The Human Rights/Humanistic Psychology connection

Friday, December 10th is international Human Rights Day. Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, it has been promoting the cause of human rights for 61 years, and it seems there has been just as much progress as there have been struggles and failures. There are still many individuals, organizations, and governments who are hard at work dismantling the social, cultural and political systems that abuse the rights of millions of people all over the world.

The vision and mission that is the foundation of humanistic psychology embraces fulfilling human potential, and in order to do this we must recognize to connection between human potential and human rights. Yes – historically humanistic psychology has been focused in individuals, but the good news is that over time the field has moved from focusing on self actualization and growth to recognizing that the individuals well being is connected to the well being of their community.

One value shared by members of the Association for Humanistic Psychology speaks to this, “…a recognition of the profound problems affecting our world and a responsibility to hope and constructive change.”

Researchers and therapists have joined the ranks of activists and change agents in the fight for human rights. The tenets of humanistic and existential psychology are woven into the ideals that push so many to do this work – which is why human rights and humanistic psychology seem to go hand in hand: 

  • In 1986, Carl Rogers saw the potential of the person centered approach and how it might be used to empower those who are disempowered, and be the catalyst for long term individual and community change.
  • Elizabeth Campbell, past director of the AHP said these words during the cold war years of the 80’s “I believe our challenge, our business, is to apply the skills and resources accumulated in humanistic psychology in the broad arena of social change.”
  • Eleanor Criswell sees humanistic psychology as being in a position to make great change in society. The viewpoint is that people will be more effective when they are doing well. When we are healthy we are more engaged in the world around us, and will possibly want to help the world around us to be better by helping others or tending to their environment.
  • Saybrook faculty member Marc Pilisuk is author of “Who Benefits from Global Violence and War” and the co-editor for “Peace Movements Worldwide” a three volume work that focuses on the peace and conflict resolution work from around the world. 

Saybrook students have travelled all over the world carrying with them their personal convictions of a better life for everyone means a better world for all. They have been a part of disaster relief in Haiti, Peace and Conflict studies in Cambodia, community development in Guatemala and social justice for child rape victims in South Africa to name a few.

The principles of humanistic psychology have shown up in research reports on nonviolence, peace and conflict studies, sex trafficking, sustainability, and access to food and shelter.

Granted, humanistic psychology is not the only path to human rights in field of psychology, but the field is oriented towards a “lived awareness” that encourages those to help individuals and communities heal from physical, mental and spiritual trauma. This is a part of the humanistic tradition of reaching towards our potential and that potential is to be compassionate and aware. Compassion and awareness promotes human dignity.


— Makenna Berry

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