Examining Humanistic, Transpersonal and Existential Psychology

Colored puzzle pieces form a brain shape with a few missing pieces

The study of the human mind has its roots in ancient times, but psychology didn’t become a recognized discipline until the 19th century. Throughout the years, great thinkers like Wilhelm Wundt, William James, Sigmund Freud, and Abraham Maslow have propelled the field forward, and different schools of thought and psychological approaches have emerged. Three of these approaches are humanistic, transpersonal and existential psychology.

Humanistic Psychology

Up to the late 1950s, there were primarily two dominant schools of thought: behaviorist and psychoanalytic. Some psychologists criticized both for having deterministic tendencies and for sidestepping the role of human consciousness. In response, the humanistic approach became widely embraced by psychologists, most notably Abraham Maslow and Clark Moustakas. Humanistic psychology is a positive approach that theorizes that each individual’s subjective experience is the central factor in behavior. Humanistic psychology includes the following principles:

  • Individuals have free will
  • Because of their free will, individuals must take personal responsibility in order to grow
  • Individuals naturally strive toward self-actualization
  • Humans are inherently good

Group studies take a backseat in humanistic psychology, as each patient is approached as a unique individual with unique experiences.

Transpersonal Psychology

Transpersonal psychology is closely related to the humanistic approach, and it traces back to Abraham Maslow. But where the humanistic approach stops at the individual’s subjective experiences, transpersonal psychology goes a step further by including the influences of transcendent or spiritual experiences. Transpersonal psychology acknowledges the search by humans for a higher purpose in life, and for the qualities of compassion, creativity, wisdom and unconditional love. Some transpersonal psychologists view themselves more as facilitators than as counselors. In this capacity, their role is to serve as a guide as the patient seeks his or her own truth. Another main principle of transpersonal psychology is the emphasis on relationships. This approach strives to understand an individual’s mind and how it works based on that individual’s relationships with others, including the relationship with the therapist. Like the humanistic approach, the transpersonal theory supports an individual’s quest toward personal growth and self-actualization.

Existential Psychology

There are many similarities among existential, humanistic and transpersonal psychologies. One might view them as siblings who each stayed true to their family values, but chose a slightly different path. Like the previous two approaches, existential psychology assumes that:

  • Humans have free will and self-awareness
  • Humans are self-actualizing beings with great capacities for growth
  • As subjective life experiences change, so too does the individual and the self-identity

Existential psychology also borrows the emphasis on relationships with others from transpersonal psychology. One crucial difference that sets the existential theory apart is the active acknowledgment of human limitations. That is, while humans have significant potential and will naturally work toward self-actualization, they are also limited in their growth. Existential psychology examines the human condition but takes a positive approach to it.

The Doctor of Philosophy in General Psychology with an Emphasis in Cognition and Instruction degree program includes a course that explores humanistic, transpersonal, and existential psychology. The College of Doctoral Studies at Grand Canyon University invites you to click on the Request More Information button at the top of the website to complete your educational journey as part of our Christian learning community.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.