In Abraham Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs, self-actualization is located at the very top of the pyramid, representing the need to fulfill one's individual potential. According to Maslow, peak experiences play an important role in self-actualization.
Self-actualization is actually considered quite rare, which means that peak experiences can be equally elusive. Not all people reach the peak of Maslow's pyramid. In one study, researchers found that only about two-percent of individuals surveyed had ever had a peak experience.
Peak experiences are not restricted solely to self-actualized individuals, however. Maslow believed that all people are capable of having these moments, but he also felt that self-actualized people were likely to experience them more often.
Peak Experience Defined
Peak experiences are often described as transcendent moments of pure joy and elation. These are moments that stand out from everyday events. The memory of such events is lasting and people often liken them to a spiritual experience.
Other experts describe peak experiences in the following ways:
- "Peak experiences involve a heightened sense of wonder, awe, or ecstasy over an experience."
(Privette, "Defining moments of self-actualization: Peak performance and peak experience," 2001)
- "...a highly valued experience which 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."
(Leach, "Meaning and Correlates of Peak Experience," 1962)
The Characteristics of Peak Experiences
Privette (2001) developed an Experience Questionnaire designed to look at both the shared and unique characteristics of peak experiences. After looking at a wide variety of people, peak experiences have been identified as sharing three key characteristics:
- Significance: Peak experiences lead to an increase in personal awareness and understanding and can serve as a turning point in a person's life.
- Fulfillment: Peak experiences generate positive emotions and are intrinsically rewarding.
- Spiritual: During a peak experience, people feel at one with the world and often experience a sense of losing track of time.
When Do Peak Experiences Occur?
- "Think of the most wonderful experience of your life: the happiest moments, ecstatic moments, moments of rapture, perhaps from being in love, or from listening to music or suddenly 'being hit' by a book or painting, or from some creative moment."
(Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being, 1962)
- "Most of the peak experiences had occurred during athletic, artistic, religious, or nature experiences, or during intimate moments with a friend or family member. There were a number of peak experiences in which the students achieved an important personal goal or collective goal. There were also peak experiences in which the students overcame some adversity or danger or helped someone in need."
(Polyson, Teaching of Psychology, 1985)
What Does a Peak Experience Feel Like?
- "The tremendous sense of emotional elation you might feel when falling in love is a form of peak experience. Another example might be the sense of amazement you feel as a basketball player engages in a tremendous personal effort during the entire game to bring her teammates within three points of a last-minute victory over a highly favored opponent."
(Carducci, The Psychology of Personality: Viewpoints, Research, and Applications, 2009)
Peak Experiences and Flow
Peak experiences bear numerous similarities to the concept known as flow described by positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is a state of mind during which people become so involved in an activity that the world seems to fade away and nothing else seems to matter. When in a state of flow, times seems to fly by, focus becomes sharp, and people experience a loss of self-consciousness.
Flow can happen when a person is having a peak experiences, but obviously not all instances of flow qualify as peak experiences. Everyday moments such as becoming engrossed in a thrilling book, working on a satisfying project, or enjoying an afternoon game of basketball can all lead to a flow state, but these moments are not necessarily peak experiences.
Leach, D. (1962). Meaning and correlates of peak experience. Doctoral dissertation, University of Florida.
Maslow, A. H. (1962). Toward a psychology of being. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand.
Polyson, J. (1985). Students' peak experiences: A written exercise. Teaching of Psychology, 12, 211-213.
Privette, G. (2001). Defining moments of self-actualization: Peak performance and peak experience, in K. J. Schneider, J. F. T. Bugental, and J. F. Pierson (Eds.). The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology, 161-180.
Thomas, L. E., & Cooper, P. E. (1980). Incidence and psychological correlates of intense spiritual experiences. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 12, 75-85.