Sunday, August 27, 2023


The American Psychological Association (APA) characterizes Industrial-Organizational (I-O) Psychology as the scientific study of human behavior in organizations and the workplace. It focuses on deriving principles of individual, group, and organizational behavior and applying this knowledge to the solution of problems at work.

The field of industrial-organizational psychology emerged during the applied psychology movement, which was an aspect of the school of functionalism. Functionalism opposed the idea of elementism propagated by the school of structuralism. The functionalists argued that breaking down consciousness into smaller elements leads to losing the essence of experience. 

Instead of understanding the content of consciousness, the functionalists emphasized on the functions of consciousness. They were interested in answering the question of how does consciousness help in adapting to the environment. In this way, functionalism emphasized on the utilitarian aspect of consciousness.

The philosopher and psychologist William James is regarded as the major precursor to the beginning of functionalism. James propagated the philosophy of pragmatism. Pragmatism is the doctrine that the validity of an idea is measured by its practical consequences. According to pragmatism, the worth of an idea is determined by its practical applications.

William James

The idea of pragmatism became the cornerstone of functionalism. All the later functionalists stressed on the philosophy of pragmatism, which made functionalism to be concerned with utilities of consciousness and behavior.

Due to the emphasis on the utility of consciousness and behavior, the school of functionalism became interested in understanding the applications of psychology to everyday issues. This gave rise to the applied psychology movement.

The applied psychologists took psychology from an academic and laboratory setup to real-life settings and practical issues. They took psychology towards understanding behaviors in schools, factories, advertising agencies, courthouses, and mental health centers. It is this shift in psychology that led to the emergence of industrial-organizational psychology.

The pioneering works of two psychologists, namely, Walter Dill Scott and Hugo Munsterberg, are considered to have led to the beginning of industrial-organizational psychology. 

Walter Dill Scott completed his Ph.D. under Wilhelm Wundt. His interests shifted towards applied psychology after he returned to America. Scott was intrigued by the idea of using psychology to make advertisements more effective. He became the first person to apply psychology to advertising.

Walter Dill Scott

In 1903, Scott published his book - The Theory and Practice of Advertising. This is considered to be the first book on this topic. Scott argued that advertisements should involve factors like emotions, sympathy, and sentimentality. According to him, these factors heighten suggestibility, which makes advertisements more effective. These factors began to be used widely in advertisements, and are used even today.

Scott, later, shifted his attention towards the application of psychology in personnel selection and management and became the first person to do so. In order to select the best employees, especially salespersons, business executives, and military personnel, Scott developed rating scales and group intelligence tests. He used these scales and tests to measure the characteristics of people who were already successful in these occupations. Scott believed that intelligence should be defined in practical terms like judgment, quickness, and accuracy. According to him, these are characteristics that are needed to perform well on the job.

After the First World War, Scott formed his own consulting company - Imaginatively, the Scott Company. He formed this company to provide consulting services related to personnel selection and work efficiency to corporations. In doing so, Scott became the founder of the first psychological consulting company.

Around the same time as Walter Dill Scott, the psychologist, Hugo Munsterberg made pioneering efforts in applied psychology, including industrial-organizational psychology. Like Scott, Munsterberg completed his Ph. D. under Wilhelm Wundt. Later, William James recruited Munsterberg to be the director of the Harvard Psychology Laboratory. 

After spending some time there, his interests began to shift towards the practical applications of psychological principles. He strongly propagated the idea of psychology being applied to understanding real-life issues. In this regard, Munsterberg worked extensively in the areas of mental illness, legal matters, and the workplace.

Hugo Munsterberg

Munsterberg began his work related to industrial psychology in his article published in 1909, called Psychology and the Market. This article is about the application of psychology to vocational guidance, advertising, personnel management, employee motivation, and job performance.

In 1912, Munsterberg published the book Vocation and Learning and in 1913, he published the book Industrial Efficiency. These two books are often considered the beginning of what later became known as industrial psychology. In these books, Munsterberg wrote about personnel selection, work efficiency, marketing, and advertising.

Musterberg suggested that to make personnel selection better the skills for performing a task should be defined, and then the person’s ability to perform that task be determined. Munsterberg also suggested that the mental and emotional abilities of workers should be matched with their positions, to increase job efficiency, productivity, and satisfaction. For this, he suggested the use of proper psychological techniques that include mental tests and job simulations. Apart from this, Munsterberg also emphasized the role of individual differences in personnel and selection and job assignments.

The contributions of Walter Dill Scott and Hugo Munsterberg gave emphasis on the applications of psychology to organizations and the workplace. It drew the attention of psychologists to how psychology can be used to study behavior in organizations. It broadened the scope of psychology.

Along with personnel selection, work efficiency, and advertising, which were the major contributions of Scott and Munsterberg, psychologists began to study more complex aspects of organizations such as the social-psychological work climate, employee attitudes, communication patterns, organizational structure, power and politics in organizations, etc.

Realizing the significance of psychology in organizations, the APA, in 1945, founded its Division 14, which was called the Industrial and Business Psychology Division. In 1962, Division 14 of APA was renamed from the Industrial and Business Psychology Division to the Industrial Psychology Division. In 1973, this was renamed to the Division of Industrial and Organizational Psychology. In 1982, Division 14 of APA was again renamed as the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. It promotes the science, practice, and teaching of industrial-organizational psychology.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023


The concept of self-actualization, over the years, has gained a lot of popularity. It has made experts as well as lay persons from varying backgrounds to be highly interested in the idea. The popularity of the concept is reflected in its usage in a wide range of areas such as teaching, counseling, healthcare, leadership, and management.

The pioneer of humanistic psychology, Abraham Maslow, in the mid-20th century (1950s to 1960s), popularized the concept of self-actualization in the context of his theory of personality and motivation. According to Maslow, self-actualization is an innate tendency. It is the tendency of individuals to realize and fulfill their true potential and abilities. It is the desire to become more and more what one idiosyncratically is and to become what one is fully capable of becoming.

Abraham Maslow

This suggests that the concept of self-actualization is about individuals being unique in their own way. The state of self-actualization, according to Maslow, is not about being a better person. Instead, it is about being the person that one is supposed to be, which indicates that every individual is unique in their own way. Thus, for every individual, the idea of self-actualization is going to be different from the other.

Self-actualization is about individuals reaching their full existential capacity. It is not about achievement or becoming an extraordinary individual. It is actually about personal growth and fulfilling one’s potential to the highest level possible, whatever the endeavor may be. It is an intrinsic unfolding process, which does not rely on any rewards system.

Further, self-actualization is not about striving for specific goals or reducing a deficiency. It is about striving for stimulating and challenging tasks and events, and by doing so, enriching one’s life. Instead of accepting life as it is, self-actualization involves constantly seeking new challenges, and avoiding secure and routine behaviors and attitudes.

Maslow’s description of the concept of self-actualization was a moving away from the causal tradition in psychology. Maslow opposed the existing deterministic perspectives of psychoanalysis and behaviorism. He suggested that behavior is not driven by a cause, something that has already existed. Behavior, instead is driven by a future state that the individual is striving for. This is called teleology or the teleological perspective.

For Maslow, self-actualization is a future state that individuals strive for and it is not a cause that has already existed. It is not something that is pushing the individual, but it is actually pulling the individual. This makes self-actualization describe behavior from the teleological perspective, which is a shift from the traditional physical sciences approach (determinism) that psychology had been following.

Like Maslow, the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers also emphasized on self-actualization. Around the same time as that of Maslow, Rogers suggested that self-actualization is innate, and it is the greatest motivating factor of individuals. Rogers believed that people have an innate tendency to enhance themselves. According to Rogers, self-actualization or the actualizing tendency (as he referred to it) is an active, controlling drive towards the fulfillment of potential, which helps in maintaining and enhancing the self.

Carl Rogers

Rogers, further, suggested that human beings have a tendency to always seek new experiences and avoid environments that lack stimulation. From his clinical experiences, Rogers suggested that people have a directional tendency to grow and have new and varied experiences.

