Margie Lachman on the legacy of psychologist Abraham Maslow

A view on healthy development

By Margie E. Lachman

This year marks the centenary of the great American psychologist Abraham Maslow. From where I sit—occupying the same office he did as chair of the Brandeis University psychology department until 1969—I marvel at how he helped shape current thinking about human development.

In the hundred years since his birth on April 1, 1908, psychology has grown from a young science focusing on instincts and early childhood development to a holistic approach that celebrates lifelong development and potential—just as the aging population is exploding with the first of the large baby-boomer cohort entering their sixties and expecting to live another twenty to forty years.

A founder of the third force in psychology, Maslow developed his ideas in the fifties and sixties at Brandeis in reaction to what is called “the first force,” the Freudian psychoanalytic approach, and the “second force,” the behavioral approach championed by B. F. Skinner. Maslow’s third force brought a humanistic approach to psychological development that emphasized the great human potential and possibilities for doing good things in the world.

At the height of his career in the revolutionary and rebellious 1960s, Maslow held ideas that were brave and bold, even radical. He is best known for his writings on the hierarchy of needs (basic survival needs must be satisfied before the higher-order growth needs) and the self-actualizing person (highly creative, self-accepting, and fulfilled), but his body of work was much more extensive.

Four main themes capture and contrast his views to earlier theories, and they link to current psychological work and broader issues for healthy living in today’s world. First, he believed that human beings are inherently good and well intentioned rather than evil or mean-spirited. Second, he asserted that people act based on their motivations and needs, rather than in response to uncontrollable, unconscious urges, or externally determined factors. Third, he believed in individuals’ potential to grow and develop throughout life rather than in the Freudian idea of personality being formed and fixed by adolescence. Finally, and perhaps most important, he focused on the healthy as a way of understanding behavior and optimizing well-being rather than studying the neurotic or ill—a significant departure from much of the conventional psychological thinking of the time.
Today, Maslow’s teachings are more relevant than ever. Our burgeoning interest in exploring what makes people happy, optimistic, and healthy, for example, can be traced to Maslow’s ideas, which are being subjected to scientific scrutiny and empirical testing within the new positive psychology movement.

By challenging the ideas of his towering predecessors, Maslow championed the value of focusing on what’s right with the person rather than what’s wrong, paving the way for science to explore how to enhance and enrich psychological and physical functioning. Decades before the psychological mainstream caught on, he understood the key role psychological resilience plays in promoting overall health.

In less than fifty years, for the first time in human history, one quarter of the world’s population will be at least sixty-five years old. There is growing recognition in fields like medicine and psychology that by focusing on the healthy, we can learn a lot about disease before it develops. For example, we have begun to research cognitive functioning during midlife, a period when most of us are healthy but the seeds of decline and disease may be germinating. This work will allow us to identify risk and protective factors that explain why some people remain cognitively healthy well into old age and others develop problems such as dementia. We are also learning there is much we can do to optimize memory, reasoning, and decision making, and to slow the aging process, for those suffering steep declines and even for those who are doing quite well.

On the centennial of his birth, I gaze out my office window with Maslow’s visionary legacy in mind. This year, as the oldest baby boomers turn sixty-two, the age at which Maslow’s life was cut short, many can expect to make it to one hundred. As we age over the next forty years, we would do well to follow Maslow’s wisdom about healthy development, making the most of our potential and finding meaning in our lives, especially by nurturing social connections. This could help to make our lives not only longer, but also richer.

Margie E. Lachman is professor and chair of the psychology department and director of the Lifespan Developmental Psychology Lab at Brandeis University.

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