Peak Experiences, and How They Can Change Your Life

Life is not all about suffering, as some of the greatest philosophers have told us. In life’s greatest and most blissful moments, we find not only joy and happiness, but wonder, awe and transcendence.

Being open to experiencing the peaks of life can change your life. Photo by Paul Gilmore on Unsplash

“Experience always means ‘bad experience’, doesn’t it?” quipped Nietzsche, though Nietzsche probably never knew what it’s like to snowboard through a deadly-quiet whited out forest at high speed, and Nietzsche probably never rode a motorbike in the sun with the wind in his face, enjoying life as it must feel for a dog with his head out the window of a car. Nietzsche never went to a Daft Punk (RIP) concert with his best friends, though he may well have heard some high-quality contemporary music performed with precision and genius skill by a world-class orchestra of the day, in which case, he did know that not all experiences were bad.

More generally you could interpret his statement as the Buddha or Schopenhauer might, that all life is suffering and we must endure it as such, though I understand it to be from the same school of philosophy as his famous ‘What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger’ — thatit is in the negative and difficult and challenging experiences of life that we experience growth; there is no growth without facing adversity, and so the only experience that counts on the curriculum of your vita are the negative ones. The bad experiences are the ones that shape you, hence why “the bad times are the best of times”, as the fella said.

But what about the good times? Are they of no benefit? Apart from giving life the odd a bit of joy and happiness, are they not productive too? Surely life is not just about suffering. And surely it is not only from bad experiences that we learn? Well, you’re surely right, thank god. And in as much as a catastrophic personal disaster can be a trigger (often necessary) for great transformation, experience of life at its best can have the same effect on you.

Which makes sense, as you’d have to wonder why anyone ever bothered otherwise. As much as I’ve experienced difficulties which resulted in positive wholesale changes to my situation or my attitude, and as much as I recognise that regular bouts of stress are required to keep one ticking over as you make your way through life — through personal challenges, professional moves, physical exertion and so on — to be perfectly honest, I’ve also always been fond of a good time.

A ‘peak’ experience is the term Abraham Maslow used to describe altered states of consciousness which result in, or are caused by (as I’ve mentioned before, all psychology is generally chicken-and-egg) an experience of euphoria. Maslow was the guy who came up with the Hierarchy of Needs, one of the most enduring and useful concepts in the field of psychology, wherein our needs change from physical (shelter, food, security) to emotional (love, relationships) to more spiritual (career progression, personal transformation, service to others) on the path to self-actualisation — a process and state you could equate with some kind of enlightenment.

Maslow believed that peak experiences happen to those who are on the path to self-actualisation. These experiences are characterised as:

See the bolded bits: these aren’t just good times, they’re times so good they enable you to see the world differently.

By their nature they’re difficult to describe, as one of the core characteristics is ‘ineffability’ — an inability to articulate what’s happened to you. Maybe that’s why every time someone comes home from their holidays with tales of how they saw “the most amazing [insert blah blah blah here]” you usually just zone out, unable to comprehend why it was so interesting — maybe your friend had a peak experience eating ice cream in Rome and the entire experience is just out of the realms of articulation for a human being (they probably didn’t).

Some of the other qualities of these experiences are a loss of sense of space and time (think of when time flew when you were having fun, or a time when you forgot where you were for a while); a sense of being ‘one with everything/everyone/the universe (this is something that sounds like hippy nonsense until it happens to you — as I said, it’s ineffable); a deeply positive mood; a sense of awe or wonder; and a sense that the experience is very meaningful.

Extreme sports are highly linked with peak experiences — surfing, snowboarding, riding motorbikes, skydiving, bungee jumping and so on — which probably explains part of the reason why people who do those things tend to really do them — often shaping their lives around what others might see as merely a ‘hobby’. But they are far from just hobbies — they have a way of putting you in touch with the depths of your soul, and everything else in the universe. Their ‘extreme’ nature makes them quite good at giving you that smack in the face that in today’s world is often so needed to connect us with the true beauty of the world we live in.

It’s not just extreme pursuits and adrenaline rushes, nor is it just activities which you do alone — anything can be a peak experience, particularly if it’s done with others; connection with others and purpose are the great facilitators of meaning, and therefore well-being. As much as riding a dirt-bike over a flaming pit of crocodiles can send a shiver up your spine, so too can sitting on a perfectly still beach at night-time and watching the moon, or spending a night down the pub with your friends. Any activity in which you can lose your sense of space and time — and therefore disconnect a bit from mere physical reality — can be a great facilitator for making you feel alive.

And these aren’t just ‘cool experiences, man’ that you can then go and bore everyone to tears with, like intellectual Instagram posts. As I as trying to get at earlier, these ‘good’ experiences are just as great an enabler of positive growth as bad experiences. Having peak experiences is linked to curing or treating depression, anxiety, addiction and other psychological issues. Just one can change how you see the world, and can elicit the practical or emotional changes needed to heal you.

After having these experiences, people often return to the ‘real world’, or come down from the peak, with a greater sense of purpose, increased compassion for themselves and others, or the smashing of some personal limits that they never thought they could overcome. Sports like surfing and snowboarding are also referred to as disciplines or practices, which gives us a clue as to why regular practice of them can foster growth as well as the acute moments of ecstasy they induce.

So why do these things have this effect? Why do some experiences have the ability to turn your life around, while watching TV doesn’t? It’s because these are the things that make you feel alive. They’re the things that put you in back in touch with what it means to be human. Whether they force you to face your fears or put you within touching distance of your greatest desires, it is in feeling an ever greater range of emotions that our view of the world — and therefore ourselves — is expanded and enriched.

So why don’t we just go about pursuing these experiences all the time? Well… you tell me? Or to give a more rounded answer: we all know that there must be balance to these highs. You’d be exhausted if you were going around in a state of ecstatic euphoria morning noon and night. You need some rest. Highs only exist in contrast to lows, though most of life is lived in the normality of the everyday.

But these moments serve as a type of training. The more often you experience them, and the more fully you open your mind and your heart and your sense to these moments of wonder as they come into your life, the more you will start to experience them. You’ll learn to see these moments in the everyday.

Maslow noted that peak experiences are generally caused by external forces in the world, yet are signs that the individual is on the path towards their own self-actualisation. Having them means you’re on the right path, and having them puts you on the right path — they are both cause and effect. By their definition they make us feel good, maybe even to the point where they feel wrong. “This is too much fun to be having, I should be at work” or “That’s enough ocean view for now, time to go back to the real world.”

Far from it — the fact that this moment hits you as it does means that that is exactly what you should be doing. If you feel like there’s something missing from your life, then it is your duty to seek these things out. If someone calls you to get back to the office to fill out your timesheet — tell them to piss off.

These experiences are perfect. If you’re doing something you love, with people you love, then what more could you need? They don’t distract from the meaning in your life — they most likely are the meaning in your life.

Find me at gavinbrennan.substack.com for regular essays and stories about travel, the outdoors, and the effect they have on us.

And on twitter @gav_is_gone

Psychology | Well-being | Travel | Writing | Flânerie.

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