Book Review — Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization
Why are many people attracted to such endeavors as training to be a terrorist, joining a cult or becoming a gang member? Is it due to some innate neurological abnormality or a personality disorder? Might it be the way they were raised? One may be surprised to learn that much of the motivation one has to join these organized groups is all too familiar and is actually virtually universal.
Violent extremism, cults and gangs are all examples of many individuals’ desire for transcendence. Like us, they strive to gain a sense of security and growth. The problem with these outlets is that for this state to emerge, one must integrate their other needs too. And that is something that is absent in anyone who becomes apart of one of these groups.
Humanistic psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman’s new book Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization is a rehabilitation and the most recent advancement of Abraham Maslow’s work, some of which was unfinished when he died in 1970. Dr. Kaufman integrates research from a wide range of psychological perspectives into his book including evolutionary psychology, social psychology, personality psychology and neuroscience.
Dr. Kaufman calls the above activities nothing more than pseudo-transcendence — and includes political and religious partisanship within that definition too. On the contrary, healthy transcendence is something that emerges from the integration of the whole self. This means not ignoring the pain and suffering we experience as humans, but rather, integrating every part of our being.
I met Dr. Kaufman in January of 2020 at the biannual Heterodoxy in Psychology conference in California. I had no knowledge that he would be there so I was excited to have the opportunity to meet him: “Scott! I didn’t expect to see you here!” To which he replied “I know, I didn’t expect to see myself here!” Now that I have read Dr. Kaufman’s new book, I wish that I could’ve had a chance to chat about self-actualization and pick his brain on the topic of human potential.
Today, many self-help books are written with an aim for the reader to achieve happiness. “Happiness” and even “achievement” are encouraged far too much in our society though. In fact, the founding humanistic psychologists weren’t focused on either one of these supposed markers of a life well-lived. Personal routes to health and growth were prioritized instead and are actually able to be scientifically studied using the newest methods of scientific inquiry, unlike “happiness.”
Just upon hearing the term ‘self-actualization,’ some cringe — myself included at times as well as most psychologists who don’t take the theory seriously. Criticism is often directed at it because it sounds good but is very vague despite its popularity among the general public. “[Psychologists] thought the needs were too inborn and universal,” says Ed Diener, the author of Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, “and that the idea of self-actualization was too fuzzy. They started to believe everything is learned and due to socialization.”
I found myself largely agreeing with the criticism as I read about self-actualization. I am a very analytical thinker and have a kind of obsession with objectivity — or so I’ve been told. So, naturally, the theories proposed by Maslow seemed too good to be true and very similar to popular self-help books. I was mostly turned off to the whole field of humanistic psychology.
My mind has been changed drastically since discovering Dr. Kaufman’s writings on the field and given his movement towards a more objective humanistic psychology. In the midst of psychology’s replication crisis, the integration of more objective and measurable facets to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is the most impressive thing about the new book.
Dr. Kaufman structured the book in such a way that every chapter is on a different need. A useful sailboat metaphor represents the first two parts of the book. Without the boat itself, we would be spending all of our energy just trying to stay out of water that may be more dangerous than we’d like. Having a secure boat — obtaining a sense of not only safety and connection but also worthiness — is essential…But it isn’t quite enough.
That is where the sail comes in. Without it, you’re be protected from the potentially dangerous waters, but you aren't going anywhere. To actually make ground — to grow — you need to open your sail. The author believes that the “sail” part of the metaphor is how Maslow really conceptualized self-actualization with an added touch of modern science.
Part one is made up of three chapters on security: safety, connection and self-esteem. The need for safety is satisfied when one has stability and coherence in their lives. When satisfied, it allows one to be curious and explore their environment confidently. Intimacy and belonging are felt if one satisfies their need for connection. And to complete part one, Dr. Kaufman discusses self-esteem and its importance to our foundation for growth.
The second part to Dr. Kaufman’s latest book breaks into another three chapters on exploration, love and purpose. Exploration is a need which encumpasses our desire to make sense of the world around us.Dr. Kaufman explains that love is not a deficiency or needing like it has traditionally been studied. Instead, it is admiring and unneeding. Chapter six is on purpose, which is an aspiration that makes one’s efforts more pronounced and provides a sense of meaning.
Finally, chapters 7 and 8 on peak experiences and Theory Z make up part three. “Healthy transcendence” is the title on the final part in the book. Peak experiences differ widely in their intensity and scope. Any experience that makes one feel unity with the world, from reading an extremely insightful book to the feeling of deep admiration for a role model, can be a transcendent experience.
Chapter 8 is all about Theory Z — the title of a paper in which Maslow wrote about an insight he had while conversing with another humanistic psychologist. During this conversation, Maslow thought about a person who is self-actualized and has a value system that includes a passionate care for all of humanity and transcending the ego. Individuals like this are considered “transcenders.”
Healthy transcendence, unlike the forms of pseudo-transcendence I discussed at the top of the article, is defined by Dr. Kaufman as “an emergent phenomenon resulting from the harmonious integration of one’s whole self in the service of cultivating the good society.” This doesn’t mean feeling superior to others because of who you are, but rather, it is being a harmonious part of the whole of human existence.
Dr. Kaufman has done something truly extraordinary and unique with his latest book. He took old and outdated psychological theories and, realizing that they nonetheless hold value, made something out of them through the use of modern research. Scott Barry Kaufman is bringing back the psychological science of self-actualization — and I think it’s here to stay this time.