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Positive Humanism 2.0: Living the Good, Secular Life

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Back in the 80's, a guy was walking down the street with his large portable cassette player, carrying a bar of positive psychology.  Walking in the opposite direction was a girl with big hair and a jar of humanism.  The two bumped into each other, and the bar dipped right into the jar.  The guy said, "You got your humanism in my positive psychology!"  "You got your positive psychology in my humanism!" exclaimed the girl with the copious application of eye shadow.  Then they both realized how great the combination was—and the rest is history... er... actually, I... might be confusing positive humanism with something else.

A Quick History of Positive Humanism

The first known usage of the phrase "positive humanism" that resembles its modern usage can be found in a 1956 article, in the Journal of Religion, where the author was describing religious philosopher Albert Camus as a "non-Christian thinker" who is preoccupied with "questions of the nature and meaning of men, their hopes, their possibilities, and their destiny" (Hanna, 1956, p. 224).  From 1956 to the late 70s, the phrase appeared sporadically in writing until in 1978 when Gerald A. Larue, published an essay simply titled, "Positive Humanism," in which he eloquently illustrated the joy, freedom, and meaning in life that he largely credits to his humanistic values.  In June of 1989, Dr. Larue expanded his views on positive humanism and compiled them into a short book called The Way of Positive Humanism.  Since then, there has been very little mention of positive humanism.

Much has changed since 1989.

My goal is to pick up where Dr. Larue left off by focusing on where the findings of the area of psychology known as positive psychology overlap with the values of humanism (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Venn Diagram

Why Positive Psychology?

In 1998, the then president of the American Psychological Association (APA), Martin Seligman, chose positive psychology as his theme, using the humanistic psychology of Abraham Maslow as the foundation.  After a long career focusing on mental illness, Seligman realized that academic psychology was ignoring the other half of the mental health spectrum where we find well-being and human flourishing.  Many self-help gurus have written about some aspect of human well-being (e.g., wealth, relationships, bigger penises, etc.) since early recorded history, and an explosion of the "self-help" genre was seen in the early 20th century.  However, this genre has a questionable reputation at best given the countless unsupported and/or exaggerated claims made by the authors, the heavy use of anecdotal "evidence," the constant confusing of correlation with causality, and the annoyingly frequent references to the mystical and supernatural.  Positive psychology uses the scientific method, based on methodological naturalism (i.e., no supernatural), to understand human well-being and flourishing.  A goal of humanism is to promote human well-being and flourishing without appealing to the supernatural.  There hasn't been such a perfect pair since peanut butter and chocolate.

Why Positive Humanism?

In the past 15 years, researchers have found demonstrable ways to help individuals live better lives, most recently measured by human flourishing.   Flourishing is defined as living "within an optimal range of human functioning, one that connotes goodness, generativity, growth, and resilience" (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005, p. 678). A recent large-scale study measured the flourishing of over 43,000 Europeans in 23 countries.  Denmark, consistently ranked as one of the least religious countries in the world, ranked the highest with 41% of its citizens surveyed qualified as flourishing (Huppert & So, 2013).  While no causality is implied, this indicates that positive psychology and humanism are certainly compatible.  But humanism also extends beyond one's own well-being. Positive humanism recognizes that one of the best ways of achieving a higher level of well-being is by helping others through concrete, prosocial acts (Rudd, Aaker, & Norton, 2014).  Through a combination of humanistic, evidence-based self-improvement and prosocial efforts, positive humanism lives up to the aspirations of humanism.

I can think of no better, worthwhile goal in life than contributing to human well-being and flourishing.  While I am confident that fellow humanists will embrace positive humanism, I can only hope that these ideas will also resonate with our theistic brothers and sisters who believe that priority should be given to serving a deity.  For this to happen, I believe that we need to lead by example.  When others are amazed by our passion for life and our contribution to humanity, and ask us our "secret," we can introduce them to positive humanism—then share a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.

Action Items

Introduce yourself to positive psychology and humanism by visiting http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu/ and http://americanhumanist.org/, respectively.  If you are outside of the United States, check out http://iheu.org. Both organizations have a wealth of resources if you find yourself wanting more information.

Fredrickson, B. L., & Losada, M. F. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. The American Psychologist, 60(7), 678–686. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.60.7.678
Hanna, T. L. (1956). Albert Camus and the Christian faith. The Journal of Religion, Vol. 36(No. 4 (Oct., 1956)), pp. 224–233.
Huppert, F. A., & So, T. T. C. (2013). Flourishing across Europe: Application of a new conceptual framework for defining well-being. Social Indicators Research, 110(3), 837–861. doi:10.1007/s11205-011-9966-7
Rudd, M., Aaker, J., & Norton, M. I. (2014). Getting the most out of giving: Concretely framing a prosocial goal maximizes happiness. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2014.04.002
What Alabamians and Iranians Have in Common. (n.d.). Retrieved April 27, 2014, from http://www.gallup.com/poll/114211/alabamians-iranians-common.aspx

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