Transcendence: The Science of Self-Actualization

Transcendence: The Science of Self-Actualization | Madefor

Pat Dossett sat down with Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman, cognitive scientist and humanistic psychologist, as well as host of the #1 psychology podcast in the world— The Psychology Podcast. Dr. Kaufman talked about his book, Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization, what it means to be self-actualized, how our deficiencies drive us, the ever-important need for connection, how security plays a role in self-esteem and self-actualization, and the ever-evolving journey in the pursuit of transcendence.

What is Self-Actualization and Can We All Attain It?

“I don't think we should view transcendence or even self-actualization as a destination but view it instead as a direction. It’s the direction we're moving in our lives day after day.”
~ Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman

Often thought of as an individual endeavor, it is Dr. Kaufman’s belief that self-actualization requires an integration, a merging between the self and the world. Rather than looking at self-actualization that has been largely constructed in an almost corporate vein, the full realization of one’s potential requires a person to feel harmony not only with themselves but also with the world around them. His findings uncover that self-actualization connects us not only to our highest creative potential, but also to one another.

All humans have a higher nature, we need not be a sage or a scientist, priest or politico to access it. We all have the capacity within us as simply part of the human condition. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, what’s long been considered a blueprint for self-actualization, isn’t even what Maslow intended. His approach was not a step-ladder, Pyramid approach to self-actualization, as we are repeatedly satiating our varied types of basic needs. They aren’t merely “one and done” or akin to passing a level in a video game. You’ll always need to revisit food security throughout the day. You’ll need to repeatedly need to address your shelter, etc.


What Dr. Kaufman, and Maslow, believe it is more of a “two steps forward, one step back” dynamic to realization. We're constantly striving for growth and choosing growth options while we’re keeping our needs in check. With this dynamic we should feel more confident in our ability to transcend. There’s room for mistakes and adjustments. One wrong move won’t stop us from self-actualization. It also means we aren’t hostages to past trauma. We don’t have to make all of our course corrections in our adolescence, we can continue to grow and improve our lives until quite literally our dying day. Our mind and body is completely capable of that sort of change, you must only add the courage to enact it.


The Role of Security in Self-Esteem and Self-Actualization

Our security needs aren’t only those that jump to mind first such as food and shelter. Need for community and self-esteem are also of dire importance, though practicing self-acceptance of yourself and being accepting of others falls more in the growth zone as they are not done as a point of satiation, but instead to learn to give yourself grace and to understand the different realms of human existence. In that case, it expands your aperture to see more of the beauty and goodness in others as well as yourself which is a transcendent behavior. Through connection and communion with our world, we can identify a common humanity and understanding how different environmental triggers activate certain basic universal human needs can give us compassion for others. 

“The great lesson from the true mystics . . . is that the sacred is in the ordinary, that it is to be found in one's daily life, in one's neighbors, friends, and family, in one's backyard.”
~Abraham H. Maslow


On the Path to Transcendence - Exploration, Love, and Purpose

Growth is important to our overall health, and includes three components: exploration, love, and purpose. The need for exploration is a fundamental human need, as well the need for varied experiences that are challenging. They are complex and allow us to grow and get outside our comfort zone. Exploration is also one of the most foundational aspects of creativity, and in a lot of ways, self-actualization and creativity are synonymous. The creativity instinct is you realizing the potentiality within yourself that is yours alone and can bring into the world in a big way. It is that special something that puts you in a unique realm outside of what we share in common with everyone else.


Love is the thing that was most strongly correlated to growth and with so many different aspects of well-being in general. Love defined for growth purposes is having the ability to love or admire people for who they are and having love for others, even those one may not particularly like, agree with, or connect with. This is the cultivation of a higher-level spiritual love for humanity, a genuine wishing for the best for someone. It sounds simple, but it is not. It is harder to love those whom you don’t share connection or commonalities with. This suggests the more difficult it is to give this love, the greater the journey’s reward. 

Purpose, or having a calling, is the final component of growth in service of self-actualization. Beyond a goal, purpose is something much more enduring and something much more meaningful in the long run. It’s something you feel is calling you to help address a need outside of yourself. This doesn’t need to be some singular, predestined sort of purpose. Dr. Kaufman points out that this can be something that paralyzes people on their way to self-actualization. They believe they must just have only one “true purpose” and can’t act until they figure it out. Not so! Roll up your sleeves and get to work and it’ll find you soon enough.


Take your first steps toward self-actualization with these journal prompts

  • Security: Are there deficiencies in my security needs that are distracting me from moving forward? How can I address and satiate them?
  • Connection: Who are 2-3 people I have true, strong connections with and what are they? If you can’t think of anyone, consider which relationships you’d like to deepen and first steps you’ll take.
  • Exploration: Am I open to exploring new and varied experiences? If so, what have I recently explored? If not, where would I feel least uncomfortable branching out to begin to expand my growth zone?
  • Love: Choose a person you know or do not know personally that you do not have an existing connection with. It can also be a group of people with values that do not align with your own. How can you offer love to this person/these people? What angles can you identify to cultivate this love?
  • Purpose: Do you know your purpose? If so, how are you bringing energy to it and acting on it? What results are you seeing? If you haven’t yet found a purpose, what are three things that interest you or areas in humanity you feel you could best utilize your unique gifts?

Start with one prompt and add others as time goes on. On occasion, revisit each prompt to see how you are progressing down your personal path to self-actualization.