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self-transcendence theory

The self-transcendence theory is a psychological theory that explores how people expand their personal boundaries and connect with something greater than themselves. It is based on the idea that human beings have a natural tendency to seek meaning and purpose in life, and that this can be achieved by transcending the self and relating to a higher reality.

Major figures behind the theory

self-transcendence theory was influenced by various humanistic and transpersonal psychologists, such as Viktor Frankl, Abraham Maslow, Pamela Reed, Ken Wilbur, Alfred Adler and C. Robert Cloninger. The term self-transcendence was first used by Frankl to describe the human tendency to reach out beyond oneself and find meaning in life. Maslow later revised his hierarchy of needs and added self-transcendence as the highest level of human development, beyond Self-actualization.

Some of the transcendence theorists in chronological order are:

Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), who developed the concept of logotherapy and proposed that self-transcendence is a fundamental expression of our spiritual nature and a distinctive concept (Frankl, 1969; Wong, 2016).

Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), who extended his theory of human motivation to include transcendence as one of the highest levels, inclusive or holistic in the human consciousness (Maslow, 1971; Kaufman, 2020).

Pamela G. Reed (born 1949), who developed the theory of self-transcendence and defined it as an expansion of self-boundaries that results in a broader life perspective and enhanced wellbeing. Reed’s theory identified four dimensions of expanding self-boundaries: intrapersonal, interpersonal, temporal, and transpersonal. (Reed, 1991; Reed & Shearer, 2012).

Paul Wong (born 1937), introduced existential positive psychology (EPP or PP2.0), which focuses on how to flourish through overcoming hardships and suffering, based on the core principle of self-transcendence (Wong, 2016). Wong also developed a self-transcendence model of servant leadership, which emphasizes the importance of spirituality, faith, sacrificial love, and humility for moral and selfless leadership for the greater good (Wong et al., n.d.).

C. Robert Cloninger (born 1944), who proposed a psychobiological model of personality that includes self-transcendence as one of the four temperaments, characterized by a tendency to identify with everything in the universe. Cloninger incorporated self-transcendence as one of the three character traits in his Temperament and Character Inventory. (Cloninger, Svrakic, & Przybeck, 1993; Cloninger & Zohar, 2011).

Lars Tornstam (1943-2015), who coined the term gerotranscendence and described it as a developmental process in late life that involves a shift from a materialistic and rational view of the world to a more cosmic and transcendent one (Tornstam, 1994; Tornstam, 2005).

Ken Wilber (born 1949), developed a comprehensive model of human development that integrates various disciplines and perspectives, such as psychology, philosophy, spirituality, and science (Transcend and Include: Ken Wilber’s Contribution to Transpersonal Psychology, n.d.). Wilber also proposed the concept of “transcend and include”, which means that each stage of development transcends but also incorporates the previous stages, resulting in a more complex and holistic view of reality (Wilber, 2000).

Scott Barry Kaufman (born 1979), who explored the links between self-transcendence and creativity, intelligence, wellbeing and spirituality.

self-transcendence theory has been applied to various domains, such as ageing, spirituality, health, and wellbeing. They proposed that self-transcendence is a character trait that involves the experience of spiritual aspects of the self, such as awareness, values, dreams, compassion, and wisdom. self-transcendence also involves the identification of the self with the universe conceived as a unitive whole, and the acceptance of nature and its source.


self-transcendence theory has several components and dimensions that can be measured by different scales and inventories. Some of these components are:

  • self-forgetfulness: the ability to lose oneself in an activity or a relationship, and to experience joy and peace without self-consciousness or ego-involvement.
  • Transpersonal identification: the sense of belonging and connection with other people, nature, and the cosmos, and the recognition of the interdependence of all life forms.
  • Spiritual acceptance: the openness and receptivity to spiritual ideas and experiences, such as faith, intuition, transcendence, and mysticism.
  • enlightened: the attainment of insight and wisdom through self-knowledge, reflection, and contemplation, and the expression of creativity and compassion.
  • idealistic: the pursuit of higher values and goals that transcend personal interests and benefit humanity and the world.

self-transcendence theory has several implications for human development, wellbeing, and health. It suggests that self-transcendence is a positive and adaptive trait that can enhance psychological growth, coping, resilience, and happiness. It also suggests that self-transcendence can facilitate spiritual development and foster a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Furthermore, self-transcendence can promote positive health outcomes by reducing stress, anxiety, depression, and pain, and by increasing immune function, quality of life, and satisfaction with care.

