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  • Writer's pictureJon Beale & Nick Holton

Episode 3: Should Growth be the Goal of Human Flourishing?, with Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman

Updated: Mar 22

We discuss flourishing with Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman, humanistic psychologist, Founder of the Center for Human Potential, creator and host of the world’s most popular psychology podcast, The Psychology Podcast.

Our conversation focuses on whether growth and self-actualization should be regarded as the goal of life rather than flourishing, and Scott’s vision for education having students reach self-actualization as its core aim. Some of our discussion draws upon key themes in Scott’s most recent book, Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization (2020).

“Treat others like they’re sunsets. Let people unfold in their own direction – in their own developmental trajectory, and guide them – guide them towards making the growth choices, but don’t force people to conform to some preconceived idea of what it means to flourish, or some preconceived idea of self-actualization.”


What is human potential?

Scott is one of the world’s leading experts on the science of human potential, and early in our conversation we ask Scott how he defines human potential. Scott defines it as the intersection of four fields: cognitive science, developmental psychology, positive psychology and humanistic psychology. He’s trying to create a human potential movement grounded in science which draws upon the best ideas into the wider world.

A key theme in Transcend is that for a person to fulfil their potential, we need to lay primary importance on their wholeness. One of the key arguments in the book is that limiting conceptions of human potential prevent human beings from fulfilling their potential. The emphasis on a person’s wholeness concurs with certain accounts of flourishing, such as the account put forward by the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard, which defines flourishing as “complete human well-being” – a “state in which all aspects of a person’s life are good” (Tyler VanderWeele (2017), 'On the Promotion of Human Flourishing', Proceedings of the American Academy of Sciences, 31, p. 8149). All the major accounts of flourishing also include fulfilment of potential among their key criteria, from Aristotle to contemporary theories such as those of positive psychology, the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard, the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues and UNESCO.

For more information on Scott’s work on human potential, see the Center for Human Potential, which Scott founded.

Humanistic psychology, flourishing and self-actualization

Scott is a leading writer in humanistic psychology: the branch of psychology that emphasizes each individual person’s wholeness and uniqueness. It holds that we have free will and we desire to fulfil our potential and reach a state of ‘self-actualization’: a person’s full realization of their potential through their internal motivation (as opposed to motivation through external means, such as being motivated by power, fame or money). It is also a person’s realization that the self is a primary motivating force for their life and their self and environment are part of a holistic whole.

Self-actualization was popularized in the work of the psychologist Abraham Maslow, who defines the concept in his seminal 1943 article 'A Theory of Human Motivation' as the fulfillment of one’s potential. Maslow used the term ‘self-actualization’ to refer to “the desire for self-fulfillment,” by which he meant “the tendency for [a person] to become actualized in what he is potentially.” He proceeded to add that this “tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming” (p. 382). It is a state of reaching our “fullest potentialities and capacities” (p. 394), which Maslow argues human beings feel a need to fulfil: “What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization” (p. 382).

Scott has developed a self-actualization scale, and in this episode emphasizes that the information he presents in this scale is people’s top three sources of self-actualization. This is important because, as Scott points out, self-actualization is “so idiosyncratic to the person.” He wants to use instruments, tests and measures to “find out each person’s idiosyncratic creative potential,” by contrast with the results given by tests such as IQ scores or SAT results, which tell us little about a person’s individual potential. This, Scott says, is related to his philosophy of education: he recommends that we explore questions such as “How do we use these tests?”, “What’s their purpose?” and “How are we interpreting the results on these tests?” to help people to self-actualize.

“Self-actualization for me … is really all about peering as deeply as possible into a person’s own needs that they tell us as opposed to us telling them.”

Scott recommends his website as a great place for someone to start in exploring their own self-actualization and for self-actualization coaching. The tests explain the various areas assessed and how these relate to self-actualization, and tell you what your top sources of self-actualization are. The tests are free and anonymous, show your results instantly. Scott is also creating a new form of coaching, ‘Personal Self-Actualization Coaching’, based on his work on the science of human potential.

Scott aims to bring self-actualization coaching to schools:

“Ultimately, I have a vision, of scaling up this coaching training program so entire school districts, from the principals to the school psychologists to the teachers to the parents view themselves in life as their role is to be a self-actualization coach.”

Scott argues that education needs more of what he calls “growth potentiality”: if more people in a child’s life – their parents, teachers, school leaders and members of the local community – understood the latest science of human potential, had a high understanding of how to bring out the best in students, and took the same training program, more people in a child’s life would be looking out for the child’s best interests. In connection with this point, he mentions that Maslow held that teachers, parents and therapists should be viewed as horticulturalists, in that their aim is to help people to grow and flourish.

Scott doesn’t view humanistic psychology as concerned with flourishing. He points out that it’s historically been concerned with growth, creativity, meaning, humanitarian purpose and spirituality. Scott acknowledges that we could argue that some or all of these are part of what it means to flourish, and if so, he sees a link between humanistic psychology and flourishing. But, beyond this, he doesn’t think there’s a clear link between the two. He conceptualizes flourishing not as the primary concern of humanistic psychology; rather, he holds that wholeness, being experientially alive and living a fulfilling life are the major concerns of humanistic psychology.

