BY BEN THOMAS | Original illustration for Ember by Jam Dong
At certain rarefied moments, the whole world seems to light up with magic. Everything feels alive; connected; absolutely perfect. Maybe you’ve experienced this feeling at the peak of a mountain hike, or watching the sun rise over a silent desert. Maybe you’ve felt it while listening to a transcendent piece of music, or gazing into the eyes of a person you love.
Peak experiences like these can become addictive memories to chase. Many of us find ourselves trying to recreate them throughout our lives, only to find we rarely re-experience them the way we remember, even when we painstakingly recreate the original scene down to the smallest details. Instead, life’s most magical moments sneak up and sweep us off our feet when we’re least looking for them—only to vanish as mysteriously as they came.
What makes peak experiences so vitally important? Why are they so hard to recreate? Is there any “recipe” for bringing them on? Psychology offers some intriguing clues—which provide surprising insights into the reasons we chase these moments in the first place.
Although it’s easy to explain why we love peak experiences, their evolutionary purpose is trickier to pin down. Unlike most things we instinctually seek out (like food, sex, and shelter), peak experiences don’t fulfill our immediate physical needs, or protect us from danger or injury, or improve our genes’ chances of survival. In the words of psychologist Abraham Maslow, peak experiences “earn no money, bake no bread, and chop no wood.”
Yet Maslow himself placed peak experiences at the top level of his famous hierarchy (or pyramid) of needs. What we crave beyond all else, Maslow argued—more than personal safety, financial security, social recognition, or even romantic love—is the feeling that we’re experiencing our full potential as individuals.
In other words, even after we’ve satisfied our needs for security and acceptance, we still continue to seek out higher levels of psychological fulfillment. Peak experiences play crucial roles in that ongoing process of self-actualization, by enriching our lives with an expanded sense of awareness and growth.
What we crave beyond all else, Maslow argued, is the feeling that we’re experiencing our full potential as individuals.
Psychologist Gayle Privette has expanded on this concept by identifying three key characteristics of peak experiences: fulfillment, significance, and connectedness. People often report these feelings during flow states: when performing as an athlete, making or appreciating art, meditating or praying, and especially while spending time in nature—in other words, at precisely the moments when our minds, bodies, and senses are engaged at their fullest.
But if peak experiences are so crucial to the process of self-actualization, then why are they so hard to come by—and even harder to recreate based on our memories?
In his 2018 essay “Peak Experiences, Perfect Moments and the Extra-Ordinary,” CNN columnist David Allan recounts a revelation he experienced at a Zen Buddhist retreat. Gasping his way through a fast-paced morning hike, Allan happened to glimpse a fawn feeding in the undergrowth. Then he glanced at the head of the man hiking in front of him—and was awestruck by a sudden realization: “Everything is equally beautiful. This man. The deer. The mountain. Me. All of it. We are all the same, and it’s all beautiful and good.”
Allan has spent much of his adult life pondering this peak experience; seeking to understand how and why it happened, and whether it might be possible to recreate it. One clue came from a 1978 study in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, which noted that people who have a lot of peak experiences tend to “say their lives are very meaningful, that they think about the meaning and purpose of life.” So Allan began to keep a notebook of his own peak experiences—and found that the more he took time to notice them, the more they seemed to occur.
Along the way, however, Allan had an even more profound realization: peak experiences, by their nature, can’t be created (or recreated) deliberately; only noticed when they’re happening. Their key ingredients, in fact, are awareness and openness—in particular, a willingness to be surprised by what Maslow called “the sacred in the ordinary.”
In other words, instead of trying to recreate past peak experiences, we can get much better results by opening ourselves to new ones. So how do we cultivate that openness?
Most of us can relate to the feeling of looking back on a happy childhood moment, wondering why we didn’t appreciate the magical world we enjoyed as kids. Today, those moments might be tinted with nostalgia—but at the time, it was just life; the only life we knew.
Is there any way to get back to that childhood sense of wonder? Silence, simplicity, and solitude go a long way, says psychologist Karin Arndt. When Arndt’s patients spend a few quiet days in nature, she says, they discover “a greater ability to be present to the world around them and experience it as more fully alive and participative.” As people reconnect with the natural world, Arndt says, “[it] appears [to them] in a richer and increasingly enchanted light.”
Even if it’s not practical to trek out to the deep woods, you can still reawaken your sense of wonder by cultivating this same mindset at home. For example, try scheduling a session of intentional silence every day. Put your phone in airplane mode, turn off all screens, and spend 15 to 30 minutes without saying (or typing) a single word.
Whether you decide to meditate, stroll around the block, or just stare at the ceiling, research shows that intentional silence sessions can quiet mental chatter, reduce levels of stress hormones, and enhance the formation of meaningful memories—helping bring your world back to life.
Research shows that intentional silence sessions can quiet mental chatter, reduce levels of stress hormones, and enhance the formation of meaningful memories.
Practicing simplicity can also put you in closer touch with the world around you. Research has found that multitasking, for example, is a massive source of stress—and that you’ll enjoy your work much more if you make a to-do list and complete one task at a time. Once the day’s work is finished, give yourself permission to do less with your free time. Instead of toggling between social apps, try spending the evening with a book, a playlist, a hot bath—and nothing else whatsoever.
Or, next time you feel like stress-shopping, try doing the opposite: give away possessions you don’t use very often. Speaking from personal experience, I’ve found this practice creates a joyous feeling of lightness, and a sense of connection with other people.
Spending time with yourself
Intentional solitude, meanwhile, can bring you back into closer touch with yourself. While solitude might seem tricky to cultivate at home (especially if you live with other people!) it’s easier than you might expect. For example, next time you find yourself home alone, set aside a half-hour to spend with yourself: breathe deep, relish the peace and quiet, and write out whatever’s on your mind—longhand, using pen and paper, which will help you process your thoughts more fully than typing on a keyboard.
Even your daily errands can provide enchanted little moments, when you know where to look. Make a detour to spend a few minutes in a park—or a parking lot; anyplace with trees, birds, and a clear view of the sky. Sit on a bench, or in your car with the windows down, and let your mind tune into the rhythms around you. Listen to the birdsong. Savor the sunlight. Watch the leaves rustle in the breeze. These moments of mindful solitude can calm your thoughts, boost your mood, and even—somewhat paradoxically—help you feel less lonely.
So maybe peak experiences do offer survival value after all. These moments of enchantment put us into closer touch with the world we live in, with the people we care about, and with the creative spark we each carry within us. As conservationist Rachel Carson wrote, “Those who dwell… among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.”
Or, to put it in Maslow’s own words, “A single glimpse of heaven is enough to confirm its existence—even if it is never experienced again.”
Ben Thomas is a journalist and novelist who's lived in 40+ countries. He specializes in telling stories from the frontiers of science, history, culture, and the cosmos—and the points where all these fields intersect. Find him on Twitter at @writingben.