Human Potential Movement

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The Human Potential Movement (HPM) arose out of the counterculture milieu of the 1960s[1] and formed around the concept of cultivating extraordinary potential that its advocates believe to lie largely untapped in all people. The movement took as its premise the belief that through the development of "human potential", humans can experience an exceptional quality of life filled with happiness, creativity, and fulfillment. As a corollary, those who begin to unleash this assumed potential often find themselves directing their actions within society towards assisting others to release their potential. Adherents believe that the net effect of individuals cultivating their potential will bring about positive social change at large.


The emergence of HPM is linked to humanistic psychology. The movement is strongly influenced by Abraham Maslow's theory of self-actualization as the supreme expression of a human's life.

As Elizabeth Puttick writes in the Encyclopedia of New Religions:

"The human potential movement (HPM) originated in the 1960s as a counter-cultural rebellion against mainstream psychology and organised religion. It is not in itself a religion, new or otherwise, but a psychological philosophy and framework, including a set of values that have made it one of the most significant and influential forces in modern Western society."[2]

In the middle of the 1960s, George Leonard did research across the United States on the subject of human potential for the magazine Look. In his research, he interviewed 37 psychiatrists, brain researchers, and philosophers on the subject of human potential. He found that "Not one of them said we were using more than 10% of our capacity",[3] which should not be misconstrued as an endorsement of the Ten percent of brain myth but which is a more general claim. During the course of this research, Leonard met Michael Murphy, the founder of the nascent Esalen Institute that at the time was running educational programs for adults on the topic of "human potentialities". Leonard and Murphy became close friends and together put forth the idea that there should be a human potential movement.[4]

Authors and essayists[edit]

Abraham Maslow published his concept of a hierarchy of needs in a paper in 1943. He described that as people's basic survival needs are met, so their desire to grow in mental and emotional dimensions increases. He also coined the term 'metamotivation' to describe the motivation of people who go beyond the scope of the basic needs and strive for constant betterment.

Michael Murphy and Dick Price founded the Esalen Institute in 1962, primarily as a center for the study and development of human potential, and some people continue to regard Esalen as the geographical center of the movement today.

In 1964, Virginia Satir became Esalen's first Director of Training, which required her to oversee the Human Potential Development Program. At the time, Satir was well established as an author, trainer and consultant.[5] Twenty years later, Satir actively encouraged therapists to shift their focus to relationship education to help clients discover "more joy, more reality, more connectedness, more accomplishment and more opportunities for people to grow."[6]

"We’re at a crossroads, an important crossroads of how we view people. That’s why it’s possible now for all the different kind of therapies to go into education, education for being more fully human, using what we know as a pathology is only something that tells us that something is wrong and then allows us to move towards how we can use this to develop round people. I’m fortunate in being one of the people who pushed my way through to know that people are really round. That’s what it means to me to look at people as people who have potential that can be realized, as people who can have dreams and have their dreams work out. What people bring to me in the guise of problems are their ways of living that keep them hampered and pathologically oriented. What we’re doing now is seeing how education allows us to move toward more joy, more reality, more connectedness, more accomplishment and more opportunities for people to grow."[6]

— Virginia Satir

Aldous Huxley gave lectures on the "Human Potential" at Esalen in the early 1960s. His writings and lectures "on the mystical dimensions of psychedelics and on what he called the perennial philosophy were foundational. Moreover, his call for an institution that could teach the 'nonverbal humanities' and the development of the 'human potentialities' functioned as the working mission statement of early Esalen.[7]

Christopher Lasch notes the impact of the human potential movement via the therapeutic sector: "The new therapies spawned by the human potential movement, according to Peter Marin, teach that "the individual will is all powerful and totally determines one's fate"; thus they intensify the "isolation of the self." [8]

George Leonard, a magazine writer and editor who conducted research for an article on human potential, became an important early influence on Esalen. Leonard claims that he coined the phrase "Human Potential Movement" during a brainstorming session with Murphy, and popularized it in his 1972 book The Transformation: A Guide to the Inevitable Changes in Mankind. Leonard worked closely with the Esalen Institute afterwards, and in 2005 served as its president.

Notable proponents[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Martin, Douglas (2010-01-18). "George Leonard, Voice of ’60s Counterculture, Dies at 86". The New York Times Co. Retrieved 2014-05-20. 
  2. ^ Puttick, Elizabeth (2004). "Human Potential Movement". In Partridge, Christopher Hugh. Encyclopedia of New Religions. Oxford: Lion. p.399. ISBN 9780745950730.
  3. ^ Author quoting George Leonard in Quantum Integral Medicine: Towards a New Science of Healing and Human Potential, by Michael Wayne
  4. ^ Wayne, Michael. Quantum Integral Medicine: Towards a New Science of Healing and Human Potential. 
  5. ^ Woolf, Linda. "Women's Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society". Webster University. Retrieved November 28, 2012. 
  6. ^ a b Eisenberg, Seth (February 21, 2011). "Revolutions of a Lifetime at Home and Abroad". Fatherhood Channel. 
  7. ^ Kripal, Jeffrey (2007). Esalen America and the Religion of No Religion. University of Chicago Press. excerpt.
  8. ^ Lasch, Christopher (1979). The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. New York: Norton. p. 9. ISBN 0393011771.  Quoting Marin, Peter (October 1975). "The New Narcissism". Harper's. p. 48. 


  • Salerno, Steve (2005). SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless. New York: Random House. ISBN 1400054095. 
  • Trevisani, Daniele (2009). Il Potenziale Umano. Franco Angeli Editore. ISBN 9788846498625. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Bendeck Sotillos, Samuel "Prometheus and Narcissus in the Shadows of the Human Potential Movement" AHP Perspective, December 2012/January 2013, pp. 6–12.
  • Enablers, T.C., 2014. 'Realising Human Potential'. Internet Source sighted Jan, 2015. Available:
  • Enablers, T.C., 2014. 'The Fastest Growing New Social Movement on the Planet'Internet Source sighted Nov. 2014. Available: