By Rebecca Webber, published on September 1, 2010 - last reviewed on November 20, 2015
Dagney McKinley had just finished her Master's degree in creative writing and decided to reward herself with an experience she'd been dreaming of for 10 years: traveling to see a Kermode bear, also called a spirit bear. "I'd read about it and always wanted to see it," she says. "It was my graduation treat to myself." A black bear that grows white fur (although it is not an albino), the Kermode bear lives on only two islands in northern Canada. McKinley booked a trip on a small boat holding a dozen adventurers and headed north.
After kayaking and visiting native Inuit hot springs, her group was guided to an area where the bears were often seen. "After about an hour and a half, the first spirit bear came up and fished just 20 feet from us," recalls McKinley. "It was a huge adrenaline rush. We were almost shaking, we were so excited to see this animal that most people in the world will never see. I had a light feeling and an energy rush like euphoria. And I was sharing it with all the others."
McKinley says that seeing the Kermode bear has been one of the best moments of her life. "Even talking about it now, I feel a little bit of the high," she says. Besides the memories, it left her with an expanded idea of herself. "I've always been shy and had a low sense of self-worth," she confides. But researching, planning, and arranging all the details of the trip boosted her sense of self-efficacy. And getting to know 12 strangers demonstrated that she could conquer her shyness. "That experience built up my sense of who I am and what I can accomplish."
Everyone's life has superlative moments—times when we feel extraordinary and our experiences are recorded in Technicolor. "It's part of the human condition," says Roland Griffiths, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University. "We're wired to have such experiences."
Psychologist Abraham Maslow famously coined the term "peak experience" in 1964 to denote sudden feelings of intense well-being that fill us with wonder and awe. Psychologically healthy people tend to have more of them, and such experiences can also bring feelings of interconnectedness and create a sharper sense of life purpose. "It's that quality of the experience that makes it so memorable," says Griffiths. "People feel that it informs life going forward." As a result, peak experiences may cause a cascade of changes in our lives, as we accommodate our newly expanded sense of self.
While brain studies on peak experiences are impractical since such moments arrive unbidden, researchers believe they involve extraordinarily diffuse activity in the brain. "It isn't localized," says Griffiths, who has created peak experiences in a laboratory setting by administering the hallucinogen psilocybin to subjects. "It's going to involve an incredibly complex network of neural activity and interactions that we haven't been able to model yet."
The details of our extraordinary moments can be as different as the individuals who have them. "Some people have to climb to the top of a mountain to have a peak moment,"says Jeffrey Kottler, a psychology professor at California State University. "But for a painfully shy person, reaching out to a stranger to start a relationship is the equivalent of climbing Everest."
About half of all Americans report having had a life-changing moment, according to Gallup polls. And while such moments can't be ordered into existence, we can gently prepare for the possibility. Despite the many varieties of peak experience, they all have a lot in common.
Peak experiences often involve an epiphany, an aha! moment that occurs suddenly, typically during a period of emotional turmoil. In an instant, we have an insight that is entirely new and deeply meaningful. We might realize that we can't stand one more day working as a corporate lawyer. Or that heavy drinking is ruining our life. An epiphany can reorder our priorities, revealing how we've veered away from our authentic self and inspiring us to move towards behavior that better matches it. The transformation is usually enduring.
Robert Blodgett was blindsided when his 6-week-old son caught a respiratory virus and became desperately sick. "The doctor came out and told us, 'Your son is fighting to breathe, and he's not winning,'" he recalls. "My mind started spinning, and then it became clear how important my family was to me." He was hit by the realization that he had been devoting his time and energy to the wrong thing. "I was working 50 hours a week. I'd get to the office early and stay late." That is, when he wasn't traveling. "I was always pursuing the bigger job. I left most of the family responsibilities to my wife."
His son's illness flipped a switch in his brain that completely overturned his value system. At that moment, Blodgett resolved to spend more time with his family, less with his job. It meant turning down promotions, accepting smaller paychecks, and leaving the corporate world for a more flexible freelance life. He ultimately moved his family to be closer to relatives but believes the change was worth it. "We have a nice life now," he reports. "I may not have the fanciest car or best vacations, but I have a great relationship with my kids. They're teenagers now and we can talk about anything."
Researchers have simulated the experience of epiphany in the lab by presenting subjects with a difficult problem to solve and, using neuroimaging techniques, watching what happens in the brain. Seconds before they become aware of a solution, participants reduce visual activity, turn off all unrelated thinking, and appear to focus all attention inward. Then, Eureka! People experience an acute awareness about something to which they'd previously been blind.
William Miller, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of New Mexico, classifies such experiences as quantum change—when a sudden realization leads to an immediate behavioral reorganization. They exist in sharp contrast to the slow, incremental modifications we make in response to education or wisdom gained over time.
Epiphanies can occur at rock-bottom times—a breakup, deep addiction, the death of a parent, the loss of a job—or strike out of the blue. You don't need big lows to have big highs. "About half the people we studied were at very low, desperate places in their lives," reports Miller, who kicked off his research by placing a newspaper ad asking people for epiphany stories. "They got to the end of their rope and then the rope snapped. In that moment, this experience occurred." The other half had an epiphany while doing nothing more than walking across their living room.
