What do human potential and self-actualization really mean? We hear buzzwords like this often, but how can we use these concepts to better our everyday lives? Can we use them as part of our educational system to help kids who are managing mental health issues to achieve more?

Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman, host of The Psychology Podcast, calls in to discuss all this and more on this week’s episode.

Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman

Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman is a cognitive scientist and humanistic psychologist exploring the mind, creativity, and the depths of human potential. He is founder and director of the Center for Human Potential, and he has taught at Columbia University, Yale, NYU, the University of Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. Dr. Kaufman received a B.S. in psychology and human computer interaction from Carnegie Mellon, an M. Phil in experimental psychology from the University of Cambridge under a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, and a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from Yale University. He is also an Honorary Principal Fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Wellbeing Science.

Gabe Howard

Our host, Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.

Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.

To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.

Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.

Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard. ​​

Gabe Howard: Welcome to the show, everyone. I’m your host, Gabe Howard, and calling in today we have Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman. Dr. Kaufman is a professor at Columbia University and founder and director of the Center for Science of Human Potential. He’s also the host of the number one psychology podcast in the world, The Psychology Podcast, and holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from Yale University. Dr. Kaufman, welcome to the podcast.

Scott Barry Kaufman: Oh, thank you so much. It’s so great to be here.

Gabe Howard: Well, I’m very glad to have you on the show because I wanted to talk about human potential and self-actualization. Now, I’ve heard those phrases a lot over the past several years, but I want to be the first to admit I don’t really understand them. And if I if I can be honest, I’ve sort of dismissed those concepts as new age or alternative. So, can you explain these concepts to us and share how they can actually be put to practical use?

Scott Barry Kaufman: I’m trying to bring these words back, bringing them back. They were very popular in the 60s, but there are a lot of connotations with the hippie-dippy 60s and the, you know, like, yeah, human potential is like dropping acid, right? But, you know, there’s a lot of wisdom among the humanistic psychologists that were very popular in the 60s, and there’s a language that they used, a whole vocabulary that really, I think resonates with me more than some modern-day psychology language. I mean, modern day psychology is so obsessed with things like happiness and achievement and peak performance. And I really liked the focus back in the day on personal growth and creativity and humanitarian concern and existential connection, like being connected to yourself. Authenticity. The language goes on and on, but the list goes on and on. But it’s sort of an adjacent set of things. And, you know, I’m just I’m just very being oriented and very much about helping people through the journey as opposed to being so obsessed with the outcome.

Gabe Howard: I’m really surprised to hear you say that you want to bring back concept from the 60s because you and I are the same age and we weren’t alive in the 60s. What connected you to the terminology of the 60s and the and the self-awareness of the 60s? So much so that you want to bring it back.

Scott Barry Kaufman: That’s a good point. I mean, I don’t I don’t think I need to live in the in other timeframes to appreciate things that that past periods in humanity had. Um, you know, the, the language that was used then the focus on creativity and personal growth just for some reason resonates with my being. It resonates with, well, what I also think it’s very much in line with what it means to be human and just keep going back in my work to human centered approaches, to everything, to, to education, to the workplace, to even I’m also working on health care. What is a human centered approach to health care look like? So, for some reason, whenever a language really starts to sound really fundamentally human, I get a little bit excited. Is that weird?

Gabe Howard: I don’t think that’s weird at all. I think what’s weird is that we got away from human centered.

Scott Barry Kaufman: Oh, yeah.

Gabe Howard: One of the things that I hear a lot is, like, outcome oriented or what are your goals or what do you

Scott Barry Kaufman: Yeah.

Gabe Howard: Want to achieve or where do you want to end up? And I’m not trying to, you know, throw those concepts entirely out the window as, as bad. I’m not trying to set up a good or bad. I’m just I am trying to set up a kind of a, you know, the best way that I can explain it. Doctor Kaufman, I have this saying that the best coping skill in the world is the one that works for you and does no damage because everybody’s trying to decide what are good coping skills, what are good coping skills? Well, the ones that work for you and do no damage. So, these concepts and these words, I’m sort of landing on the best concepts and the best words are the ones that resonate with the person that you’re trying to help to get you where you want to go versus this ultra-focus on are you there yet?

Scott Barry Kaufman: Oh, wow. What a great point. I mean, there’s a real debate in the in the psychotherapy field, almost a division right now. And we don’t need to go too deep into this rabbit hole, hopefully. But the point I want to make is there is this real big rift that’s happening where there would be a third category to what you’re saying. And that’s is it true? Is it a true belief or is it an irrational or irrational belief? It sounds like you’re saying without that, third one’s not so important for you. So, if the if the client has a belief that is not objectively true, but it helps them cope, you’d be okay with that. Is that what you’re saying?

Gabe Howard: I mean, to a point. I think that’s, you know, the devil very much is in the details, right?

Scott Barry Kaufman: Ain’t that the truth?

Gabe Howard: Yeah. But I think that I do think that sometimes that we get too focused on any one thing. If we stick with truth for a moment, just to answer, I want to answer your question. I don’t want to dodge it. And it sounds exactly like I’m dodging it right now. But if somebody told me that their coping skill was they hug this stuffed animal and the stuffed animal provides them comfort because through the stuffed animal is their dead relative speaking through the stuffed animal. Now, I don’t believe that. I don’t think that it is objectively true. There’s many people probably hearing that. It’s like, well, it’s a reminder of it’s not actually your date, but okay, it I would be okay with that. I would be absolutely

Scott Barry Kaufman: Mm.

Gabe Howard: Okay with saying, yeah, yeah, that’s a great coping skill. You should you should carry that stuffed animal everywhere. But some people would be like, well, no, you have to explain to them that their dead relative doesn’t live in that. I think that is wrong. Now we can

Scott Barry Kaufman: Did you watch? Did you watch the TV show Servant? M. Night Shyamalan?

Gabe Howard: I haven’t.

Scott Barry Kaufman: Servant. It’s all about that. Pretty much.

Gabe Howard: Really?

Scott Barry Kaufman: Yeah. Yeah.

Gabe Howard: Hmm.

Scott Barry Kaufman: And things go disastrously wrong when. When she believes too much in it. But anyway.

Gabe Howard: It sounds sort of like Chucky, like an update of Chucky. Remember the Chucky doll? The serial killer lived

Scott Barry Kaufman: Yeah.

Gabe Howard: Inside the doll and nobody believed the child at first. And then, you know, the horror movie unleashed.

Scott Barry Kaufman: Definitely, I mean, it’s one of my favorite movies. I love horror movies, but.

Gabe Howard: Yeah, me too.

Scott Barry Kaufman: But this, but servant. You know, the mother, they accidentally kills her, her kid in the car and they and they she won’t believe that it’s dead. And to help her cope with it, the husband buys a doll of the child and puts it in the crib and she believes that the doll is really the child. It’s an interesting premise and it helps her cope.

Gabe Howard: Yeah, that does help her cope. But is it too far? There’s

Scott Barry Kaufman: Right.

Gabe Howard: A difference between being comforted by something that reminds you of memories or that you believe perhaps in the afterlife somebody is speaking to you or working through you. There’s a lot of religions that that do believe that,

Scott Barry Kaufman: Yeah.

Gabe Howard: You know, your, your past relatives can speak to you. You know, we have the whole pennies from heaven concept, for example.

Scott Barry Kaufman: Yeah. Yeah.

Gabe Howard: But believing that the doll is actually your child. No, that would be too far. Is this what makes it difficult to inform your work, this idea that there’s just nobody can give you a straight answer on anything? Because I just noticed that I did that. You asked me a very specific. Yes, no question. And I gave you this long story that involved two Hollywood movies.

Scott Barry Kaufman: Well, I’m definitely okay with Nuance and the gray zone. I prefer that zone, actually. Um, people who give me confident answers to complex questions scare me.

