Positive Humanism: A Primer

Why Positive Psychology?

In 1998, the then president of the American Psychological Association (APA), Martin Seligman, chose positive psychology as his theme, using the humanistic psychology of Abraham Maslow as the foundation.  After a long career focusing on mental illness, Seligman realized that academic psychology was ignoring the other half of the mental health spectrum where we find well-being and human flourishing. pics1Many self-help gurus have written about some aspect of human well-being (e.g., wealth, relationships, success, etc.) since early recorded history, and an explosion of the “self-help” genre was seen in the early 20th century.  However, this genre has a questionable reputation at best given the countless unsupported and/or exaggerated claims made by the authors, the heavy use of anecdotal “evidence,” the constant confusing of correlation with causality, and the annoyingly frequent references to the mystical and supernatural.  Positive psychology uses the scientific method, based on methodological naturalism (i.e., no supernatural), to understand human well-being and flourishing.  Similarly, a goal of humanism is to promote human well-being and flourishing without appealing to the supernatural.  The union of the two seems almost “natural.”

Why Positive Humanism?

In the past 15 years, researchers have found demonstrable ways to help individuals live better lives, most recently measured by human flourishing, or experiencing a high level of well-being.  Flourishing is defined as living “within an optimal range of human functioning, one that connotes goodness, generativity, growth, and resilience” (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005, p. 678).  A recent large-scale study measured the flourishing of over 43,000 Europeans in 23 countries. Denmark, consistently ranked as one of the least religious countries in the world, ranked the highest with 41% of its citizens surveyed qualified as flourishing (Huppert & So, 2013).  While no causality is implied, this indicates that positive psychology and humanism are certainly compatible.  But humanism also extends beyond one’s own well-being. Positive humanism recognizes that one of the best ways of achieving a higher level of well-being is by helping others through concrete, prosocial acts (Rudd, Aaker, & Norton, 2014).  Through a combination of humanistic, evidence-based self-improvement and prosocial efforts, positive humanism lives up to the aspirations of humanism.

I can think of no better, worthwhile goal in life than contributing to human well-being and flourishing.  While I am confident that fellow humanists will embrace positive humanism, I can only hope that these ideas will also resonate with our theistic brothers and sisters who believe that priority should be given to serving a deity, even at the expense of humanity.  For this to happen, I believe that we need to lead by example. When others are amazed by our passion for life and our contribution to humanity, it will be a testament to the efficacy and practicality of the philosophy known as positive humanism.

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