Scott’s focus on the uniqueness of each individual person in his work in humanistic psychology connects with our discussion about the importance of the individual differences between people in our earlier episode with Dr. Todd Kashdan. Scott also says in this conversation that he disagrees with the distinction between positive and negative emotions, which we also discuss with Todd.

The sailboat metaphor for self-actualization

Maslow argued that to reach self-actualization, we need to fulfill three types of need, ‘basic’, ‘psychological’ and ‘self-fulfillment needs’. These are introduced in Maslow’s famous ‘hierarchy of needs’: an account of the areas of life human beings need fulfilled to fulfil their potential. While Maslow does not describe the hierarchy of needs in terms of flourishing, in many ways it could be used as a model for flourishing, or for guidance on some of the things that human beings pursue for their own sake. At its core it’s a theory of how we can fulfill our potential, which, as we saw above, is at the core of all the most influential theories of flourishing.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often depicted as a pyramid, illustrating the three levels of need as tiers:

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (image from the School of Life)

This illustration implies that a level of need higher on the hierarchy can only begin to be accessed once a lower level has been fulfilled, and that self-actualization is a process of moving from the bottom of the pyramid upwards.

This, however, is a misleading way of depicting the hierarchy of needs; Maslow never depicted it as a pyramid nor intended for it to be understood in this way. In Transcend, Scott argues that a better metaphor for depicting and understanding Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in line with developments in research on the science of human potential since Maslow is as a sailboat:

Scott’s sailboat metaphor for self-actualization (illustration by Andy Ogden, from Kyle Kowalski’s blog)

Scott points out that the hierarchy of needs shouldn’t be viewed as a list:

“The whole point of the metaphor is that you’re a whole operating unit that has to find a way of integrating these various parts of yourself in a way that works best for you, so that you open your sail and you’re moving in and travelling to the port that you want to travel to, not that people tell you to travel to.”

The sailboat has six components. The boat depicts our basic needs, such as our need for security, esteem and shelter. If we’re deficient in these and struggling to survive, we’ll feel like we’re not staying afloat. We won’t be able to focus on growth if we’re feeling unmoored.

The sail depicts our needs for exploration, purpose and love, including love for the being of others. Scott describes this by distinguishing between “being love” – love for how someone is in themselves – and “doing love” – doing loving things for someone. He holds that being love is more important than doing love. Purpose is having a prosocial calling in the world. (For discussion of the connection between meaning, purpose and flourishing, see our earlier episode with Emily Esfahani Smith.)

If you want to move anywhere in the boat, you “need to open your sail and set your sights on something,”, such as a higher-level goal beyond the satisfaction of your basic needs. If we can transcend our basic needs and enter what Maslow called the ‘growth’ or ‘being realm’ of human existence, we can sail to a port we want to sail to, knowing that we’re all in the sea together and there are consequences for how we treat other people on the boat and the sea.

Scott points out that the integration of all the parts of the boat is vital for self-actualization.

It’s important that we take good care of each part of the boat for it to function well as an integrated whole. Similarly, for us to function well as human beings and fulfill our potential, we need to take care of each area of need in our lives and integrate each area as part of a holistic whole.

Scott on flourishing

Scott questions whether flourishing should be regarded as the aim of life. He prefers self-actualization, wholeness and growth as better candidates for life’s ultimate goals. Scott sees flourishing as part of a mental health continuum. On this, he recommends Corey Key’s work on flourishing, in which Keys points out that mental health consists of a continuum from languishing to flourishing.

Scott points out that it’s not clear that everything good in life concerns flourishing. He warns us against putting too much under the single umbrella of ‘flourishing’, because we risk the word losing a clear meaning. He also worries about standardizing it: for example, measuring flourishing by specifying several measurable criteria that constitute flourishing (such as happiness, meaning, life satisfaction and so on) and holding that to flourish you have to measure highly only on those criteria, but if you don’t score highly on all of those, you’re not flourishing.

As a humanistic psychologist, Scott holds that a principal aim of psychology is to help a person become whole and integrate all the parts of their self into a holistic whole. On this point, he raises an issue he identifies with putting forward a theory of what it means to flourish:

“if one’s goal is to help a person become whole, and to integrate their whole self, so they can have the highest powers and be an integrated unit, then we need to move away from a model that pre-designates a lot of things as flourishing and everything else isn’t flourishing.”

This connects with why Scott is opposed to seeing flourishing as a concept involving the fulfillment of a finite set of criteria. Scott would like research on flourishing to move more towards what he describes as a “north star of integration” towards well-being, developing and integrating each part of ourselves as part of a journey of growth towards self-actualization, rather than trying to identify key ingredients for flourishing and trying to enhance each of them in our lives.

Scott raises worries about research that argues that certain activities in life are those that help us flourish. This is because in his way of thinking about wholeness and creativity as a humanistic psychologist, “creative people use every aspect of existence as fodder for creativity,” so it’s difficult to set aside certain things in life as those that don’t contribute towards their flourishing, creativity or other areas we regard as important for leading good lives. Scott would like to see research move away from identifying various things we need to do to flourish, such as various activities we need to engage in. He gives the example of a person pursuing personal growth, and after a few months they find something meaningful which they didn’t previously. Meaning, Scott points out, can grow around certain things in life we don’t start off finding meaningful. He uses this to illustrate his argument that it’s difficult to point to certain activities that help us to flourish but set aside others, since so many things in life contribute to areas important to flourishing, such as our sense of meaning.

We discuss positive psychology several times, because Scott primarily thinks of this when thinking about flourishing. Positive psychology is the “scientific study of the conditions and processes that lead to human flourishing” (Martin Seligman & Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2000), ‘Positive Psychology: An Introduction’, The American Psychologist, 55: 1, p. 5). It holds that flourishing is the aim of life and its “goal … is to increase flourishing” (Martin Seligman, Flourish(2011), p. 13). According to positive psychology, to flourish is to enhance your psychological well-being, which is a construct consisting of five concrete, directly measurable entities (Seligman, Flourish, pp. 2, 13 & 15). These make up positive psychology’s ‘PERMA’ theory of well-being, which we discuss in this conversation: positive emotion; engagement; positive relationships; meaning; and accomplishment. Positive psychology holds that to flourish, we need to increase each element and thereby build our psychological well-being (Seligman, Flourish, p. 12). (For a further explanation of PERMA, see here.)

The Flourishing Question

We ask all our guests “the flourishing question”. We changed this slightly for our conversation with Scott, replacing ‘flourishing’ with ‘self-actualization, transcendence and fulfilment of potential’:

What’s one lesson on self-actualization, transcendence or fulfillment of potential you want our listeners to walk away with, and what might be a practical step for putting that lesson into action?

Scott answered, treat people as sunsets:

“Treat others like they’re sunsets. Let people unfold in their own direction – in their own developmental trajectory, and guide them – guide them towards making the growth choices, but don’t force people to conform to some preconceived idea of what it means to flourish, or some preconceived idea of self-actualization.”

He added that “most people are beautiful if you let them be,” and went on to make important points about how each of us must make our own journey into self-actualization. This involves being authentic – true to ourselves – by not inhibiting parts of ourselves we want to actualize because of an image of who we think we should be rather than who we want to be.

“You’re not going to feel whole if you’re constantly inhibiting certain parts of yourself that want to be actualized – constantly inhibiting them because of who you think you should be will only backfire.”

Scott ends by making an important point about what self-actualization is and how it connects with growth:

“Self-actualization is really bringing all this stuff to the forefront of consciousness, and integrating them and regulating them in ways that are most productive, constructive and growth-oriented.”

Scott is releasing a new book this year, Choose Growth: A Workbook for Transcending Trauma, Fear, and Self-Doubt, co-authored with Jordyn Feingold. It’s a workbook about post-traumatic growth, offering practical strategies that aim to help people grow from the Covid era by helping us to see possibilities for what we’ve endured the past couple of years.

About our guest

Scott Barry Kaufman is a cognitive scientist and humanistic psychologist exploring the mind, creativity, and the depths of human potential. He is founder and director of the Center for the Science of Human Potential and an Honorary Principal Fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Wellbeing Science. Dr. Kaufman has taught at Columbia University, Yale, NYU, the University of Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. Dr. Kaufman received a B.S. in psychology and human computer interaction from Carnegie Mellon, an MPhil in experimental psychology from the University of Cambridge under a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, and a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from Yale University.

Dr. Kaufman hosts the #1 psychology podcast in the world The Psychology Podcast which has received over 20 million downloads and was included in Business Insider’s list of “9 podcasts that will change how you think about human behavior.” Dr. Kaufman is interested in using his research to help all kinds of minds live a creative, fulfilling, and self-actualized life. His early educational experiences made him realize the deep reservoir of untapped potential of students, including bright and creative children who have been diagnosed with a learning disability. In 2015, he was named one of “50 groundbreaking scientists who are changing the way we see the world” by Business Insider.

Dr. Kaufman likes to share his enthusiasm and knowledge of the science of potential through his books, teaching, self-actualization coaching, podcast, blog, articles, and speaking engagements. If you’d like him to speak at one of your events, you can make a request here.

Dr. Kaufman’s writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Scientific American, Psychology Today, and Harvard Business Review, and he is the author and editor of 9 books. In his latest book Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization, he presents a new hierarchy of human needs for the 21st century, one that allows for the fulfillment of individual potential as well as the actualization of transcendent purpose and peak experiences

Scott’s website, social media, blog and podcast

· Blog

Other references from episode

· Martin Seligman’s 2004 TED Talk, ‘The New Era of Positive Psychology

· Scott’s course, ‘Transcend’


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