Gabe Howard: Dr. Kaufman, they scare me as well. But I’m not a practitioner. Right. I’m not a researcher. I just. It seems like people in your position stereotypically want scientific answers. Yes. No, black. White. Whereas people in my position, the stereotypical patient, we do sort of hang out in the gray area in the nuance. And I think this is one of the reasons that we clash. It’s one of the reasons I’m so fascinated by you because you

Scott Barry Kaufman: Mm.

Gabe Howard: Are a bit of a unicorn in this field.

Gabe Howard: But what led to it was you were trained in the same places that everybody else is trained. I mean, you were trained at Yale, for Pete’s sake. It’s I you mentioned the phrase it sounds very hippie dippy and in many ways that it does. And one of the reasons that phrase has caught on is because people decided that the people coming up with these concepts were uneducated and often less than and they othered them very well. But we can’t do that with you. You’re very highly accomplished. You’re very highly educated. You’re very, very well-read. And you’re like, listen, there’s a lot to this. And I really want to know how you landed on that, considering that so many of your colleagues have not.

Scott Barry Kaufman: Well, I’m not sure how much you’re aware of my personal story, my back story, but I was in special education as a kid and grew up with very low expectations for any anything. For me, I had a severe auditory disability, also auditory processing disability, and they thought I was really stupid. And I decided in ninth grade I was kept in special education till ninth grade and I took myself out. I was like the only one, probably the history of that school district to just for the student themselves to just say, yeah, I’m out. And yeah, it was just I signed up for so many things to see what I was capable of. I mean, I was talking to my dad last night and he’s just like, we were just reflecting on my life, and he’s like. He’s like. And this is a quote from my dad. I’m saying this myself. But he said he said, how did you go from like no one like you didn’t show any potential to like, you’re a genius, like you PhD from Yale, like Cambridge University scholarship like. Like, how did that happen? And I was like, I don’t know. I think the biggest thing is that at one point I just started to believe in myself and it just changed everything. I don’t know. It’s so incredible. So, I mean, that’s why I try to really just devote my whole life to literally unlocking the human potential in everyone because I know it’s there.

Gabe Howard: Not to get too science-y, but I feel like I should interject a study just so that I sound smart in front of the gentleman who went to Yale. But there’s a there’s a very famous study, and I’m going to butcher it, as I always do on this show. But where they took two groups of kids, ones were high performers and one were low performers, but they told the teachers the opposite. So, they told the teacher that the high performers were low performers, and they told the teacher that the low performers were high performers. And then they studied to see what happened over the course of the next several weeks. And surprisingly, the low performers achieved they did very, very well, much higher than they’d ever done before. And the higher achievers, their test scores diminished. They started doing poorly. And studies show that, yeah, if you tell a child that they cannot do it, well, surprisingly, they can’t. And

Scott Barry Kaufman: That’s right.

Gabe Howard: If you tell a child that they can do it, they either can or of course, get much closer. Now, that whole story was just to set up this next question, Dr. Kaufman, which is, do you believe that we should just tell kids that they could do everything and give them the ability to try?

Scott Barry Kaufman: Oh, no. No. I mean, don’t think that I really am a big believer in reality.

Gabe Howard: [Laughter]

Scott Barry Kaufman: I mean, by the way, if you asked me if I should include truth as a criteria, I actually would. So, you know, in our earlier discussion, you know, if you turn the question back on me, I would say think really, really deep, deep self-acceptance is absolutely essential for growth. As Carl Rogers, the humanistic psychologist, said, it’s a curious paradox as once we accept ourselves, then we can change. One of my favorite quotes and another reason why I love humanistic psychology. But yeah, yeah. So that’s I guess that’s my answer.

Gabe Howard: For our listeners, what is humanistic psychology?

Scott Barry Kaufman: Um, you know, it can be really defined as trying to understand what makes you feel most creative, alive and fulfilled in life.

Gabe Howard: I think everybody wants to be fulfilled in life. Now, if we get back on to students just for a moment and connecting this to your personal story.

