Submitted by Lia Naor, PhD Candidate at the Department for Counseling and Human Development, University of Haifa, for the Positive Living Newsletter (September 2016). Read the rest of the newsletter here.
On a daily basis, human beings have a large array of experiences; some may be transformational while others will not leave any long lasting impression. This article will examine what transformative experiences entail, based on empirical evidence from our research on peak experiences, in contrast to short-lived rewarding experiences (e.g. flow). The presented research findings reveal key constructs of the transformative experience that will be discussed in relation to personal growth and actualization.
A swift personal profound experience I had in the Colorado desert ten years ago could have passed as an enjoyable but short-lived experience but, for reasons that I understand only now, was for me a transformational peak experience. This one-time swift experience instigated my personal actualization and incited my professional and academic path, leading to my current work and research on positive transformation. Our research focuses on peak transformative experiences, specifically as occurring in nature, going beyond common description and outcome of the peak experience to reveal the meaning and process of personal transformation.
American psychologist and philosopher Abraham H. Maslow (1908-1970) coined the term “peak experience” to describe a sudden moment of intense happiness and well-being. These moments are described as self-validating and self-justifying, with their own intrinsic value. Interestingly, Maslow found a considerable overlap between the descriptions of peak experiences and the characteristics of individuals who appear to be more psychologically healthy, integrated, and alive, hence implying a relationship between self-actualization and peak experience (Maslow, 1969).
In contrast to peak experiences, flow experiences are enjoyable but short-lived. Csikszentmihalyi (1991) coined the term “flow” to describe the state in which people are so intensely involved in an activity (matching their level of skill with a commensurate level of difficulty) that nothing else seems to matter. The experience itself is described as so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, just for the sheer sake of doing it (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991, 1997; Ellis, Voelkl, & Morris, 1994; Ghani & Deshpande, 1994).
Research concerning the experience of flow has by and large refrained from asking questions about the meaning and implications of the experience to one’s personal potential. Addressing the human motivation for living a fulfilling meaningful life calls for going beyond flow as a goal-oriented activity and potentiating the experience by giving it meaning. This can be done by raising meaningful personal questions regarding the experience that become transformed into conscious choices to dig and stretch, to discover and find answers about the self, reality, and meaning. In so doing, a flow experience can generate meaningful opportunities for understanding and developing human potential.
This notion is strengthened by the empirical evidence emerging from our phenomenological study on peak transformative experiences, specifically as occurring in nature. In-depth interviews were conducted with 15 participants aged 28-70 years (5 men and 10 women) who identified as having had a peak transformative experience in nature. In the majority of cases, the participants relayed experiences that could have been perceived as short-lived and even insignificant. Phenomenological analysis—taking the inner world of the participant as the central focus—revealed the importance of personal meaning and insight as key concepts attributed to the conception of these experiences as transformational. Choosing to implement the personal meaning attached to the experience in life led to the transformational outcome.
For example, Sarah (age 45) described herself as a people pleaser, never knowing who she really was or what she wanted until her peak experience while hiking with a group in the desert. Hiking up a mountain, Sarah recalls viewing a tree at the summit and telling the group she was going to get to it. At that moment, she turned around and saw the most profound view, feeling awe, contentment, and “one” with her surrounding, which connected her to herself. This led to the insight that she knew what she truly wanted, and thus did not really need or even want to go any further up the mountain. Experiencing the moment and deciding not to climb further despite the group’s expectation was described by Sarah as a transformational experience that led to many profound changes in her daily life.
These peak experiences involved the recognition of formerly unknown aspects of self, projected onto nature and experienced through the immersion in nature that evoked an insight regarding a meaningful personal issue. The newly acknowledged aspects of self contributed to the resolution of a lifetime and enabled them to address their most disabling issue. The participants’ choice to own these formerly unknown aspects and integrate them resulted in rapid personal transformation.
These findings enable us to describe peak experiences in new terms. In contrast of common notions of peak experiences as superior and separate from daily life, in this study the peak experience was revealed to be a living experience, inseparable from the participant and his or her life story, containing profound personal meaning. Our research showed that, although many of these experiences were challenging and difficult, they registered as profoundly positive and transformational in light of the insightful personal meaning attached to them.
We believe that the ingredients for a meaningful transforming experience are innate in every flow experience. It is in these moments of total absorption, disoriented in time and space, accompanied by a loss of doubts and inhibitions (as characteristic of both peak and flow experiences) that one has the opportunity to know oneself and the world in new and expansive ways, leading to what may become a peak experience when pollinated by personal meaning and insight.
Potentiating the experience by giving it meaning requires accessible supportive anchors and resources in mainstream psychology which are currently almost nonexistent (S. V. Brown, 2000). Positive psychology has pioneered research efforts to transcend the traditional axioms of thought and action in psychology and is once again being asked to take a step further toward ultimate health and well-being. This can be attained by acknowledging the rich, largely untapped resource in profound experiences, holding valuable clinical data concerning individuals’ potential at its highest (S. R. Brown, 2006; Palmer & Braud, 2002; Thorne, 1963).
Lia Naor is a PhD student in the Department for Counseling and Human Development at the University of Haifa, Israel, researching personal positive transformation, particularly in nature. Lia holds a BA in social work and an MA in drama therapy. She teaches nature therapy, lectures on related topics and has a private practice working with hundreds of clients and groups seeking change. Transformative effects among her clients have propelled her to deepen her knowledge of positive transformation through “Ways of Knowing”—a model for therapeutic quests in nature that she developed. Lia teaches and studies the therapeutic aspects of nature in the context of positive change as a researcher, teacher, and student, and has presented her work in several papers and academic conferences with an international reach.
- Brown, S. R. (2006). Religious orientation and Flow. Eastern Michigan University). Eastern Michigan University. Dept. of Psychology;,
- Brown, S. V. (2000). The exceptional human experience process: A preliminary model with exploratory map. International Journal of Parapsychology, 11(1), 69-111.
- Cardeña, E. E., Lynn, S. J. E., & Krippner, S. E. (2000). Varieties of anomalous experience: Examining the scientific evidence. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.
- Catley, D., & Duda, J. L. (1997). Psychological antecedents of the frequency and intesity of Flow in golfers. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 28, 309-322.
- Charlton, B. G. (2007). Scientific discovery, Peak Experiences and the col-oh-nell flastratus! phenomenon. Medical Hypotheses, 69(3), 475-477.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Perennial.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding Flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life Basic Books (AZ).
- Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Seligman, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.
- Ellis, G. D., Voelkl, J. E., & Morris, C. (1994). Measurement and analysis issues with explanation of variance in daily experience using the Flow model. Journal of Leisure Research, 26, 337-337.
- Jackson, S. A., Thomas, P. R., Marsh, H. W., & Smethurst, C. J. (2001). Relationships between Flow, self-concept, psychological skills, and performance. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 13(2), 129-153.
- Maslow, A. H. (1964). Religions, values, and Peak Experiences.
- Maslow, A. H. (1969). The farther reaches of human nature. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology,
- Maslow, A. H. (1975). The farther reaches of human nature. New York: Viking Press.
- Privette, G., & Bundrick, C. M. (1991). Peak Experience, peak performance, and Flow: Correspondence of personal descriptions and theoretical constructs. Journal of Social Behavior & Personality, 6(5), 169-188.
- Thorne, F. C. (1963). The clinical use of peak and nadir experience reports. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 19(2), 248-250.