Here’s a truth that we’ll agree on: We are happier when we are doing things that inspire and uplift us.
And yet—let’s be honest—how often do we find ourselves doing the opposite? Why is this and can we do anything about it?
In this five-part series, we’ll answer these questions using the adventure-driven life as our lens.
Here in part one, we’ll kick the discussion off by exploring the relationship between adventure and peak experiences.
In part two, we'll drill deeper into the very real but often under-appreciated relationship between adventure and well-being (what I call The Wheel House of Well-being).
In part three, four, and five, we’ll focus on three peak experience triggers—awe, flow, and connection—and we'll lay out some actionable ways to invite all three triggers into our daily lives.
. . . And one more thing: Don’t worry if you’re the kind of person who pumps the brakes anytime you hear squishy terms like “peak experience" or “flow.” Just relax and keep reading. I’m not about to sell you on some touchy-feely woo-woo nonsense. The ideas we’re going to explore here are practical, time-tested, science-based, and, most importantly, damn fun. Interested? Read on!
What Are Peak Experiences?
A peak experience is a powerful, uplifting moment or activity characterized by heightened awareness, depth of feeling, and profound significance. It’s an experience that can arise in many forms, but the basic idea is this: It is an experience where we are at our best and feeling truly alive.
"A peak experience is a powerful, uplifting moment or activity characterized by heightened awareness, depth of feeling, and profound significance."
The term "peak experience" was popularized in the 1940s by the psychologist Abraham Maslow who believed that peak experiences are an essential component in self-actualization (which is just psychology-speak for "achieving your fullest potential").
Did Maslow link adventure to peak experiences? Not explicitly, but he opened the door to this conversation in three significant ways:
First, Maslow found that well-adjusted, happy people all report a significantly higher incidence of "peak experiences." The experiences varied dramatically but the common denominator was always the same: A sudden moment of intense happiness and well-being. So that's number one: Happiness and peak experiences go hand in hand.
Second, Maslow realized early on that peak experiences are unpredictable, like a lightning strike, and can't be conjured, but (and this is crucial) he consistently found that nature and physical activity were two of the most common triggers. So that's number two: You can't really plan peak experiences, but you can set the table in a way that invites their potential arrival. How? By getting outside, being active, and fully engaging in life.
"You can't really plan peak experiences, but you can set the table in a way that invites their potential arrival. How? By getting outside, being active, and fully engaging in life."
Third, and maybe most importantly, Maslow found that you don't need any special skills or mystical abilities to have a peak experience. The more Maslow studied peak experiences, the more evidence he found that they could just as easily happen in your backyard as in, say, a Himalayan monastery. So that's number three: Whirling dervish and Tibetan monks might be famous for their transcendent moments, but that doesn't mean we can't have them too.
"Whirling dervish and Tibetan monks might be famous for their transcendent moments, but that doesn't mean we can't have them too."
Adventure-Inspired Peak Experiences
An adventure-inspired peak experience, as the name suggests, is a peak experience that is triggered by outdoor recreation, wilderness, or adventure (often all three simultaneously). It might be a profound sense of accomplishment. It might be a moment when mind, muscle, and movement come together in quiet perfection. It might simply be a feeling of deep satisfaction stirred by a scenic view. Of course, it can be all of the above too.
The variations are endless and examples (like a skier dialing in a perfect line or Alex Honnold free-climbing El Cap) are abundantly available. But keep in mind that peak experiences occur at all levels of achievement and skill, not just at the most elevated. This is crucial because it means that peak experiences are available to everyone. The novice skier enjoying his first successful turns, a young girl catching her first fish, and a meteor shower viewed from a lawn chair in your backyard all have equal potential as powerful peak experiences if the circumstances are right.
". . . peak experiences occur at all levels of achievement and skill, not just at the most elevated. This is crucial because it means that peak experiences are available to everyone."
The 4 Signatures of a Peak Experience
At this point, we've discussed what peak experiences are (powerful, uplifting moments); we've pointed out something all outdoor enthusiasts intuitively know (peak experiences feel good, make life better, and often happen in the outdoors); we've emphasized the idea that anyone (from extreme athletes to everyday Joes) can have peak experiences; and we've started a discussion about how outdoor recreation creates a particularly inviting environment for peak experiences to arise.
This sets the stage for a seemingly simple but massively important question: What is it about experiences like watching a meteor shower or hiking under a full moon that effects us differently from, say, watching a movie or browsing on the web? Or to frame the question another way: Why do outdoor experiences cultivate such fertile ground for peak experiences to arise?
This is not a new question, not by a long stretch, which means that the concepts that we're about to dip into are being drawn from a deep well of ancient knowledge. There's science here too, plenty of it, but the science merely confirms what the monks, poets, and philosophers have been telling us for centuries: Nature is good for us.
Why this is true can't be fully explained in a short essay like this one, but one of the best explanations has to do with four signature qualities of a peak experience—significance, focus, transcendence, and fulfillment—and how outdoor recreation encourages these qualities.
Peak experiences are always characterized by at least one of these four qualities. Outdoor activities offer a powerful way to invite all four of these qualities simultaneously, which is, in a nutshell, the point I'm trying to hammer home here.
If we want to live a life that feels meaningful, if we want to feel energized, if we want to escape the hum-drum of the everyday, one of the most reliable ways is to get outside and to be active. Plain and simple.
Unlike everyday experiences, outdoor recreation invites sudden and profound moments of perspective and self-awareness—in other words, the potential that we might experience significance is increased.
In contrast to our usual distracted “monkey minds,” in the outdoors our thinking is often characterized by mindfulness, calm, and absorption—in other words, the potential that we might find a moment of focus is increased.
Daily life can often feel unrewarding, but outdoor activities tend to feel deeply gratifying—in other words, the potential that we might enjoy a taste of fulfillment is increased.
And finally, in a modern world that is often characterized by the profane and the ordinary, outdoor experiences invite a counterbalance of inspirations and wonder—in other words, the potential that we might have a glimpse of the transcendent is increased.
The formula isn't that complicated when you break down as we just did. Spend time doing things that invite significance, focus, transcendence, and fulfillment and you're going to bump into a few incredible experiences—moments that will change you, uplift you, and make you feel truly alive.
Six Peak Experience Quotes
To have any rational conversation about well-being, we need to bring more than just doctors and scientists to the table. We need big wave surfers, rock climbers, fly fishermen, grandmas who longboard, grandpas who cannonball into pools, kids who climb trees and parents who let them. That's the right crowd if you want proven answers.
It's true that there is no perfect recipe for activating peak experiences. We can’t put them on a grocery list and go shopping for them. But if we are intentional, we can create fertile soil for peak experiences to bloom. In other words, they are a side-effect of a life well-lived.
The bottom line: Peak Experiences are not always a matter of grace, luck, or happenstance. Peak experiences can be nurtured and invited if we are purposeful.
"The bottom line: Peak Experiences are not always a matter of grace, luck, or happenstance. Peak experiences can be nurtured and invited if we are purposeful."
So go outside more often. Travel. Take your running shoes for a spin. Follow your dog and see where she takes you. Wake up early to watch the sunrise. You don't need to overdo it, but you do need to do something, preferably outdoors.
The point here cannot be overstated: Adventure is the air that a well-lived life breathes.