What is the Human Givens approach?

Human Givens psychotherapy is a school of psychology that has been around since the mid-1990s. It was founded by two pioneers in the field of psychological research, Mr Joseph Griffin (author, research psychologist, psychotherapist and Director of Studies at Mindfields College) and Mr Ivan Tyrell (author and Principal of Mindfields College).


The Human Givens approach has already been influencing psychotherapy and education. It asserts that psychological understanding is best advanced by acknowledging that we have innate physical and emotional needs and that nature has given us the resources to help fulfil them.

These needs have evolved over millions of years and they are our common biological inheritance, regardless of our respective cultural background. It is because these needs and resources are incorporated into our biology that they are called 'givens' (known or established facts).

This organising idea has produced improved ways of treating mental distress and illness such as anger, depression, anxiety disorders, psychosis and addiction.

Innate needs and resources

The Human Givens theorises that our innate needs seek their fulfilment through the way we interact with our environment, using the resources that nature 'gave' us. When our physical and/or emotional needs are not being met or when our resources are being used incorrectly, unwittingly or otherwise, we suffer considerable distress, as do those around us.

It is by meeting our physical and emotional needs that we survive and develop as individuals and as a species.

As animals, we are born into a material world where we need air to breathe, water to drink, nutritious food to eat as well as sleep. These are the paramount physical needs. Without them, we quickly die.

We also need the freedom to stimulate our senses and exercise our muscles. In addition, we instinctively seek sufficient and secure shelter where we can grow and reproduce ourselves and bring up our children. These physical needs are intimately bound up with our emotional needs, which are the main focus of human givens psychology and therapy.

There is widespread agreement amongst psychologists as to the nature of our emotional needs. These include:

  • Security - stable home life, safe territory to live in and an environment that allows us to develop fully.
  • Attention (to give and receive it) - a form of nutrition.
  • Emotional connection to others - through friendship, fun, love and intimacy; to know that at least one other person accepts us totally for who we are, “warts 'n' all”.
  • Sense of autonomy and control - having the volition to make responsible choices.
  • Feeling part of a wider social community - which satisfies our need to belong.
  • Sense of status - within social groupings.
  • Sense of self-competence and achievement - through maturity, learning and the application of skills.
  • Privacy - opportunity to reflect and consolidate experience.
  • Meaning and purpose - which come from being stretched in what we think and do.

Comforting someone with a broken heart

Our resources include:

  • Curiosity - the ability to build rapport, empathise and connect with others.
  • Long term memory - which enables us to add to our innate knowledge and learn.
  • A conscious, rational mind - that can check our emotions, question, analyse and plan.
  • Imagination - which allows us to focus our attention away from our emotions in order to use language and problem solve more creatively and objectively.
  • A dreaming brain - that preserves the integrity of our genetic inheritance every night by metaphorically defusing expectations held in the autonomic arousal system because they were not acted out the previous day.
  • The ability to ‘know’ and understand the world - and other people and extract deeper meaning unconsciously through metaphorical pattern matching.
  • An observing self - an awareness of oneself: that part of us that can step back, be more objective and be aware of itself as a unique centre of awareness, separate from intellect, emotion and conditioning.

It is these emotional needs and resources, which are built into our biology, that, together, make up the Human Givens - nature's genetic endowment to humanity.

They are best thought of as inbuilt patterns - innate biological templates - that continually interact with one another and (in ‘undamaged’ people) seek their natural fulfilment in the world in ways that allow us to survive, live together as multi-faceted individuals in a great variety of different social groupings, and subsequently flourish.

It is the way that these needs are met, and the way that we use the resources that nature has given us, that determine the physical, mental and moral health of an individual. When we feel emotionally fulfilled and are operating effectively within society, we are more likely to be mentally healthy and stable.

It is now widely observed that most problem behaviours and psychological distress can be traced to innate physical and emotional needs not being met, for whatever reason, or to the misuse of a particular innate resource (such as imagination, for example, when it generates worry, envy, or excessive greed).

When we work closely in alignment with the 'givens' of human nature, rather than with just the techniques derived from limited ideologies, then doctors, psychotherapists, nurses, social workers and teachers are more effective.

Sleep and dreaming

The Human Givens approach to treating depression emerged from research into sleep and especially the rapid eye movements (REM) seen during dream sleep. It theorises that excessive worrying whilst awake arouses the autonomic nervous system which then increases the need to dream in REM sleep.

This subsequently deprives the individual of the refreshment of the mind normally brought about by regenerative slow-wave sleep. It sees worry as a misuse of the imagination. A worry is a form of expectation (negative in nature), and expectations arouse the autonomic nervous system which can then lead to physical symptoms of anxiety.

Any expectation that is not acted out during the day time is acted out metaphorically in dreams. This is referred to as the 'expectation fulfilment theory of dreams'. This, Human Givens therapists believe, is why depressed people dream more intensely than non-depressed people and why, typically, depressed people wake up tired and find it difficult to motivate themselves. The balance of their natural sleep is upset.

Dream analysis

Human Givens Practice

Human Givens therapists use a number of techniques to encourage their clients to use their imagination in a healthier way e.g. deep relaxation, visualisation, guided imagery, and use of metaphors, which all help to restore a healthier sleep pattern and lift the depression.

The technique was developed by Mr Joe Griffin and Mr Ivan Tyrell in the mid-1990s from observations in sleep research and efficacy studies of different schools of psychotherapy.

The theory has been further extended to give a plausible cause for schizophrenia (a waking REM state). The Human Givens also has a theoretical explanation and effective treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The Human Givens has been described as the missing heart of the positive psychology movement (the scientific study of “human happiness” and mental well-being, as opposed to mental illness).

Human Givens Models

There are two simple models used by Human Givens therapists: APET and RIGAAR.

APET model

The first model describes the process involved in any behaviour or emotional state and helps one to effectively understand and then target predisposing, precipitating and perpetuating factors.

A: Activating trigger/ agent (stressor)
P: Pattern matching (previous negative/ traumatic events)
E: Emotional response/ arousal
T: Thought(s) evoked

RIGAAR model

The second model refers to the process of effective history taking and therapy.

R: Rapid rapport building
I: Information gathering
G: Goal setting
A: Accessing resources (e.g. past successes)
A: Agreeing a strategy
R: Rehearsal (e.g. visualisation and guided imagery, practice)

For more information about the Human Givens approach and to find a therapist who practices Human Givens, visit our dedicated fact sheet.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
Show comments

Find a therapist dealing with Depression

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals