Peak-experiences: A path to joy

In interviewing high achievers, Maslow discovered that they reported frequent moments of great joy and fulfillment in everyday life. Even more intriguingly, the words they used to describe such moments often resembled the accounts of history’s great mystics and sages.

Dr Edward Hoffman

“What can you do if you’re 30 and, turning the corner of your own street, you are overcome, suddenly, by a feeling of bliss—absolute bliss—as though you’d suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon?” asked Katherine Mansfield in a celebrated short story, Bliss. Hardly coincidentally, the early 20th-century British writer was herself 30 years old at the time—and though she lived only four more years due to chronic illness, her life was vibrant with dazzling moments. It’s likely that Mansfield would have appreciated Abraham Maslow’s scientific quest to uncover their value for our emotional, and possibly even physical, wellbeing.

Maslow called these peak-experiences—and they emerged from his studies beginning in the mid-1940s of emotionally healthy, high-achieving adults—whom he would later call “self-actualized.” As a young professor in New York City at the time, Maslow recognized that his research was revolutionary—for psychology until then had focused almost exclusively on the functioning of either mentally ill or average people.  As Maslow later declared, “If we want to know how fast a human being can run, then it is no use to average out the speed of a `good sample’ of the population. It is far better to collect Olympic gold medal winners and see how well they can do.”

In interviewing high achievers, Maslow discovered that they reported frequent moments of great joy and fulfillment in everyday life. Even more intriguingly, the words they used to describe such moments often resembled the accounts of history’s great mystics and sages. Having long been skeptical about religious dogma, Maslow found these results perplexing, but he was never one to ignore scientific evidence. Slowly, he amassed data from diverse biographies, detailed interviews with highly successful men and women in many fields, and surveys of college students until he was ready to share his findings with the scientific world. Presented at the American Psychological Association convention in 1956, his paper specified the link between “the highest reaches of human nature” and peak-experiences—and described nearly 20 features of such exalted moments. These included great happiness, feelings of awe, temporary disorientation with regard to time and space, and a complete loss of fear and defense before the grandeur of the universe.

Perhaps comprising the most important aspect of his paper, Maslow noted that peak-experiences often leave profound, transformative effects in their wake. He commented that generally, “The person is more apt to feel that life...is worthwhile, even if it is usually drab, pedestrian, painful, or ungratifying, since beauty, truth, and meaningfulness have been demonstrated…to exist.” In later years, Maslow speculated that many people suffering from emotional disorders like depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse were “starving” for such wondrous moments—and engaged in substance abuse in a misguided effort to achieve a peak-experience. Thus, in his influential book Religions, Values, and Peak-experiences, Maslow poetically asserted, “The power of the peak-experience could permanently affect [one’s] attitude toward life. A single glimpse of heaven is enough to confirm its existence, even if it is never experienced again.”

During the past decade, my colleagues and I have explored youthful and midlife peak-experiences around the globe. In every country and region—from India and Japan to Brazil and Chile—those involving interpersonal joy are predominant. In other words, we’re most likely to have unforgettable moments of joy when we’re with loved ones, especially family members. To a lesser extent, peaks are linked to events involving aesthetic delight, nature, external achievement, religious activity, and skill mastery. In a recent study I conducted with Drs Garima Srivastava and Sonia Kapur—and published in the Indian Journal of Positive Psychology—we investigated youthful peak-experiences of nursing students at a prestigious medical university in India. We found that peaks involving external achievement were most common, followed in frequency by interpersonal joy, developmental landmark, and receiving a material gift. In our view, these findings had important implications for optimizing Indian nursing education. 

Plateau experiences

Late in life, Maslow became interested in another type of emotional uplift during everyday living. Drawing largely upon his own moods and interviews with contemporaries, he called these “plateau experiences”—and linked them mainly to midlife or old age. Maslow described “plateau experiences” as extended periods of wonderful serenity and inner peace, which conceivably could last for hours, days, or even longer. For example, men and women typically described “plateaus” using words like gentleness, calmness, and quiet happiness—rather than super-charged euphoria. In spending afternoons with his baby granddaughter Jeannie or gazing at the ocean, Maslow frequently had such occurrences. He regarded “plateaus” as lacking the emotional and physical intensity of peak-experiences, but perhaps better adapted biologically to the aging human body.

Though Maslow did not live long enough to develop a cohesive program for personal growth, he was convinced that we all could benefit from increasing the presence of “plateaus” in our day-to-day lives. One way to do this, he was sure, was to see the world in a renewed way—to freshen our perceptions of the seemingly mundane and ordinary. Some persons during their plateau experiences reported that everything around them appeared sacred and manifestations of the divine. Upon surviving a major heart attack in 1968, Maslow found that his consciousness had changed in exactly this way. In an interview with a magazine editor, he commented vividly: 

           “I could just as easily have died, so that my living constitutes a kind of an extra, a bonus…Therefore, I might just as well live as if I had already died. One very important aspect of this postmortem life is that everything gets doubly precious…You get stabbed by…flowers and by babies and by beautiful things—just the act of living, of walking, breathing, eating, having friends, and chatting. Everything seems to look more beautiful rather than less, and one gets the much-intensified sense of miracles.”

Guided Activity

Describe a peak-experience in your life—preferably one that occurred within the past year—with regard to these questions: Who was with you at the time, or were you alone? What “triggered” this moment of great happiness? What impact did it subsequently have on your view of life? And, what can you do to generate more such wonderful, uplifting experiences?

Dr Edward Hoffman is a New York based clinical psychologist and adjunct associate psychology professor at Yeshiva University. Dr Hoffman most recently wrote Paths to Happiness: 50 Ways to Add Joy to your Life Every Day. He has authored/edited more than 20 books in psychology and related fields. Dr Hoffman lives in New York City with his wife and their two children. His leisure interests include playing the flute and swimming. 

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