other people . . . and of simply becoming better human beings for others, as well as for themselves, and finally of transcending the ego.  

These ideas preoccupied Maslow so much at the latest stages of his life that he made a call for a new psychology beyond humanistic psychology. On September 14, 1967, Maslow delivered a lecture in San Francisco titled "The Farther Reaches of Human Nature", in which he presented some of these ideas:

The major emphasis in Humanistic psychology rests on the assumptions regarding “higher needs.” . . . These higher human needs are . . . biological, and I speak here of love, the need of love, for friendship, for dignity, for self-respect, for individuality, for self- fulfillment, and so on. If however, these needs are fulfilled, a different picture emerges. There are people who do feel loved and who are able to love, who do feel safe and secure and who do feel respected and who do have self- respect. If you study these people and ask what motivates them, you find yourself in another realm. This realm is what I have to call transhumanistic, meaning that which motivates, gratifies, and activates the fortunate, developed, i.e., already self-actualizing person. These people are motivated by something beyond the basic needs. The . . . point of departure, into this transhumanistic realm comes when they answer the following kind of questions: “What are the moments which give you . . . the greatest satisfaction? . . . What are the moments of reward which make your work and your life worthwhile?” The answers to those questions were in terms of ultimate verities. . . . For example, truth, goodness, beauty . . . and so on. What this amounts to is that this third i.e., humanistic psychology is giving rise to a fourth, “transhumanistic psychology” dealing with transcendent experiences and transcendent values. The fully developed (and very fortunate) human being working under the best conditions tends to be motivated by values which transcend his self. They are not selfish anymore in the old sense of that term. Beauty is not within one’s skin nor is justice or order. One can hardly class these desires as selfish in the sense that my desire for food might be. My satisfaction with achieving or allowing justice is not within my own skin . . . . It is equally outside and inside: therefore, it has transcended the geographical limitations of the self. Thus one begins to talk about transhumanistic psychology. (Maslow, 1969a, pp. 3–4) "

I bolded those questions for a reason. I want to make it very clear that humanistic psychology in general, and Maslow's thinking in particular, is very much about being responsible for choosing and owning your own unique path to the good life. Under this framework, there is no single prescription or most "noble" way of being.

Which brings me to something that I think is problematic about Brooks' Op-Ed. He clearly is trying to not just describe what healthy development looks like, but he is clearly prescribing a "noble" path to healthy development. The implication here is that there are less noble paths to healthy development, and if you aren't overtly, constantly helping people in obviously discernible ways, then something is broken or wrong with you.


I teach a course on positive psychology at Penn, in which I present various possible routes to the good life, along with activities designed to help students develop various aspects of their being. The goal of the course is not to choose for the student what a life worth living looks like, but for the student to experiment and see what works for them, according to their own style. As long as it causes no harm to self or others, who am I decide what counts as a life worth living?

But there is something even darker going on here, and that's this notion that whenever we are not helping others, we are by default being selfish and greedy. It would seem that our culture has just as much of a "taboo of selfishness" today it did when Erich Fromm wrote this passage in his classic article "Selfishness and Self-Love":

“People are their own slave drivers; instead of being the slaves of a master outside of themselves, they have put the master within. This master is harsh and cruel. He does not give them a moment’s rest, he forbids them the enjoyment of any pleasure, does not allow them to do what they want. If they do so, they do it furtively and at the expense of a guilty conscience. Even the pursuit of pleasure is as compulsory as is work. It does not lead them away from the continual restlessness which pervades their lives. For the most part, they are not even aware of this.” – Erich Fromm

Maslow was a great admirer of Fromm (as am I), and this essay by Fromm inspired Maslow to write an unpublished essay in which he clearly distinguishes between selfish behaviors and selfish motivations. Not everything that looks like "helping" is healthy, and not everything that appears "selfish" is unhealthy.

In fact, my colleagues and I have been investigating the implications of individual differences in both pathological altruism (the need to give in a way that causes harm to self and/or others) as well as healthy selfishness (engaging in self-care without any damage to others). The data is just starting to come in, and I'm sure I'll write much more about this later, but so far we are seeing that there are serious unhealthy developmental consequences to growing up constantly told that you must put your own needs aside, and "surrender" yourself to others. In fact, we are finding some striking clinical implications, in that high levels of pathological altruism are predicting things like depression and quite vulnerable forms of narcissism very strongly, whereas healthy selfishness is predicting a wide range of growth-related variables, including positive social relationships and greater meaning and purpose in life.