Just as some epiphanies lead us out of miserable situations, others allow us to see beyond behavioral limits we have set for ourselves and show us that we're capable of something we didn't think possible. We can learn to use technology; we can train for a triathlon; we can make new friends after age 40. Based on our sudden insight, we start to act in totally new ways—although with some peak experiences, the change is strictly internal and subtle, but no less memorable.
Betty Themsky was traveling with a friend in Morocco when she jumped off a train at their intended stop only to see the train pull away before her friend could disembark. Terrified, she broke down in tears. "I'd always been timid," she reports. "As a child I was too afraid to even walk home from my girlfriend's house two doors away. Here I was, alone in a foreign country where I didn't even speak the language!"
With the help of station employees and some rudimentary sign language, she decided to head to her hotel. "After I calmed down, it dawned on me that I could figure it out. It broke the spell that said I had to be fearful and helpless. I realized I could rely on myself to cope with extreme situations." Her friend eventually caught up with her. Three months later, Themsky was off on her first solo international trip. "I actually prefer it!" she says.
Some peak experiences last more than moments—weeks or even months, times when people are intensely working toward a clear goal. They might be training for a marathon, earning a graduate degree, or fashioning a new identity after divorce. What distinguishes these times is a sustained period of vital engagement. "It's a special form of flow," explains Jeanne Nakamura, codirector of the Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont Graduate University.
Flow describes those experiences of deep engagement when our attention is fully centered on the activity at hand and we feel that each action follows seamlessly from the one before. You're free of inner cross talk and interfering thoughts. And you're not dwelling on the outcome. What distinguishes vital engagement from flow is the addition of a connection to something outside the moment. Says Nakamura: "Engagement involves an absorbing and meaningful relationship between the self and the world. It usually includes periods of flow, but there may also be moments of boredom or even discomfort."
But even discomfort has value when there's meaning attached to it. Wilmeod Sissoon was a 37-year-old wife and stay-at-home mother of two when she decided to bike cross-country to raise money for the National Lung Association. She wasn't very physical and didn't even own a bike. "It just resonated with me as something I wanted to do." She trained informally for a year and raised nearly $7,000 before setting off on two wheels from Seattle toward Washington, D.C.
The very first day provided a horrendously rude awakening. That night Sissoon called her husband crying, wanting to quit. He talked her into sticking with it, and things got better as she developed a group of friends among the 750 riders. One day, as they were passing through Montana, her clique broke off from the pack to check out a celebration on a nearby Crow Indian reservation. They became honored guests at the inauguration of a new chief, ate roasted buffalo, and stayed overnight in teepees, instead of finishing the day's mileage.
"That was a pivotal moment for me," Sissoon says. "Here were people living a life totally alien to mine but immediately welcoming to us. They didn't care who we were or that we'd be leaving soon." The Crow way of life made a lasting impression. "They're totally accepting, and they value the now," she observes. "They don't think about past problems."
She took the lessons with her as she cycled on, and they helped her savor the ups and downs of the rest of the ride, and of life beyond. "I try to be very present, and I now accept that I don't have to do things perfectly, although I'm a perfectionist by nature. Twelve years later, that ride is still one of the most amazing times in my life."
For all the change that peak experiences can trigger, sometimes they shift nothing more than time itself. There are moments when the forces of man and nature align perfectly, and our job is simply to appreciate. Time can seem to stand still.
"I took an ungodly early sunrise kayaking trip," reports Ohioan Amy Weirick. "It was 6 a.m., freezing cold, gray, and drizzly. We got onto the water in pea-soup fog. The sun started to sparkle through the trees and the fog started swirling in these eerie twists of mist. As the fog lifted, we all gasped collectively." The lake was ringed by a dazzling show of fall foliage doubly magnificent as it was reflected in the water. "It was nothing short of magical. I think back to that moment almost daily."
Weddings, the births of children, graduations, major career achievements like making partner or winning a respected industry prize can figure into peak experiences. "Often, our most memorable moments are those that match our hopes and dreams,"reports Shane Lopez, senior scientist at the Gallup organization and director of its annual Well-Being Forum. That's because anticipation plays a crucial role.
Planning ahead for life's big moments prods us to find ways to enhance them."We think about what we can do to contour the experience to make it better for ourselves and others," says Lopez. Anticipation can also strengthen social ties—as when fiances plan their wedding. What's more, anticipation encourages creation of a narrative about the experience, which helps solidify the good memories for a lifetime.
When Susan Tordella decided to put on a production of The Vagina Monologues in her hometown of Ayer, Massachusetts, to raise money to stop violence against women, she spent months in a state of frenzied planning and escalating anticipation.
On the night of the show, says Tordella, "every cell in my body tingled. Even though I was completely exhausted, I didn't want it to end. It impacted so many people on so many levels, myself included."
It also changed her opinion of herself. "I'd been a housewife for 17 years, but after the show I saw myself as a leader and as someone who could make a difference in the world." The production raised $13,000 for her cause, and her success gave her the confidence to take on other challenges.
