In the 1940s, the psychologist Abraham Maslow coined the term "peak experience." Maslow believed that peak experiences are an essential component in happiness.
Maslow's work offers yet another reason for all of us to be more adventurous, particularly in the outdoors. Why? Because outdoor recreation and wild spaces significantly increase our chances of experiencing Maslow's "peaks"—those moments of aliveness that fill us with joy and give our lives meaning.
PEAK EXPERIENCES & HAPPINESS
What exactly is a peak experience? The basic idea is this: It's a powerful, uplifting experience in which we are at our best and feeling truly alive.
To be clear, peak experiences are not simply happy moments. In contrast to the positive experience that we might experience during our everyday life, peak experience are characterized by amplified awareness and profound significance. In Maslow's words, they have a depth that is "oceanic."
In his studies, Maslow found that well-adjusted, happy people reported significantly higher incidences of peak experiences. This in turn invited a follow up question: Can peak experiences be intentionally conjured?
Maslow realized early on that peak experiences are unpredictable, like a lightning strike. But he also consistently found that certain places and activities (like nature and outdoor recreation) often trigger peak experiences. In other words, you can't plan peak experiences, not entirely, but you can set the table in a way that invites their potential arrival.
"You can't plan peak experiences, not entirely, but you can set the table in a way that invites their potential arrival."
More 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 a backyard as in a Himalayan monastery. Whirling dervishes and Tibetan monks might be famous for their transcendent moments, but the rest of us can have them too.
"Whirling dervish and Tibetan monks might be famous for their transcendent moments, but the rest of us can have them too."
ADVENTUROUS PEAKS & WILD EXPERIENCES
Maslow's "peak" moments come in many forms. 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 also be all of the above.
Examples are abundantly available, but as we've pointed out already, it's important to remember that peak experiences occur at all levels of achievement and skill, not just at the most elevated. In other words, peak experiences are available to everyone, not just free-climbers on El Cap. The novice skier enjoying his first successful turns, a young girl catching her first fish, and a meteor shower viewed from a lawn chair 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."
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 outdoor experiences that cultivates such fertile ground for peak experiences?
This is a broad question and not a new one, but Maslow's work provides a thought provoking starting point: According to Maslow's research, all peak experience have four signature qualities—significance, focus, transcendence, and fulfillment.
Consider each of these qualities through the lens of outdoor recreation and the connection between peak experiences and the outdoors becomes more clear:
- Significance: 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.
- Focus: 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.
- Fulfillment: 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.
- Transcendence: 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 it 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.
One final thought. 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 an adventurous and well-lived life.
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.
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.