Most people are familiar with self-help. It dominates bookstores and libraries with promises of personal satisfaction through lifestyle changes. But where did it come from?

Self-help is a single aspect of humanistic psychology, the 20th-century movement that focuses on psychology of the individual. It recognizes self-concept and self-actualization, improving society by improving the individual. Famously, it delineates Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Groundbreaking work in humanistic psychology influenced the civil rights, women's liberation, and antiwar movements and has gained popularity in the broader culture.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

In A Theory of Human Motivation, Abraham Maslow outlined a hierarchy of needs that motivate humanity. These include basic (physical, safety), social (love, esteem), and self. From basic, to social, to self, human needs are arranged according to influence. Physical needs must be satisfied before social needs, and social needs before self-fulfillment. To act unselfishly, a person must have met their most basic needs, an achievement that leads to growth and self-actualization.

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Basic Physiological Needs

At the base of Maslow’s theory are the simplest requirements we need to live. For example, air, water, food, and sleep keep us alive. When these needs are not satisfied, we become sick or, at the least, feel discomfort. These deficiencies motivate us to satisfy these needs before any others.

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The Need for Safety

Once physiological needs are satisfied, our safety takes precedence, in the form of protection from the elements or danger. It can also apply to the stability and consistency of daily life that keep us free from fear. In addition, many find safety in law and order and clear boundaries in interpersonal relationships.

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Need for Love and Belonging

The third level of human needs in Maslow’s hierarchy is love and belonging. The urge to fulfill interpersonal relationships motivates our desire to partner with others and join groups. We need acceptance, affection, intimacy, trust, and love to achieve a sense of belonging. Though family, close friends, and intimate relationships satisfy this need, fitting in at school, work, and in civic or religious organizations also help us meet this need.

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Esteem Needs

Esteem is the fourth tier in Maslow’s hierarchy, defined as either esteem for self or esteem from others. Dignity gives self-esteem, as do independence, personal achievement, and mastering skills. From others, our desire for respect and rapport comes via status. As the final social requirement, satisfying esteem allows for self-fulfillment.

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Self-Fulfillment Needs

Deficiency defines the first four needs. Lack of food, safety, or belonging motivates people to seek out those things. Motivation for these things decreases as we acquire them, and our motivation to pursue growth increases. Above all, every person has the desire and ability to move up the hierarchy toward a level of self-actualization. Maslow says this level is a desire “to become everything one is capable of becoming.” Through unlocking one’s potential, we are free to be creative and think beyond the self.

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The Self-Help Movement

The self-help movement began as a means for people with similar life circumstances (such as substance use issues) to meet, empathize, and encourage each other along their journey. Since then, it has morphed into a multimillion-dollar industry of books and media designed to motivate individuals towards self-actualization. Just as in self-help, the ultimate goal of humanistic psychology is to help people self-actualize and live up to their full potential. Humanistic psychology is also applicable to self-help in that it prioritizes the way a person thinks.

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The “Third Force”

Before humanistic psychology, there were two main schools of thought: Freudian theory and behaviorism. Sigmund Freud theorized that our actions result from unconscious sexual motives. B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism claimed we act based on animalistic responses to our environment. In contrast, humanistic psychology addresses the complete human mind, desires, and potential. To differentiate, Maslow coined the term “Third Force” to define humanistic psychology that focuses on identity, happiness, and other needs that are distinctly human.

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Philosophical Beginnings: Phenomenology and Existentialism

The field of humanistic psychology has its roots blending phenomenology and existentialism. In phenomenology, study of the conscious experience centers on the self and individual point of view. Each person also possesses self-determination and decides their future through free will in existentialism. In short, humanistic psychology bridges the gap between psychology and philosophy by bringing free will and intentionality to psychological practice.

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Impact and Future of Humanistic Psychology

Initially, mainstream psychology sidelined humanistic psychology for its rejection of quantitative research methods and its lack of scientific rigor. Since then, the humanistic emphasis on empathy and listening in counseling is an established norm for the American Psychological Association. Personal coaching and self-help literature borrow heavily from humanistic psychology, and the theories are likely to be integrated more and more, both consciously and subconsciously, into the social sphere.

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