How to See Through the False Allure of ‘Epic’ Experiences
How can we find amazement in the ordinary? Psychological research has an answer.
Posted October 22, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- According to researchers, peak experiences are transcendent moments of pure joy that share fulfillment, meaning, or spiritual significance.
- Research shows that not only are peak experiences extremely rare, but they can also make life after them seem anti-climactic.
- You can celebrate the little things in life by focusing on the peak aspects of your normal days.
We live in an era of social media highlight reels. It’s easy to feel like everyone else is having the time of their lives – a.k.a. "peaking" – while you are stuck in the same old routine.
You may question your seemingly mundane life with thoughts such as:
- “Why do I feel like I’m missing out on everything exciting?”
- “Will I just keep reliving the same boring day forever?”
- “Do I lack a special quality that people who succeed have?”
What we might be looking for is something psychologist Gayle Privette calls a "peak experience" in her research – transcendent moments of pure joy that share three key characteristics:
- Meaning or significance
- Spiritual importance
Some examples of peak experiences include:
- Exotic, once-in-a-lifetime vacations
- Jumping out of an airplane
- Meeting a loved celebrity
Interestingly, research shows that not only are peak experiences extremely rare, they can also make life after them seem anti-climactic. Here is what psychologists say about the unanticipated costs of peak experiences:
People seek extraordinary experiences, from drinking rare wines to jumping from airplanes. But are such experiences worth having? We found that participants thoroughly enjoyed having experiences that were superior to those had by their peers, but that having had such experiences spoiled their subsequent social interactions and ultimately left them feeling worse than they would have felt if they had had an ordinary experience instead.
While you can’t have champagne on a private jet every day – and while research suggests this might not even be psychologically beneficial – you can celebrate the little things in life by focusing on peak aspects of your normal days. Here are three ways to carve out more peak pockets within the confines of your normal routine.
1. Seek fulfillment.
When it comes to fulfillment, trying to replicate the lives of others is a non-starter. This is because, according to research, what one finds fulfilling is a matter of personal values and goals.
If you are feeling unfulfilled (or under-fulfilled), chances are that your current life is not a true reflection of what you find worthwhile. For instance, if what you truly value in life is spending time with your family, no amount of solo trips will bring you the fulfillment you are seeking.
Here are a couple of questions to help you figure out your fulfillment factors.
- Which of the roles you play in life brings you the most satisfaction? For some, it may be being a parent. For others, it might be being CEO. Whichever it may be, making changes to your life so you can devote more time to your role of choice can boost your fulfillment.
- What parts of your current life are you most grateful for? Gratitude is an effective litmus test for fulfillment. Not only does it help you identify what matters to you, but it also helps you gain fulfillment from areas in your life you might be neglecting.
2. Seek meaning.
The desire for a peak experience can drive a person to say no to a host of seemingly ordinary or unimportant experiences, like helping and being useful to others. It seems counterintuitive to do anything for anybody else since our pursuit of a peak experience is meant for no one but us.
Research, however, suggests the opposite. There are many experiences that human beings derive immense meaning from that don’t directly benefit them – parenthood, philanthropy, volunteering, donating blood, helping a friend move, etc. These are all experiences that may cost you personally but ultimately bring you a sense of purpose.
So, the next time you feel like your life is ordinary and underwhelming, instead of focusing on making your day better, try to make someone else’s day better. Some of the happiest people are those who dedicate their lives to making others’ lives and the world a better place.
3. Seek spirituality.
One of the reasons why life might seem unsavory pre and post a "peak experience" is that there is no limit to human desire. Once we have experienced something extraordinarily exciting and rewarding, it becomes our new normal.
The impermanence of the "peak experience" is its fatal flaw. Research shows that one of the antidotes to the dopamine spike of a peak experience is to cultivate a sense of long-lasting bliss in your life through spirituality.
Here are two ways one can begin their spiritual journey.
- Set up a mediation practice. This is one of the key ways to look inward and not outward for happiness and positivity. Meditation’s many benefits include increasing genuine happiness and reducing pleasure-seeking behavior. Be it mindfulness, loving-kindness, or simple "Om" chanting, building a meditation practice into your daily routine can have immense benefits.
- Consider psychedelics. Psychedelic substances like psilocybin and ayahuasca can be powerful initiators of a spiritual journey. If you are careful and intentional about your psychedelic experience (i.e., consulting with a health professional), it can prove to be one of the most meaningful, spiritual, and fulfilling experiences of your life.
Peak experiences make for interesting stories, but living deliberately and curiously makes for an interesting life. Welcoming all that life has to offer with open arms, and an open heart can benefit you far more than any peak experience.
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.