Additionally, Rogers suggested that human beings are basically good. Human beings develop this innate goodness when society is helpful. According to Rogers, people are not able to develop their innate goodness due to faulty socialization patterns. In this regard, Rogers suggested unconditional positive regard to be very important. If parents or caregivers show unconditional positive regard then the child grows into a healthy individual. Therefore, according to Rogers society and socialization patterns play a role in self-actualization.

Rogers suggested that self-actualization is the highest level of psychological health. He referred to self-actualized people as psychologically healthy individuals or fully functioning persons. Rogers described the fully functioning person as actualizing and not actualized because he believed that growth never ends - it is always a work in progress. Rogers believed that his concept of self-actualization is similar to that of Maslow.

In describing the concept of self-actualization, Maslow borrowed the psychoanalyst, Carl Jung’s idea of the self archetype and the transcendent function. Archetypes are archaic, generalized, emotionally toned collections of associated images derived from the collective unconscious (aspects of the unconscious that have its roots in the ancient past of the entire species). In the early to mid-20th century, Jung suggested that the self archetype is innate and has the potential of being realized in everyone. It involves a process called the way of individuation and leads towards self-realization.


Carl Jung

According to Jung, the way of individuation is a process by which individuals become the definite, unique being that they are. It is about fulfilling the peculiarity of the individual. Jung, therefore, suggests that the self is the final goal of striving. This self-realization does not come easily. The person has to go through a wide range of experiences and make many efforts to resolve conflicts within the psyche.

The self, according to Jung, becomes a unifying force by the transcendent function. The transcendent function works towards the ideal goal of perfect wholeness. It reveals the essential person by producing and unfolding the original, potential wholeness.

Apart from Jung’s self archetype, the concept of self-actualization used by Maslow has also been found to be similar to the psychoanalyst Alfred Adler’s idea of striving for superiority. According to Adler, striving for superiority is the innate, ultimate drive of human beings to realize their full potential. In the early 20th century, Adler suggested that striving for superiority is a fundamental human need - people strive to feel superior to overcome their feelings of inferiority and inferiority complex. This striving for superiority is not in the sense of social status and dominance. It is rather an urge for completion and perfection.

Alfred Adler

Adler suggested that striving for superiority is the final goal of all humankind. It unifies personality and makes all behaviors comprehensible. Adler also suggested that striving for superiority is a way to compensate the feelings of inferiority and weakness. People are always pushed by the need to overcome inferiority and pulled by the desire for completion and wholeness.

Even though the concept of self-actualization was popularized by Maslow, the term was originated by the neuropsychiatrist, Kurt Goldstein. Goldstein had a holistic approach. He was one of the major proponents of the holistic movement at the beginning of the 20th century. He criticized the reductionist approach and atomization in neurology that existed at that time. He opposed experiences to be viewed in terms of smaller components. He rejected the localization theory (each brain area has specific functions), suggesting that the brain functions as a whole, and if damage occurs in one brain area other areas take over the functioning of the missing brain area.

Kurt Goldstein

The holistic approach of Goldstein led him to introduce the concept of self-actualization. Self-actualization, according to Goldstein, is a striving for completeness. It is the organic principle by which individuals become more fully developed and complete. Goldstein, in the 1930s, suggested that self-actualization is the main motive of human nature. It is the creative trend of human nature. Human beings are governed by the strong tendency to actualize their potential. 

According to Goldstein, each individual has certain potentialities, which are expressed through interests, preferences, and aptitudes. The fulfillment of these potentialities is finding a way towards completeness and represents self-actualization.

Goldstein, further, suggested that even though self-actualization is a universal phenomenon, the process differs from person to person. This is because people differ with respect to their innate potentialities. These differences direct them in their own ways towards growth, development, and self-actualization. It also differs because of the different environments and cultures that they may belong to.

The concept of self-actualization is a part of Goldstein’s organismic theory. The organismic theory views the individual in totality and emphasizes the integration of personality. It is about viewing individuals in terms of a holistic and unified experience and viewing any event in the context of the organism.