Altruism may be a natural path to peak experiences. "People's lives feel empty when they don't feel like they're helpful to others," explains Kottler. We're herd animals, meant to work in close cooperation with one another. Our brains respond with a shot of energy and a wave of euphoria. Researchers have found that pleasure centers of the brain are activated when people think about giving.
One altruistic act can quickly rise toward peak territory. Kottler cites his research trip to Nepal, where girls were being sold into sex slavery. One girl was endangered because her parents could not afford her school fees—"the most horrifying thing I'd ever heard," Kottler says—and was spared that bleak future when Kottler paid her $50 tuition. He went on to found an organization that helps young girls in Nepal avoid sex slavery—which he counts among his most significant accomplishments—and regularly travels back to the country with new team members. "Years later, we'll talk about the trips, which include some cool stuff, like trekking in the Himalayas. But what people remember most is being touched by the girls and their families. When people give to others, they really feel some sort of transformation."
Better Than Before
In many of life's most memorable moments, we evolve into someone different from—better than—the person we were before. "A lot of peak experiences involve a feeling of spiritual transcendence, not necessarily in a religious way, but where you feel transported beyond yourself as a human being," says Kottler.
Freedom is a common theme among those who have peak experiences. People throw off the restraints (often only mental ones) that have kept them from doing things that are in line with their authentic selves. "You stop worrying about impressing others and move towards things that are inherently interesting to you," says Ryan Howell, a psychology professor at San Francisco State University.
Many of William Miller's subjects found that their quantum change ended up altering everything about their lives. "Their values turned upside down. Things that were high priority before were now low priority." Subjects typically changed careers and began volunteering but it was much different than,'I ought to go help the poor,'" he says. "Their sense of who they were and what their place was in the universe had fundamentally shifted." Adds Kottler: "A peak experience can open up options that people didn't know they had."
By definition, peak experiences can not be sustained. But in the return to quotidian life, the loss of vividness can be disappointing. When Wilmeod Sissoon returned home after her cross-country bike ride, she fell into a long funk. "I'd done this fabulous thing. Now what?" she recalls. "I found it difficult to handle the daily responsibilities of grocery shopping and taking care of the kids." She saw a therapist for depression and watched a few of her fellow riders get divorced.
"Peak experiences are like punctuation marks," says Kottler. "They can be exhausting and overwhelming; you can handle one only every so often. You pay for them spiritually, emotionally, and sometimes financially. You need recovery and reflection time afterwards so you can create meaning from the experience." The person who rushes from one mountaintop to the next without processing each experience, just to say they've scaled them all, will likely remember only a blur of snow.
In the end, peak experiences contribute to short- and long-term well-being. "They become part of your positive memory capital," explains Howell. "You can go to them anytime, reflect on them, and increase your happiness."
Some extraordinary moments happen spontaneously, but others can be encouraged by our own decisions and behavior. If your life seems to be passing in a dull blur, say the experts, try these tips for setting up the highlights of life.
"The best way to not only create peak experiences but keep them rolling in like waves, one after another, is to be part of a larger community that is making the world a better place," says Jeffrey Kottler. Where to begin? "It really doesn't matter," he says. "Just save one person or join one cause, and let it grow from there. The passion can follow the action."
"Periods of struggle to overcome challenges are what people find the most enjoyable times in their lives," declares Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, director of the Quality of Life Center at the University of Chicago, in his seminal work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He advises setting a tough goal and starting on the steps that will lead to success.
The challenge can be physical, mental, or a combination, like learning to play the guitar, reading the complete works of Proust, or running a marathon.
"Experiences make people happier in the short- and long-term," says Ryan Howell. Vacations really stick with us. "People say, 'Thank God I went on that vacation of a lifetime.' You don't hear that about buying an expensive car." Take a weekend trip with a loved one.
"If you want to cultivate more memorable experiences, you have to have a love affair with the future," says Gallup's Shane Lopez. "Painting a colorful picture will provide energy to move forward."
There are ways to hold on to the highs of peak experiences, or at least avoid the inevitable letdown.
The best way to cement memorable moments is to take time between them, allowing them to fully penetrate the psyche.
It's helpful to tell lots of stories about them afterward. "Storytelling helps us connect to one another, and creates a web of people who share the memory," says Shane Lopez. Healthy couples do this naturally, capitalizing on positive events their partner has by asking meaningful questions about it and mirroring their excitement. "It helps stretch the event and gives you a well-being payoff when you come back to those stories in the future."
Photographs taken and journals kept can be resources to return to when harsher realities intrude.
Defining the end of an experience can actually strengthen the memory of the whole thing. Susan Tordella, who produced "The Vagina Monologues," held a party for cast and crew a week after the production ended."That helped let us down gently."
Examining the meaning of the experience keeps it vivid. Wilmeod Sissoon's struggle upon returning home ultimately led to a real acceptance of herself. "I realized I don't have to try to be something I'm not." And an avid biker is something she's not—she dusts off her two-wheeler once a year to make sure she can still stay upright. She says she would still have done the ride even if she'd known about the post-event letdown. "I didn't even remember the depression until my husband reminded me," she says. "But I remember every detail of the ride."