So contrary to Brooks, it appears that the reality is that too much focus on sacrificing your own needs makes it less likely that you will be motivated to help others!

Romantic Relationships

Finally, we arrive at Brooks' last point about romantic relationships. In his latest book, Finkel places his extensive and well-researched work on relationships within Maslow's mutual growth model of romantic love, which states that an ideal partnership is one in which both partners help each other become the best version of themselves (according to their own style). This strikes Brooks as a "cold and detached conception of marriage". Instead, Brooks argues for a complete melding "into a single unit called marriage".

This might sound nice and pleasant the surface, but empirically this approach to romance has been shown to be disastrous. This leads to all sorts of codependency issues, potential resentments, and even sometimes trauma. While its certainly true that romantic relationships have the extraordinary power to expand our selves, this is not the same thing as merging our selves.

Robert Vallerand and his colleagues have shown quite convincingly that those who change in romantic relationships in ways conducive to growth and health are precisely those who engage in relationships that allow the individual to remain engaged in other spheres of life (i.e., friends, family, hobbies) outside the relationship. This is also consistent with the notion that "role engulfment"-- in which a person's identity is based entirely on one specific role (e.g., helping others), superseding all other roles, sets the stage for role abandonment, or detachment from other things that make life worth living. The same applies to the self. Self engulfment will naturally lead to self abandonment, which is not a healthy state of affairs for one's self or for the world. As Marianne Williamson put it so beautifully, 

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. 
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. 
It is our light, not our darkness
That most frightens us. 

We ask ourselves
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be? 
You are a child of God. 

Your playing small 
Does not serve the world. 
There's nothing enlightened about shrinking 
So that other people won't feel insecure around you.

We are all meant to shine, 
As children do. 
We were born to make manifest 
The glory of God that is within us. 

It's not just in some of us; 
It's in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine, 
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. 
As we're liberated from our own fear, 
Our presence automatically liberates others.

Maslow makes this very clear in his writings. In his seminal book, "Motivation and Personality", Maslow has a chapter on "Love in Self-Actualizing People", in which he outlines what love looks like in those who are most self-actualized. I'll leave the last word to Maslow:

"As we have seen, the tendencies to detachment and to need identification and to profound interrelationships with another person can coexist in healthy people. The fact is that self-actualizing people are simultaneously the most individualistic and the most altruistic and social and loving of all human beings. The fact that we have in our culture put these qualities at opposite ends of a single continuum is apparently a mistake that must now be corrected. These qualities go together and the dichotomy is resolved in self-actualizing people.

We find in our subjects a healthy selfishness, a great self-respect, a disinclination to make sacrifices without good reason. 

What we see in the love relationship is a fusion of great ability to love and at the same time great respect for the other and great respect for oneself. This shows itself in the fact that these people cannot be said in the ordinary sense of the word to need each other as do ordinary lovers. They can be extremely close together and yet go apart when necessary without collapsing. They do not cling to each other or have hooks or anchors of any kind. One has the definite feeling that they enjoy each other tremendously but would take philosophically a long separation or death, that is, would remain strong. Throughout the most intense and ecstatic love affairs, these people remain themselves and remain ultimately masters of themselves as well, living by their own standards even though enjoying each other intensely.

Obviously, this finding, if confirmed, will necessitate a revision or at least an extension in the definition of ideal or healthy love in our culture. We have customarily defined it in terms of a complete merging of egos and a loss of separateness, a giving up of individuality rather than a strengthening of it. While this is true, the fact appears to be at this moment that the individuality is strengthened, that the ego is in one sense merged with another, but yet in another sense remains separate and strong as always. The two tendencies, to transcend individuality and to sharpen and strengthen it, must be seen as partners and not as contradictories. Furthermore, it is implied that the best way to transcend the ego is via having a strong identity."

© 2017 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

Article Featured Image: Credit: Kired Agbayani, Unsplash

This article originally appeared at Scientific American 

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