Tom Greening, Psychology

Photograph of Tom Greening

Tom Greening

Psychology Faculty

Tom Greening was there at the birth of humanistic psychology: he worked with James Bugental and Abraham Maslow, and edited the movement's flagship publication, the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, for 35 years. As a member of the Board of Directors of the Association for Humanistic Psychology, he was also present for Saybrook's founding in 1971 as the Humanistic Psychology Institute. He agreed to join Saybrook's faculty in 1990 because Rollo May asked him too.

But his extensive career at the heart of humanistic psychology almost never happened. He was supposed to be a mechanical engineer.

"I was raised as a very conventional American male, in a small town of WASPs, where they invented and manufactured things," Tom remembers. "That's what men did, they made things. Even my dad was a mechanical engineer with a degree from MIT.

Like his father, Tom was good in math and science. He got into Yale. He did what he was supposed to, getting an "A" in mechanical drawing and calculus. His career was on track.

Then literature exploded into his life.

"They made us take a literature course for engineers, their last shot at us. And I loved it," he remembers. "And when I took the Strong Vocational Test, I came out with scores showing I had interests similar to people in the social sciences and humanities."

He laughs. "That was a surprise to me: I didn't even know what the humanities were."

He soon found out.

"I took psychology. I took creative writing, and discovered there were things called novels and short stories. I took a course on French Literature: I discovered Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre." He also spent a summer working in Quaker hospitals, where he was impressed by the compassion and commitment to care that he saw – not just of "patients" but of "people."

After graduating, dodging the Korean War and a CIA recruiter, Tom went to Vienna on a Fulbright. "I didn't really use it well," he admits. "I went skiing, hung out in cafes, had a girlfriend who lived in the Russian occupied zone."

But he did use the time to make one decision: he was going to get a graduate degree in psychology.

"I had not majored in psychology, my GRE scores must have been terrible, but I got accepted by UC Berkeley and Michigan (after being rejected by Harvard)," he says. "My Ford convertible was old and unreliable, so I chose Michigan because it was closer to home. Thus are life-altering decisions made."

Humanistic and existential psychology didn't really exist then, so he spent five years at Michigan receiving training in a psychoanalytically oriented clinic. It was what he'd wanted, but it also seemed too limited – something was missing. After graduation, he was recruited by UCLA and by "a small group practice in Los Angeles with some people I'd never heard of, like James Bugental."

Both made him offers, and he recalls thinking the smart thing to do would be to take the UCLA job. "But for reasons I don't fully understand I decided that the Bugental group was the better place for me."

He joined them in 1958 – the same year Rollo May published his book "Existence" which brought existential psychology to the US. Influenced also by Rogers and Maslow, soon the Bugental group became a center of American existential-humanistic psychotherapy.

Those ideas inspired a movement. "There are now humanistic psychologists in China, Japan, Russia, Iran, and elsewhere," Tom says. "During the Cold War the Journal of Humanistic Psychology circulated underground in the Eastern bloc." Tom even made five trips to the Soviet Union with other humanistic psychologists during the 1980s as part of the citizen diplomacy movement incorporating the ideas of Carl Rogers and others involved in person-centered peace efforts.

The humanistic element, Tom realized, was what had been missing from his practice, and he took a leading role in helping to shape its development. While it was Bugental who famously wrote the basic principles of humanistic psychology, it was Tom Greening who revised them.

"Humanistic psychology says that the drive-towards self-actualization, the drive towards higher states of consciousness and interrelatedness, is vitally important," Tom says. "That's very different from behaviorism, and from psychoanalytic psychology, and it's very, very different from medicalized, reductionistic, strongly cognitive psychology, the big emphasis in much psychology now."

Since its founding, humanistic psychology has had an enormous impact on psychology as a whole, and an even larger impact on the surrounding culture. "That's because human beings have thoughts, feelings, values, and emotions," Tom says. "That's what stirs their passions, their interests. And that's what humanistic psychology addresses."

That's also what has made it a target of people who say that things like passions and thoughts have no place in science. Tom has spent the later years of his life answering that challenge.

"To them I say 'let a thousand flowers bloom.' Let's all do the best work that we can. Measurements and numbers can be very useful things, but they are not the only things. There is something else."

It's that vital "something else" that he helps his students explore, to reach their full potential as scholars, thinkers, and therapists.