Comprehensive Framework

self-transcendence theory is a comprehensive and holistic framework that can help us understand ourselves and others better. It can also inspire us to live more authentically, meaningfully, and harmoniously with ourselves, others, nature, and the divine.


One benefit of self-transcendence is that it can foster a sense of meaning and purpose in life, especially in the face of existential challenges such as ageing and mortality. Self-transcendent people tend to have a broader temporal perspective that transcends their personal lifespan and connects them to past and future generations (Wong et al., 2016). They also tend to have a more positive attitude toward death and dying, seeing it as a natural part of life and an opportunity for spiritual growth (Levenson et al., 2005).

Another benefit of self-transcendence is that it can enhance one’s psychological wellbeing and resilience. Self-transcendent people tend to have higher levels of happiness, life satisfaction, optimism, and self-esteem than less self-transcendent people (Cloninger et al., 1993; Reed, 1991). They also tend to cope better with stress, adversity, and trauma, using positive strategies such as acceptance, meaning-making, and altruism (Reed & Neville, 2003; Villarreal et al., 2018).

A third benefit of self-transcendence is that it can promote one’s personal growth and development. Self-transcendent people tend to have a lifelong curiosity and openness to learning new things, as well as a desire to actualise their potential and express their authentic self (Reischer et al., 2021). They also tend to have a secure attachment style and a pluralistic world-view that values diversity and interconnection among different cultures, religions, and perspectives (Reischer et al., 2021).

Reischer et al. (2021) conducted a study on the life stories of highly self-transcendent people in late-midlife, using grounded theory methodology and narrative coding. They identified six narrative themes that characterised a “humanistic growth story”: closure, interconnectedness, lifelong learning, secure attachment, Self-actualization, and spiritual pluralism. These themes reflected how self-transcendent people narrated their lived experiences as spiritual journeys of humanistic growth, overcoming challenges and finding meaning along the way.

self-transcendence is a valuable psychological construct that can bring many benefits to one’s life, especially in late-midlife when existential issues become more salient. self-transcendence can help one find meaning and purpose in life, enhance one’s wellbeing and resilience, and promote one’s personal growth and development.

Key Concepts

Transcendence theory is a psychological framework that proposes that human beings have an innate drive to transcend their current limitations and reach higher levels of functioning and wellbeing. One of the key concepts in this theory is vulnerability, which refers to the openness and receptivity to new experiences, emotions, and perspectives that challenge one’s existing self-concept and world-view. Vulnerability is seen as a necessary condition for growth and transformation, as it allows one to encounter and integrate aspects of oneself and reality that were previously denied or avoided.


Another key concept in transcendence theory is wellbeing, which is defined as a multidimensional construct that encompasses both hedonic (pleasure-based) and eudaemonic (meaning-based) aspects of human flourishing. Wellbeing is not only a result of satisfying one’s basic needs and desires, but also of pursuing one’s higher potentials and values. Wellbeing is enhanced by engaging in activities and relationships that foster self-expression, Self-actualization, and self-transcendence.


self-transcendence is the third key concept in transcendence theory, and it refers to the process and outcome of expanding one’s sense of self beyond the ego-boundaries and identifying with a larger reality that transcends one’s personal concerns and interests. It can occur in various domains, such as spirituality, creativity, altruism, peak experiences, and mystical states. self-transcendence is considered to be the goal and highest expression of human development, as it leads to a more profound understanding of oneself, others, and the cosmos.

Transcendence theory, Pamela Reed

Complex Relationship between components

The relationship between vulnerability, wellbeing, and self-transcendence in transcendence theory is complex and dynamic. On one hand, vulnerability can facilitate wellbeing and self-transcendence by exposing one to new possibilities and opportunities for growth and change. On the other hand, vulnerability can also threaten wellbeing and self-transcendence by exposing one to pain, fear, uncertainty, and loss. Therefore, vulnerability requires a balance between openness and protection, between risk and safety, between challenge and support. Similarly, wellbeing can foster self-transcendence by providing one with the resources and motivation to pursue one’s higher aspirations and ideals.

Wellbeing can also hinder self-transcendence by creating attachment and complacency that prevent one from transcending one’s comfort zone and current level of functioning. Therefore, wellbeing requires a balance between satisfaction and dissatisfaction, between stability and change, between fulfilment and transcendence. Finally, self-transcendence can enhance wellbeing by enriching one’s life with meaning, purpose, joy, and connection. But self-transcendence can also diminish wellbeing by creating alienation, isolation, confusion, and conflict. Therefore, self-transcendence requires a balance between integration and differentiation, between unity and diversity, between transcendence and immanence.

Four Main Factors of self-transcendence

self-transcendence is the ability to go beyond one’s ego and personal limitations and connect with something greater than oneself. According to Reed, it can be understood as a multidimensional construct that involves four main factors: intrapersonal, interpersonal, transpersonal and temporal.

Intrapersonal factors refer to the inner aspects of self-transcendence, such as one’s values, beliefs, goals, motivations, emotions and identity. They influence how one perceives oneself and one’s place in the world. self-transcendence involves developing a more positive and flexible self-concept that is not bound by rigid or negative self-evaluations. It also involves cultivating a sense of purpose and meaning in life that transcends one’s personal interests and desires.

Interpersonal factors refer to the social aspects of self-transcendence, such as one’s relationships, interactions, communication and empathy with others. They influence how one relates to others and how others perceive one. self-transcendence involves developing a more compassionate and altruistic attitude towards others that is not based on selfishness or egoism. It also involves fostering a sense of belonging and connectedness with others who share similar values and goals.

Transpersonal factors refer to the spiritual aspects of self-transcendence, such as one’s connection with a higher power, a universal consciousness, a divine source or a transcendent reality. They influence how one experiences reality and what one considers as ultimate truth. self-transcendence involves developing a more open and receptive attitude towards the transcendent that is not limited by dogmatism or scepticism. It also involves experiencing a sense of awe and wonder that transcends rationality and logic.

Temporal factors refer to the temporal aspects of self-transcendence, such as one’s awareness of time, history, mortality and eternity. They influence how one views the past, present and future and how one deals with change and uncertainty. self-transcendence involves developing a more holistic and integrative perspective of time that is not constrained by linear or chronological thinking. It also involves accepting the impermanence of life and embracing the possibility of transcendence beyond death.


Gerotranscendence is a theory proposed by Lars Tornstam of positive ageing that suggests that older adults undergo a shift in perspective from a materialistic and rational view of life to a more cosmic and transcendent one. The following sentence illustrates this concept: “As people age, they become less concerned with superficial aspects of their identity and more interested in finding meaning and purpose in their existence.”

The theory includes the concept of the three dimensions of gerotranscendence proposed by Tornstam (2005): cosmic, ego, and social. According to Tornstam, cosmic gerotranscendence involves a greater connection with nature, the universe, and spirituality; ego gerotranscendence involves a reduced self-centredness, increased self-acceptance, and decreased fear of death; and social gerotranscendence involves a selective and more profound relationship with others, a decreased interest in social norms, and an increased altruism.

Tornstam (2005) defined gerotranscendence as “a shift in meta-perspective, from a materialistic and rational view of the world to a more cosmic and transcendent one, normally accompanied by an increase in life satisfaction” (p. 15). Some of the main characteristics of gerotranscendence are:

  • A decreased interest in material things, superficial relationships, and social roles
  • A increased interest in solitude, meditation, and inner peace
  • A heightened sense of connection with past generations, nature, and the universe
  • A more accepting attitude toward ageing, death, and ambiguity
  • A greater appreciation of the present moment, simplicity, and joy

Tornstam (2011) argued that gerotranscendence is a natural and universal process of human development that can be facilitated or hindered by personal and social factors. He also suggested that gerotranscendence can improve the wellbeing and quality of life of older adults, as well as their relationships with others. For example, he reported that gerotranscendent individuals tend to be more altruistic, compassionate, tolerant, and forgiving than non-gerotranscendent ones. He also claimed that gerotranscendence can help older adults cope with loneliness, loss, and suffering by providing them with a more profound meaning and purpose in life.

Tornstam’s theory of gerotranscendence has been supported by empirical studies conducted in different countries and cultures. For instance, Wadensten (2005) found that gerotranscendence was positively associated with life satisfaction, self-esteem, and spirituality among older Swedish adults. Similarly, Wang et al. (2016) reported that gerotranscendence was positively related to happiness, optimism, and resilience among Chinese older adults. Moreover, Hively et al. (2011) explored the link between gerotranscendence and religious factors among older adults from various faith traditions in the United States. They concluded that gerotranscendence can be seen as “a common ground for interfaith dialogue and cooperation” (p. 13).

In conclusion, gerotranscendence is a theory that describes how some older adults experience a shift in their world-view and values as they age. This shift can enhance their psychological wellbeing and social harmony by making them more transcendent, cosmic, and spiritual. Tornstam’s theory has been validated by empirical research and has implications for ageing policy and practice.

Further reading

Here are some links that might be helpful:


Academia (n.d). Transcend and Include: Ken Wilber’s Contribution to Transpersonal Psychology. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/29869520/Transcend_and_Include_Ken_Wilbers_Contribution_to_Transpersonal_Psychology

Cloninger, C. R., Svrakic, D. M., & Przybeck, T. R. (1993). A psychobiological model of temperament and character. Archives of General Psychiatry, 50(12), 975–990.

Cloninger, C. R., & Zohar, A. H. (2011). Personality and the perception of health and happiness. Journal of Affective Disorders, 128(1-2), 24–32.

Frankl, V. E. (1969). The will to meaning: Foundations and applications of logotherapy. New York: New American Library.

Hively, J., Hwang, M., & Canda E.R. (2011). Religious factors and gerotranscendence in later life: A cross-cultural comparison. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues, 30(1), 3–18.

Kaufman, S. B. (2020). Transcend: The new science of Self-actualization. New York: Penguin Random House.

Levenson MR, Aldwin CM & D’Mello M (2005). Religious development from adolescence to middle adulthood. In Paloutzian RF &

Maslow, A. H. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. New York: Viking Press.

Park, CL (Eds.), Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality (pp. 144–161). New York: Guilford Press.

Reed PG (1991). self-transcendence and mental health in oldest-old adults. Nursing Research 40:5–11.

Reed PG & Neville HA (2003). The influence of religiosity on health and well-being in older black Americans. Western Journal of Nursing Research 25:730–750.

Reed, P. G., & Shearer, N. B. C. (2012). Perspectives on nursing theory (6th ed.). Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer Health/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Reischer HN, Roth LJ Villarreal JA & McAdams DP (2021). Self‐Transcendence and Life Stories of Humanistic Growth Among Late‐Midlife Adults. Journal of Personality 89:305-324.

Tornstam, L. (1994). Gerotranscendence: A theoretical and empirical exploration. In L. E. Thomas & S. A. Eisenhandler (Eds.), Aging and the religious dimension (pp. 203–225). Westport, CT: Auburn House.

Tornstam, L. (2005). Gerotranscendence: A developmental theory of positive aging. New York: Springer Publishing Company.

Tornstam L. (2005). Gerotranscendence: A developmental theory of positive aging. New York: Springer Publishing Company.

Tornstam L. (2011). Maturing into gerotranscendence. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 43(2), 166–180.

Villarreal JA, Bloise SM, Ardelt M & McAdams DP (2018). The role of self-transcendence in the relationship between generativity and subjective well-being in older adults. Journal of Happiness Studies 19:1785–1804.

Wadensten B. (2005). Introducing older people to the theory of gerotranscendence. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 52(4), 381–388.

Wang J.J., Zhang W., Sun Y., & Song Y.Y. (2016). The relationship between gerotranscendence and subjective well-being among the elderly population in China: Mediating effect of resilience. International Journal of Aging & Human Development, 83(4), 431–445.

Wilber, K. (2000). A theory of everything: An integral vision for business, politics, science, and spirituality. Boston, MA: Shambhala.

Wong, P. T. P. (2016). meaning therapy: An integrative and positive existential psychotherapy. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 46(1), 7–19.

Wong, P. T. P. (2016). self-transcendence: A paradoxical way to become your best. International Journal of Existential Positive Psychology, 6(1), 1-15.

Wong, P. T. P., Page, D., & Cheung, T. C. K. (n.d.). A self-transcendence model of servant leadership. Retrieved from http://www.drpaulwong.com/a-self-transcendence-model-of-servant-leadership/

Wong PTP, Reker GT & Gesser G (2016). Death Attitude Profile-Revised: A multidimensional measure of attitudes toward death. In Neimeyer RA (Ed.), Death anxiety handbook: Research, instrumentation, and application (pp. 121–148). Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis.

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