THE HUMAN GIVENS APPROACH is a set of organising ideas that provides a holistic, scientific framework for understanding the way that individuals and society work. This framework encompasses the latest scientific understandings from neurobiology and psychology, as well as ancient wisdom and original new insights.
At its core is a highly empowering idea – that human beings, like all organic beings, come into this world with a set of needs. If those needs are met appropriately, it is not possible to be mentally ill.
Perhaps no more powerful a statement could ever be made about the human condition: If human beings' needs are met, they won't get depressed; they cannot have psychosis; they cannot have manic depression; they cannot be in the grip of addictions. It is just not possible.
To get our physical and emotional needs met, nature has gifted us our very own internal 'guidance programme' – this, together with our needs, makes up what we call the human givens. We come into the world with an instinctive knowledge of what we need and with a set of inner resources that can help us get our needs met, provided we use them properly and are living in a healthy environment.
In terms of the history of where our knowledge about human needs comes from, there has been a distinguished cast of contributors, going right back to ancient times. More recently William James, Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler explored human needs, and there was an outstanding contribution by Abraham Maslow, the pioneer of humanistic psychology, who first talked about a hierarchy of needs. It was Abraham Maslow who introduced the idea that, until basic needs are met, people can't engage with questions of meaning and spirituality – what he calls self-actualisation.
Another contributor was William Glasser, who put forward the idea that fulfilment of people's needs for control, power, achievement and intimacy depends on their ability to behave responsibly and conscientiously; he argued vehemently that mental illness springs from these needs not being met. So the human givens approach belongs to no specific people, certainly not exclusively to its co-founders Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell, as Griffin states "although we may have named it; it belongs to the human species. We are just talking more precisely about what nature has gifted us, and there have been many great contributors down the millennia and the centuries, who have contributed to our understanding of the human givens.
"What we have started to do, in what has come to be called the human givens approach, is look at human needs in the light of increasing knowledge and recent discoveries that flesh them out, so that we can define them and concretise them and make them more real. We now know that having meaning and purpose, a sense of volition and control, being needed by others, having intimate connections and wider social connections, status, appropriate giving and receiving of attention etc, are crucial for health and well-being. (Attention needs weren't understood in Western psychology at all, before the contribution of Idries Shah.) So, on one side of the equation, we now have a much fuller understanding of human needs.
"And, on the other side, we have our human resources – the innate guidance system. We are learning much more about how that works and the more we understand, the more effective we will be, for sure."
Since it was first disseminated and taught back in 1997, this new school of psychology and psychotherapy is rapidly being recognised as a profoundly important shift in our understanding of human functioning. (It has been called “the missing heart of positive psychology”.)
The human givens framework enables us to see where a person's life is not working well and to tailor solutions for each individual using a combination of effective psychological interventions (as taught by Human Givens College), education and direct practical help, as appropriate.
The insights the approach brings into what we all need to live fulfilled, satisfying lives also brings clarity to the much-used phrase 'wellbeing' and points to concrete ways of achieving and maintaining such a state. The often startling success produced by the efficacy, adaptability and practical nature of the human givens approach and the new insights and models for effective therapy it encompasses, is borne out by the speed at which the approach is moving into new areas, ranging from psychotherapy, education and social work to international diplomatic relations and the corporate world of business (see our online library of articles for a wide range of examples).
1. Maslow, A H (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. Viking, New York.
2. Glasser, W (1965). Reality theory. Harper & Row, New York.
3. Aserinsky, E and Kleitman, N (1953). Regularly occurring periods of eye mobility and concomitant phenomena during sleep. Science, 18, 273–274.
Explore our articles and interviews
Joe Griffin goes back to basics to arrive at a some powerful new insights into the givens of human nature.
Social work should be about helping people yet, bogged down in bureaucracy, it has lost its way. Jan Little shows how the human givens approach can put it back on track.
Studying to become a counsellor would give her the skills to help people, thought Frances Masters. It didn’t … until she came across the human givens approach.
Ivan Tyrrell reviews "The Buddha Pill: can meditation change you?" by Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm (Watkins Publishing, £10.99).
Community psychiatric nurse Liz Potts describes her experience as one of the few primary care professionals in Coventry using the human givens approach.
Trevor Bailey, head of Worle School, raises issues about the impact of targets and inspections on the well-being of staff and thus on motivation and effectiveness..
Iain Caldwell uses many case studies in his description of how the human givens approach to helping people in distress has had a huge impact on mental health services in Hartlepool.
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Reni Landor is featured in 'The Psychologist' talking about what the human givens approach has brought her, professionally and personally.