Sponsor Break

Gabe Howard: And we’re back with the host of The Psychology Podcast, Scott Barry Kaufman. You have said that the key to making the world a better place is to let all kids be recognized for their unique potential. And honestly, before I read that quote and, you know, started listening to you, I thought we were already doing this. Are we handicapping children in our school system and not letting them realize their potentials?

Scott Barry Kaufman: Yeah, I would say I would say we’ve designed educational structures to intentionally to well, even if not intentionally, but to certainly do that. Yes. Yes. We’re killing potential.

Gabe Howard: How do we get around it? How do we fix it? I don’t even think many people and I’m including myself in this. I’m not trying to throw parents under the bus anywhere, but I think many people believe that children are out there learning and exploring so they can figure out what they want to do with the rest of our lives. And of course, we’re all Americans, so we all have the right to pursue happiness and therefore, we’re all out there doing it. And then to hear that, well, actually, no, we’re like we’re like just really pigeonholing our children. And now I’m really concerned. So, I’m not sure what the fix is.

Scott Barry Kaufman: There’s no quick fix. I think that it requires a restructuring and reframing of school. I think a lot of it is changing the framing and the culture of the school and training everyone in the entire school district on the latest science of human potential and methods and techniques to unlock their potential and to do strength spotting and that sort of thing.

Gabe Howard: I really like what you said about how there’s no quick fix that we need to be aware of it. We need to make some changes. Society has to change. We have to evolve.

Scott Barry Kaufman: There are so many basic human needs that are just being falling by the wayside in our education system. It’s like we think they check in at the door. It’s basically we tell kids to check it in the door as non-human. Again, never quite put it that way, but that’s almost what it’s like. It’s like, you know, they’re like, leave your humanity at the door. Um, you know, the only purpose you are here is to is for learning and demonstrating that you’re better than you. It’s all one big competition. You know, who can score better than someone else on a standardized test? Um, but that’s not human. And that also, you know, the need for connection, you know is what that doesn’t matter. The need for self-esteem that doesn’t matter. A need for purpose or creativity or for forgiving for to others. I mean, there’s so I have a whole revised hierarchy of needs. I came up with that I want to apply in an education system.

Gabe Howard: It really sounds like you’re just a big proponent in tearing it all down and starting over. It really seems like.

Scott Barry Kaufman: I’m not an anarchist.

Gabe Howard: Just. No, no, no. And I don’t I don’t even mean it that way. But, you know, just think of every home show that we’ve ever watched and they’re super popular, like rehab show. You

Scott Barry Kaufman: Yeah.

Gabe Howard: Know, sometimes they come in and like, oh, it’s got good bones. And there’s always the dude with the sledgehammer, you know, like banging on the wall and talking about, you know, the studs that are inside. And other times they’re like, look, we need to tear it down and start over, right? This house is a total loss. And trying to rehab it would just cost more money. To draw an analogy that that, you know, the audience can really understand. You’re not saying that the lot is bad, the land is bad. The people who live here are bad. You’re just saying that, hey, we’d be better off tearing this down and rebuilding it from a better place and it’d be a more stable, safer structure. It sounds like you don’t see a lot of a lot worth rehabbing in the current educational system and you’re really more of a proponent of rebuilding it from the ground up. So that can be, you know, bigger, taller, faster, stronger.

Scott Barry Kaufman: I think that’s true. I’m not. I guess I’m not. I’m not a radical. I know. Maybe it’s. Maybe I’m sounding more radical than I am, but I’m a real like, you know, I think that we need to not get too crazy. There are there are like, I mean, look, a lot of progressives drive me nuts, you know, to be honest. Like that are, I’m saying the ones that are like, radically progressive, you know, like, you know what? Learning doesn’t matter. All that matters is play. And I’m like, well, okay, like, I think, like, play and learning both matter, you know? So, I think that what we can do is take a lot of the, you know, good principles of what is good teaching, good teaching and make that part of this overarching vision. We certainly want them to learn how to think critically. I think that there’s a great potential in schools for teaching children more how to think than what to think and integrate that with their own self-actualizing potential. Um, so yeah, I don’t know if I want to completely burn it all down and rebuild, but definitely, definitely change the, the if not the yeah, change the foundation. I would say let’s change the foundation of the structure.

