Although he is often associated with humanistic psychology, he differs from other humanistic psychologists such as Virginia Satir, Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers in emphasizing the tragic dimensions of human existence; unlike them, he built his thinking around the tenets of existentialist philosophy. May was a close friend of the theologian Paul Tillich. His works include Love and Will and The Courage to Create, the latter title honoring Tillich's The Courage to Be.
May was born in Ada, Ohio in 1909. He experienced a difficult childhood, with his parents divorcing and his sister suffering a mental breakdown. His educational career took him to Michigan State College and Oberlin College for a bachelor's degree, teaching for a time in Greece, to Union Theological Seminary for a BD in 1938, and finally to Teachers College, Columbia University for a PhD in clinical psychology in 1949. May was a founder and faculty member of Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center in San Francisco.
He spent the closing years of his life in Tiburon on the San Francisco Bay, where he died in October 1994.
May uses some traditional existential terms in a slightly different fashion than others, and he invents new words for traditional existentialist concepts. Destiny, for example, could be "thrownness" combined with "fallenness"— the part of our lives that is determined for us, for the purpose of creating our lives. He also used the word "courage" to signify authenticity in facing one’s anxiety and rising above it.
He saw certain "stages" of development:
These are not stages in the traditional sense. A child may certainly be innocent, ordinary or creative at times; an adult may be rebellious. The only attachment to certain ages is in terms of salience: rebelliousness stands out in the two year old and the teenager.
May perceived the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as commercialization of sex and pornography, as having influenced society and planted the idea in the minds of adults that love and sex are no longer directly associated. According to May, emotion has become separated from reason, making it socially acceptable to seek sexual relationships and avoid the natural drive to relate to another person and create new life. May believed the awakening of sexual freedoms can lead modern society to dodge awakenings at higher levels. May suggests that the only way to turn around the cynical ideas that characterize our generation is to rediscover the importance of caring for another, which May describes as the opposite of apathy.
His first book, The Meaning of Anxiety, was based on his doctoral dissertation, which in turn was based on his reading of the 19th century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. His definition of anxiety is "the apprehension cued off by a threat to some value which the individual holds essential to his existence as a self" (1967, p. 72). He also quotes Kierkegaard: "Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom". In 1956, he edited the book Existence with Ernest Angel and Henri Ellenberger. Existence helped introduce existential psychology to the US.