Goldstein applied the Gestalt approach to his organismic theory. Gestalt psychology suggests that the mind has a tendency to organize experience into configurations and wholes. It emphasizes that the whole of anything is greater than the sum of its parts, indicating that consciousness or experience as a whole cannot be reduced to smaller components. 

The organismic theory formed the basis of Gestalt therapy. Gestalt therapy is a form of therapy that focuses on the individual’s present, in-the-moment experiences rather than examining the past. It also involves taking responsibility and understanding the context of the person’s life.

Self-actualization is a widely known concept in the discipline of psychology. The concept was popularized by the humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, but it was the neuropsychiatrist Kurt Goldstein who originated the idea. Goldstein applied the Gestalt theory and used the findings of his studies of patients with brain damage in introducing the term. 

Additionally, Maslow’s description of self-actualization has been found similar to Carl Rogers’s idea of actualizing tendency, Carl Jung’s concept of the self archetype, and Alfred Adler’s idea of striving for superiority. The concept of self-actualization, therefore, provides a link between the fields of neuroscience, Gestalt psychology, humanistic psychology, and psychoanalysis.

This article can also be found on the blog Life and Psychology

Sunday, February 12, 2023


The discipline of psychology was going through rapid changes in the mid-nineteenth century. The rise of experimental physiology had a strong influence on psychology. Extensive research in experimental physiology, in those times, played a significant role in the experimental method being introduced into psychology. One of the main reasons behind this was the emergence of the discipline of psychophysics.

Psychophysics emphasizes the subjective experiences in the study of the relationship between physical stimuli and sensations. It examines sensations from many different perspectives. Psychophysics considers sensations with respect to the mind-body problem. It is a discipline that comes within physiology, physics, and natural philosophy.

The major proponent of psychophysics is the German physiologist, physicist, philosopher, and experimental ethicist, Gustav Theodor Fechner. Fechner had started working as a professor of physics at Leipzig in 1833. In 1840, he suffered a nervous breakdown. He became a recluse and began to experience severe depression. It was this phase that made him interested in philosophy. His interest in philosophy made him interested in the mind-body relationship.

Fechner wanted to solve the mind and body problem in a scientific manner. He disagreed with the idea of Descartes that mind and body are two separate entities (dualism). He, instead, agreed with the idea of Spinoza that the mind and body are two aspects of the same entity, that is, double aspectism. Fechner wanted to prove the idea of double aspectism, instead of only speculating about it.

Gustav Theodor Fechner

In the year 1950, Fechner came up with a way to prove Spinoza’s idea of mind and body. He realized that as a physical stimulus is systematically varied, the changes in sensation reported by an individual (subject) can be measured. Accordingly, Fechner felt that a systematic relationship between bodily and mental experiences can be demonstrated. The testing of these ideas led Fechner to create the discipline called psychophysics. Psychophysics is the scientific study of the relationship between physical stimuli and the sensations and perceptions that they evoke.

To measure sensations, Fechner proposed the idea of absolute threshold. Absolute threshold is the lowest intensity at which a stimulus can be detected. Thus, absolute threshold is the intensity of stimulus at or above which a stimulus is detected. If the intensity of the stimulus is below the absolute threshold then it is detected in the unconscious. 

Fechner felt that the absolute threshold is only one measure of sensations and thus found its usage to be limited. He was looking to have a continuous scale that indicated how the sensations that are above the absolute threshold vary with respect to stimulation. He then proposed the idea of differential threshold - the least amount of change in magnitude of a stimulus required to detect a difference (just-noticeable difference, JND).

The idea of just-noticeable difference was first proposed by the German physician and experimental physiologist Ernst Heinrich Weber. Weber did this by asking subjects in his experiments to compare weights and report whether one felt heavier than the other. Weber also introduced the idea of the two-point threshold - the point at which two separate stimulations can be distinguished.

Ernst Heinrich Weber

Weber’s research on thresholds introduced a method for measuring the relationship between body and mind - the relationship between physical stimulus and the sensation associated with it. This was seen as a major breakthrough. However, Weber was interested in physiological processes and did not see the importance of his findings in psychology. It was Fechner who had attended Weber’s lectures on physiology realized the importance of these findings and used it to develop his discipline of psychophysics. Due to this, even though Fechner began the discipline of psychophysics, it is Weber who is often considered to be the first psychophysicist.

To further explore the mind-body relationship, Fechner developed three methods of psychophysics. The first is the method of limits or the method of just-noticeable differences, in which the subject is asked to detect or respond to minimal change in stimulus values. The second is the method of constant stimuli or the method of right and wrong cases, in which the subject has to judge repeatedly which of the two stimuli is the more intense. And, the third is the method of adjustment or the method of average error, in which subjects are asked to adjust stimuli until they are equal.

Psychophysics gave a major thrust to the beginning of modern psychology. Psychophysics demonstrated that sensations and mental experiences can be quantitatively measured. This was a landmark discovery, as a number of earlier scholars had raised doubts regarding this. They were all proved to be wrong. 

The idea of the quantitative measurement of experience turned out to be highly significant for the beginning of modern psychology. Wilhelm Wundt, considered to be the founder of modern psychology, had envisioned the discipline of psychology to be the scientific investigation of consciousness. The quantitative measurement of sensations helped Wundt in achieving his vision.

Further, Fechner’s book The Elements of Psychophysics, which was published in 1860, was a significant contribution to scientific psychology. This book is considered to be the beginning of experimental psychology. Wundt himself felt that Fechner should be credited for the beginning of experimental psychology. 

Edward Titchener, the student of Wundt and the founder of structuralism, the school that firmly established psychology as a scientific discipline and strongly emphasized the experimental method, considered Fechner to be the founder of experimental psychology. The introduction of the experimental method in psychology was highly significant in making it an independent, scientific discipline. In this regard, the contribution of psychophysics is paramount.   

The methods of psychophysics proposed by Fechner were also a major contribution to the beginning of modern psychology. These methods were used by Wundt, and later by Titchener, in order to understand consciousness in their laboratory. The methods of psychophysics have thus, contributed immensely to modern psychology. For any discipline to be scientific, it needs to have precise techniques of measurement. The methods of psychophysics are exactly that and helped Wundt to establish his scientific psychology. These methods are extensively used in psychology even today.

Wilhelm Wundt was highly instrumental in introducing the experimental method to the discipline of psychology, which is often dubbed the beginning of modern psychology. Wundt, however, was provided with a platform that enabled him to bring about such changes. One of the most significant of such platforms was psychophysics, therefore, making it a major precursor to modern psychology. 

Monday, October 17, 2022


The biological approach to psychology assumes the discipline of psychology to be a biological science. Thus, the biological approach to psychology is the scientific study of the biology of behavior. Accordingly, all psychological processes are examined from a biological perspective.

The roots of the biological approach to psychology can be found in a number of philosophical perspectives. In modern times, the earliest philosophical perspective associated with the biological approach to psychology is mind-body dualism, proposed by the French philosopher Rene Descartes. In his book Meditations on First Philosophy, published in 1641, and considered to be one of the most influential texts in philosophy, Descartes suggested that, along with the physical body, human beings have an intangible soul. Further, Descartes believed that the body is controlled by the soul. The idea of human beings having an intangible soul later became interpreted as the mind.

Rene Descartes

According to Descartes, the mind interacts with the physical body, suggesting that the mind and body are two separate entities, thus the name dualism. He believed that the mind and body influence each other. Descartes further suggested that this mind-body interaction takes place in the brain in the pineal gland.

Descartes gave emphasis on the brain being an important mediator of behavior. He was the first to suggest that the human mind is linked to the brain. Therefore, mind-body dualism is viewed as the earliest philosophical perspective associated with the biological approach to psychology in modern times.

Mind-body dualism was dominant for a long time but was later disproved by biologists. It faced strong opposition from the philosophical perspective of materialism. Materialism is the philosophical perspective that suggests that all events can be explained in physical terms. It is the belief that all events are causally dependent on physical processes. It suggests that all mental events are aspects of physical events. Materialism is therefore opposing dualism, indicating that mind and body are not separate entities.

