What Is a 'Peak Experience'?

Peak experiences often involve nature, but they can happen in any setting. (Photo: NeogoneFo/Shutterstock)

Have you ever had a peak experience? Probably not. According to research, only about 2 percent of people have had this sought-after phenomenon.

A peak experience is a memorable moment of joy that isn't simply about the high of happiness — there's also a feeling of transcendence or spiritual connection associated with it, too. These experiences can serve as a turning point in your life, or just a reminder of what's important when you're bogged down by the day-to-day.

It's one of those superlative moments that begs for exploration, and here's how a few researchers and psychologists have described it:

Gayle Privette, who authored a chapter on the experience in "The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology: Leading Edges in Theory, Research, and Practice," explains it this way: "Peak experience is intense joy or ecstasy that stands out perceptually and cognitively among other experiences."

A peak experience is "... characterized by such intensity of perception, depth of feeling, or sense of profound significance as to cause it to stand out, in the subject's mind, in more or less permanent contrast to the experiences that surround it in time and space," wrote Dorothy Leach in 1962.

No, this isn't a new idea

Abraham Maslow — the American psychologist who came up with the idea of the hierarchy of needs — called them "magic moments" and described the experience as an "oceanic" feeling. In the video above, Maslow says peak experiences come from many triggers or sources: from "the love experience, or the being on top of the mountain, or being taken over by music."

But he argues that they are much more common than the 2 percent figure I cited at the top of the article. Maslow says: "I had to strip it of its historically religious, specifically religious meaning. Peak experiences came from many triggers." Maslow thinks they are more common and occur "widely among the population" — especially among those who are psychologically healthy.

One of my own peak experiences came at age 15, when I climbed the Continental Divide with a giant pack on my back. It took our group a full day, plus another half day to reach the top of the mountain pass in Montana. As I rested at the well-earned summit, and gazed across the purple mountains (I had always thought that was just a poetic line, but they really are), I was simultaneously incredibly proud of myself for the climb, awed at this incredible planet's beauty, and grateful for everything in my life that had brought me to that point. I was brought to tears, both uplifted and humbled at the same time. It is by far the most "spiritual" feeling I've had in my life. As an avowed atheist since age 11, that's a difficult word for me to use, but it's the only one that fits.

In "The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impacts," authors Chip and Dan Heath write that there are four elements that contribute to these memorable positive moments. Can you create them? Maybe — you can certainly cultivate the conditions that make such an experience more likely to happen. A creative or artistic endeavor, especially one in which you experience flow, is a common time to reach peak experience. Athletic events, religious experiences, and achieving a certain goal are other times people have reached their own peaks.

Ingredients of a peak experience

Whether you want to seek one out, or know it when it happens to you, the following are the elements that come together to create a peak experience, which the Heaths say is key to a truly happy life.

Elevation: When you rise above what you would normally experience or look at life and can see it as extraordinary.

Insight: We see the world, our relationships, and ourselves in a new and powerful way that changes our perceptions going forward.

Pride: Achieving a long-held goal, surprising yourself with your resilience, courage, or strength — pride in ourselves is a moment when we are able to see the best of ourselves.

Connection: We feel connected to other human beings (which could include close family or friends, but could also include connections to animals, a place, or planet Earth).

Peak experiences tend to be spontaneous — but slowing down, paying attention, endeavoring to truly connect with others or our natural world, working toward and achieving goals — these can all come together to create one. And even if they don't, they're still worthwhile ways to spend your time.