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The Peak of Happiness

The story of positive psychologist Abraham Maslow, and how he used the power of positive thinking.

Maslow's hierarchy of positive thinking

Positive psychology is a big buzzword these days. Look at how many books at Borders and Barnes & Noble have “happiness” in the title.

Studies on topics such as resilience, well-being and gratitude have made their way from academic journals to mainstream magazines. More than 200 colleges and universities in the U.S. offer courses in the field.

This up-swell of interest represents a dramatic shift in psychology. For decades, the emphasis in both theory and practice had been on dysfunction, mental illness and repairing emotional damage.

Then in 1998, University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Martin Seligman used his position as president of the American Psychological Association to promote the scientific study of happiness.

Though Seligman is credited with coining the term “positive psychology,” the idea of focusing not on what’s wrong with us but what’s right with us originated with another noted American psychologist more than 40 years earlier—Abraham Maslow.

He was known for his groundbreaking studies on personality and motivation, and his concepts like self-actualization, peak experience, and synergy have become part of our everyday language.

With this year being the 100th anniversary of his birth, it’s a fitting time for a look at the life and legacy of the pioneer of positive psychology.

Maslow was born in Brooklyn, New York, to struggling Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. They had come to the United States for religious freedom and economic opportunity, and throughout his life, Maslow cherished these qualities in our nation.

Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln became his heroes when he studied American history in high school; decades later they remained prime examples when he began developing his theory of self-actualizing people.

After floundering a bit at two New York colleges, Maslow transferred to the University of Wisconsin in 1928. There, he found his academic footing. Abe, as everyone called him, decided to major in psychology for what he saw as its practicality and social usefulness.

He wanted a career that would “help change the world.” He never stopped believing that social science could accomplish this goal.

Maslow’s six years at Wisconsin were important professionally and personally. Avidly studying many approaches, he was most drawn to the work of Alfred Adler, famous for his theory of individual psychology.

Optimistic and socially oriented, it emphasized the importance of parenting and schooling in helping children develop into emotionally healthy adults.

Maslow married his cousin Bertha Goodman, also a student at the university. Both were barely 20 years old. As he later reminisced, early marriage gave him a tremendous boost of self-confidence and stability. The two would be together his entire life and raise two daughters.

After receiving his Ph.D., Maslow returned with his wife to New York City. He joined the faculty of Brooklyn College in 1937 and immediately proved to be a charismatic teacher. He had a warm and inspiring manner. Students dubbed him the school’s Frank Sinatra and even cried if they were crowded out of his hugely popular classes.

In the 1940s Maslow developed his influential hierarchy of inborn needs. His goal was to understand and explain all human motivation—”Why do people do what they do?”—by integrating all existing approaches including Freudian, Adlerian, behaviorist, and cognitive-gestalt into one cohesive meta-theory.

Maslow thought each approach had its valid points but failed to encompass the big picture of personality. He theorized that human beings are motivated by their needs, which he diagrammed as a pyramid with five levels, starting with the most basic physiological needs at the bottom and rising through progressively higher, more psychological needs.

During the war years Maslow began pioneering another field: the study of emotionally healthy, high-achieving men and women—those he would later call self-actualizing.

Starting by analyzing the traits of people he admired in history and in his own life, he became increasingly excited by his investigations. He wrote in his diary, “I think of the self-actualizing man not as an ordinary man with something added, but rather as the ordinary man with nothing taken away. The average man is a human being with dampened and inhibited powers.”

Maslow interviewed many high achievers and discovered to his surprise that they often reported having peak experiences in their everyday lives: that is, moments of great joy and fulfillment. The psychologically healthier they seemed, the more often they experienced such transcendent moments.

Most of his interviewees weren’t religious. Nevertheless, they frequently used language that was almost mystical in describing their peaks of happiness—usually related to feelings of accomplishment in work or family life.

In 1954 Maslow published his landmark book, Motivation and Personality. It was a synthesis of nearly 15 years of theorizing about human nature, and it catapulted him to international acclaim. His tone was bold and confident: “The science of psychology has been far more successful on the negative than on the positive side…It has revealed to us much about man’s shortcomings, his illnesses, his sins, but little about his potentialities, his virtues, his achievable aspirations, or his psychological health.”

Especially in such growing, practical fields as education and business management, Maslow’s optimistic view of human attainment and creativity aroused tremendous interest. He moved to fledgling Brandeis University outside Boston and become head of its psychology program.

During the 1960s, Maslow’s career blossomed. Entrepreneurs sought his advice on motivating their employees. On the West Coast, where new ideas on what he called “enlightened management” were rapidly taking root in the high-tech field, his approach to job satisfaction had particular impact.

In these years, Maslow popularized the term “synergy” to describe work teams in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. When employees were encouraged to work together to maximize their personal strengths through interesting, challenging tasks, Maslow correctly predicted, their productivity and innovation would soar.

Stricken by a heart attack in 1967, Maslow relocated with Bertha to the San Francisco Bay area for its milder climate, and continued to write, teach, and consult.

Despite ill health, his commitment  to awakening human potential never wavered. “I have a very strong sense of being in the middle of a historical wave,” he wrote. “One hundred fifty years from now, what will historians say about this age? What was really important? My belief is that…the ‘growing tip’ of mankind is now growing and will flourish….”

Maslow was right. Long after his death from a heart attack in 1970, his ideas live on in the field of positive psychology.

Read more about Maslow in Positive Thinking 101

Download your FREE positive thinking ebook!


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