One of the main proponents of materialism in modern times is the British empiricist Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes believed that all human behavior and thought processes could be explained in terms of the physical. He suggested that sensations are corporeal motions that are created in the brain. He was a pioneer in trying to work out a physiological psychology.

Thomas Hobbes

Along with Hobbes, his contemporary, the French philosopher Pierre Gassendi represented materialism and opposed Descartes. Gassendi gave no relevance to the existence of non-material substances. According to him, all phenomena, including social, mental, and ethical have a materialistic explanation.

Pierre Gassendi

The biological approach to psychology is also associated with reductionism. Reductionism is the philosophy that believes in the idea of explaining complex phenomena in simpler or more fundamental forms. Regarding behavior, reductionism would explain behavior in its simplest form.

Psychologists suggest that explanations used by the biological approach to psychology are reductionist in their approach. The biological approach to psychology tries to explain complex behaviors in terms of physiological processes. Explaining behavior in terms of genes, neuronal interactions, neurochemicals, neural pathways, and brain structure is often suggested to be following the philosophy of reductionism.

In modern times, the beginning of the reductionist approach can be traced back to Rene Descartes. In part V of his Discourses, published in 1637, Descartes suggested that the world can be understood in terms of a machine that can be broken down into smaller individual components.

The biological approach to psychology is also associated with mechanism. Mechanism is the philosophy that suggests that the behavior of all organisms, including human beings, can be explained in the same way as the functioning of machines. It suggests that human beings are like complex machines. Just like to understand a machine it needs to be broken down into smaller parts, similarly to understand human behavior, according to mechanism, it needs to be broken down into smaller components. Mechanism further suggests that human behavior can be explained in terms of mechanical laws.

Rene Descartes had a mechanistic conception of the world. He believed that nature works according to mechanical laws. His strong emphasis on living organisms being mechanical systems led to a framework for future research in biology.

The mechanistic philosophy is more famously associated with the British empiricist, Thomas Hobbes. In his book Leviathian, published in 1651, he mentioned that the universe functions according to mechanistic laws, and since human beings are a part of the universe, human behavior also functions in a mechanistic way. According to Hobbes, human beings are like machines that are part of a larger machine known as the universe.

Even though Hobbes is more popularly associated with mechanism, the roots of the mechanistic view in biology are traced back to the writings of Descartes. He attempted a complete mechanistic explanation of bodily functions and behavior. Descartes also actually investigated animal bodies to understand their functioning and by that tried to understand the functioning of human bodies as well. In doing so, Descartes is often considered to be a major precursor to modern physiological psychology and comparative psychology, which are two of the major divisions of the biological approach to psychology.

The biological approach to psychology asserts that genetics, the brain, and other aspects of physiology play a role in psychological processes. This associates the biological approach to psychology with determinism. Determinism is the philosophy that states that for everything that happens there are certain conditions such that given them nothing else can happen. The philosophy of determinism is the assumption that for every event there are certain causes and knowing these causes helps in making predictions about that event. The biological approach to psychology can be specifically associated with biological determinism, which emphasizes physiological conditions or genetic predispositions in the explanation of behavior.

The philosopher who is often considered to be the first modern thinker to use a deterministic standpoint in explaining human behavior is Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza argued that nature is lawful, and because human beings are also part of nature, psychological processes can also be understood in a lawful manner, and are thus deterministic.

Baruch Spinoza

A very significant and widely accepted theory within the biological approach to psychology is the localization theory. The localization theory suggests that each brain area is associated with specific functions and that damage to that brain area would lead to deficits in that function. The emergence of the localization theory took place in the early 1800s and is credited to the German anatomist Franz Joseph Gall.

Franz Joseph Gall

In coming up with his idea of brain localization, Gall was highly influenced by faculty psychology. Faculty psychology is the approach that argues that the mind can be divided into separate abilities or capacities (faculties). Faculty psychology can be viewed as an aspect of rationalism that emphasizes on logic and intellect in explaining human behavior. Rationalism also emphasizes on the innate functions of the mind.