Gabe Howard: I think you’ve just illustrated this idea of how people think, right? Because when I said, hey, do you want to knock it all down and start over? You were like, Oh, well, I’m not a radical. But when the when the contractor says, hey, this house is unsafe, unsafe, and you’re your best bet is to knock it all down and start it over. You’re like, oh, well, they made a good decision. And I do the same thing, right? When I hear somebody

Scott Barry Kaufman: Mhm.

Gabe Howard: Say, I want to get rid of this and put something else in place, I’m like, Oh, that’s maybe too far. But the right answer is the right answer is the right answer. If the educational

Scott Barry Kaufman: Yeah.

Gabe Howard: System is not working and anxiety rates are up, suicide rates are up. You know, children are suffering mental health wise

Scott Barry Kaufman: I know.

Gabe Howard: More today than at any other place in history. And you say, hey, maybe the educational system needs massive reform, maybe we need to start over. And somebody’s like, look, let’s not be a radical about this. Well, but the outcome is pretty radical. You know, higher suicide rates, higher anxiety rates, you know, suffering mental illness, mental health issues, etc. Just the outcomes are they’re pretty scary. I don’t know that I would want to be a kid in today’s age. And I didn’t do so well in the 80s when I was a kid. So, I don’t know. It’s tough. It’s tough how people perceive the idea of starting over as if it’s inherently bad.

Scott Barry Kaufman: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. I’m just going to I’m just going to say that, you know, I think that that’s a that’s a really good point. And I certainly I don’t I don’t want to go back to childhood,

Gabe Howard: [Laughter]

Scott Barry Kaufman: Especially, I mean, man, it must be so tough, especially during the pandemic era. Um. We’re living. We’re living in such a we’re living in a time of human history. That’s there’s an unrest and it’s cyclical. You see it all throughout the course of human history. And that’s where we’re at, right? We happen to find ourselves right now is that this big turning point and there’s a big cultural war that just won’t shut up on Twitter. It’s like people are obsessed, you know, obsessed with certain issues that they don’t see the greater possibilities for themselves or society. I would like to think that that is what I can offer the world, that that is my value is being able to shine a spotlight on the higher possibilities of humans, especially during a time where there is so much of an obsessive focus on the deficiency realm of humanity. So, guess, guess that’s what I hope I can contribute to the world.

Gabe Howard: Dr. Kaufman, thank you so much for spending some time with me talking about this before we go. Do you have any last bits of advice for our listeners who want to become self-actualized, want to be more content, want to be happier and want to lead a better life that they can put into practice just as soon as this podcast is over?

Scott Barry Kaufman: Buy my book, “Choose Growth,” which it has full of exercises coauthored it with my, with Jordyn Feingold, a former student of mine who’s now a superstar doctor in positive medicine. It’s the whole book is full of exercises. So, I’m going to end on a little plug.

Gabe Howard: I love that. And I absolutely recommend everybody checking out his podcast, The Psychology Podcast. It really is number one in the world. And, you know, I’m a podcaster, so you know how painful that was for me to say.

Scott Barry Kaufman: Oh, thanks, Gabe.

Gabe Howard: Just listen to my show first, but then then listen to Dr. Kaufman’s show. [Laughter]

Scott Barry Kaufman: No. You’re going to be on my show, Gabe. Look, man, I’m very proud of you and what you. What you’re doing in this world. And. And I know you’re helping a lot of people, and I look forward to having you on my podcast soon, so.

Gabe Howard: Well, I appreciate that. I would like all my listeners to check that out. Thank you so much for being here and thank you to all of our listeners as well. My name is Gabe Howard and I’m an award-winning public speaker who could be available for your next event. And I’m also the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” which is on Amazon. Or you can grab a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me by heading over to gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It is absolutely free and hey, do me a favor. Recommend the show, put it on social media, send an email, mention it in a support group, share it at work. Hell, send a text because sharing the show is how we grow. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.

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