In order to elaborate on the innate powers of the mind, the Scottish philosopher and rationalist Thomas Reid formulated faculty psychology, in the 18th century. Reid believed that faculties are aspects of the mind that influence human thought and behavior. He further stated that all faculties are innate and function in cooperation with other faculties. Reid suggested 43 faculties of the mind, which include abstraction, attention, generalization, imitation, judgment, morality, perception, compassion, and reason.

Thomas Reid

The biological approach to psychology uses the scientific method for investigation. Like any other science, it emphasizes on making scientific inferences. It enables in making the discipline of psychology to be highly scientific. However, it is important to understand the philosophical roots of the biological approach to psychology, which mainly are mind-body dualism, materialism, reductionism, mechanism, and faculty psychology.

Friday, April 22, 2022


Meaning in life is often considered to be a vague and abstract concept, which has been difficult to define. Usually, meaning in life has been conceptualized as a coherent sense of identity, an understanding of the self, the world, and life in general, goal-directedness, or a sense of purpose in life, and having a sense of significance in life. It has also been described as a cognitive construct that helps in discovering significant aspects of life. 

Having a sense of meaning in life has been found associated with positive emotions, increased self-esteem, lesser depressive symptoms, and a greater sense of wellbeing. Over the years, different psychologists have given their perspectives on the concept of the meaning in life. These differing perspectives help in getting a better understanding of the concept. It also gives an understanding of how the concept has developed throughout the years, within psychology.

Alfred Adler
The psychoanalyst and founder of Individual Psychology, Alfred Adler, in his book, What Could Life Mean to You, published in 1931, acknowledged that the idea of meaning in life is age-old. In his book, he mentioned that the way to find meaning in life is to make a contribution to the life of others. Adler suggested that to have meaning in life, the person should believe in cooperation and have an interest in contributing to the welfare of society.

In his book, Adler further emphasizes that the meaning in life lies in communication, and not being in isolation. If this does not happen then the individual has unpleasant experiences. By suggesting this, Adler was again giving emphasis on contributing to the life of others. He also suggested that in contributing to the life of others, the individuals develop, and enhance their skills and abilities. In order to feel significant, Adler suggested that individuals should be significant to others.

Therefore, according to Adler, meaning in life can be experienced by making a contribution to the life of others. In this regard, later on, in 1939, Adler introduced his concept of social interest, which is about helping others - being respectful and considerate - to strive for a better society.  

Rollo May
Similar ideas have been conveyed by the existential psychologist, Rollo May. In the 1950s, Rollo May emphasized on having a healthy communal orientation. A healthy communal orientation is a strong concern for the welfare of others. This can be viewed in contrast to an unhealthy communal orientation, in which people are confused about themselves and are not sure about what they want. Due to this, they then turn to others meaninglessly in order to overcome their disconnect and separateness from others, only ending up being more desperate and more lonely.

The unhealthy communal orientation, according to May, results from unhealthy individualism, which involves a lack of sense of community and hyper-competitiveness, leading to interpersonal antagonism and separation from others. This unhealthy individualism eventually leads to a feeling of emptiness, loneliness, and a sense of meaninglessness. Therefore, according to May, having a healthy communal orientation gives meaning in life and helps in avoiding the experience of meaninglessness.

Around the same time as Rollo May, the existential psychologist, Viktor Frankl suggested that meaning in life is one of the major goals that drive human behavior. He referred to this as the will to meaning. This will to meaning, according to Frankl is innate.

Victor Frankl
Frankl categorized meaning in life in three different ways. First, he suggested that meaning in life is derived from one’s accomplishments, which include creative works such as art. Second, meaning in life is derived from varied experiences such as traveling, enjoying nature, and even experiences associated with the feelings of love.

The third type of meaning, according to Frankl, is associated with the approach towards suffering and events that cannot be changed. In such instances, Frankl suggested that meaning could be derived from compassion or even humor. This type of meaning is the transcendental nature of human experience and is associated with the feeling of dignity in suffering. It is this derived meaning that helps individuals to survive their experience of suffering.

Frankl, further, suggested that it is the will to meaning that helps people to overcome the existential vacuum, which involves a sense of emptiness or blandness, and hopelessness in life. It is a sense of alienation and an inexplicable feeling of loneliness that a person experiences. It is from this idea that Frankl originated his logotherapy. Logotherapy is a therapeutic approach that helps individuals to find meaning in life. Logotherapy is known as the third school of Viennese psychotherapy – the first school being the approach of Sigmund Freud, and the second school being the approach of Alfred Adler.

These early perspectives of meaning in life led to the high popularity of the concept. It allowed psychologists to conduct extensive research on the notion of meaning in life. This is reflected in the more recent perspectives on meaning in life.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
The positive psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book Flow: The Psychology of Happiness, published in the year 2002, suggested three different yet related aspects of meaning in life. Csikszentmihalyi suggested that one of the aspects of having meaning in life is purpose, which means that individuals have a goal that is challenging enough to make their lives to be significant. The goal should be such that it makes people focus their attention on it, and they get involved in activities that not only make the goal achievable but even enjoyable.

The second aspect of meaning in life, according to Csikszentmihalyi, is resolution in the pursuit of the goal. This means that having purpose is not enough. Individuals should be having an expression of intentionality. Csikszentmihalyi suggested that there should be a striving for the goal that individuals have and that their intent should be transferred into some action.

Finally, the third aspect of meaning in life, according to Csikszentmihalyi, is a sense of harmony that results from the other two aspects, that is, having purpose as well as being able to act upon it. Individuals who have purpose and work towards achieving that, have their thoughts, feelings, and actions congruent with each other. Such individuals, Csikszentmihalyi suggested experience a deep sense of inner harmony, which eventually gives them meaning in life.

Michael Steger
In 2009, Michael Steger, Social and Health Psychologist, and the Director of the Center of Meaning and Purpose, Colorado State University, in his research demonstrated that meaning in life can be viewed in terms of two dimensions – presence of meaning and search for meaning. 

The presence of meaning is the degree to which people find their life to be significant and meaningful. It is about the extent to which people find their lives to be significant as well as the extent to which they find their life to be purposeful.

The search for meaning is the degree to which people engage themselves in the search for meaning. It is about the efforts that people put in, while they try to comprehend the significance and purpose of their lives.

With Steger suggesting two dimensions, more recently, psychologists have been emphasizing upon viewing meaning in life in terms of multiple dimensions. In recent times, a tripartite view of meaning in life has emerged. According to the tripartite view, meaning in life has three distinct but related dimensions – comprehension, purpose, and mattering.

The first dimension, comprehension is the extent to which people perceive a sense of coherence in their life. People who are high on comprehension have more clarity about their life and feel that their life makes sense. People who are low on comprehension experience their life as being incoherent and unclear.

The second dimension, purpose is the degree to which people feel that they have valued goals and have direction in life. People who are high on purpose have a clear sense of their goals in life, feel motivated and enthusiastic, and have a greater sense of direction in life. People who are low on purpose, experience a sense of aimlessness and disengagement.

Finally, the third dimension, mattering is the extent to which individuals feel their existence is significant and that they are valued in the world. People who are high on mattering, feel that their significance has a lasting value. People who are low on mattering feel that their existence is of no significance and that their life matters to nobody.

The tripartite view attempts to give a better understanding of the concept of meaning in life. In 2017, Social and Positive psychologist Login George, along with Health psychologist, Crystal Park, developed a scale to measure meaning in life, on the basis of these three dimensions. The tripartite view has, thus, helped in making the notion of meaning in life more refined.

Meaning in life is a concept that has been widely studied in psychology. In recent times, it has emerged to be a significant construct in positive psychology as well as cognitive psychology. From initially being viewed as a general, abstract concept, to more recently being viewed as a multidimensional, refined construct, meaning in life has been described in many ways. 

Over the years, some of the ways in which meaning in life has been suggested to be derived from are - making significant contributions to the society, being concerned about the welfare of others, being able to overcome suffering and emptiness, having purpose in life, feeling coherence, and feeling significant in life. 

This article can also be found on the blog Life and Psychology