A couple of weeks ago I wrote about slow living, the philosophy that encourages us to reclaim our time and consciously approach the way we live. Slow living isn’t as much about pace as it is depth of experience – absorbing the full dimension of each moment and relationship. In slow living and other conscious living philosophies, we’re called to re-sensitize ourselves to life. We notice more, feel more, and perhaps come to know ourselves more. We leave behind an existence led on autopilot. We let go of routinization that can reduce life to a manic drill. There’s another level to this picture, I think. Even in a peaceful, productive, and well-balanced life, we can find ourselves feeling restless. The comfortable plateau we’ve achieved – with all good intention – can seem less satisfying. Where did the peaks of life go? Do we make space for exuberance or adventure anymore? In seeking to live vitally, we inherently value more than the necessities of survival, more than the elements of comfort. It’s a mark of thriving, I think, to test the scale and dimension of existence – in whatever way fulfills us personally. We can choose to prioritize the role awe, adventure, and uncertainty in our lives. The fact is, the power of intermittent euphoria (IE) can fill a deep – and deeply human – well.
IE. It likely makes you think of IF. That’s no mistake. Intermittent fasting, of course, is the occasional abstinence from food that allows the body to upregulate key metabolic and immunity related processes. It’s a kind of “reset” button for the body. The pattern parallels the likely conditions of our evolution. Our ancestors inevitably lived with a measure of uncertainty and periodic deprivation. If the body went into a immediate state of shock at the first sign of privation, our forebears wouldn’t have had much of a chance to survive. Instead of shutting down, the body instead uses the opportunity to shift itself toward increased physiological sensitization. On a more psychological level, I think IE does something similar. With life’s necessary obligations, schedules, and routines comes a certain emotional desensitization over time. We diligently maintain, but in doing so eventually give up some of the texture of feeling. In “slow” living, we can bring consciousness to each moment, but how about making space for experiences that allow us to step out of consciousness into something bigger, more imposing, more stirring?
The famous psychologist Abraham Maslow called these moments “peak experiences.” Writer Diane Ackerman labels them “deep play.” Whatever the name, they’re experiences that take us beyond enjoyment, beyond flow into more formidable physical and emotional territory. They bring us to extreme levels of risk or exertion, creativity or collective belonging. In form, they can range dramatically (e.g. observing the aurora borealis, climbing a taller and more challenging mountain, surfing an immense wave, spending time in a vastly different culture, creating music or art in an awe-inspiring landscape, witnessing a massive animal migration, volunteering in a natural disaster area, or scaling the side of a rocky cliff). In purpose, they challenge and move us in staggering ways. In effect, they change us. They reset us emotionally. We go forward with a different vision of ourselves, our abilities, or the world around us. We feel emboldened, enlarged, connected in a way we didn’t before.
In a survey taken a few years ago in the United Kingdom, some 85% of kids between the ages of 6-12 said they craved more adventure in their lives. Their longing can remind us of our own. True, there is something to the heady, hyperaware exhilaration of childhood. Yet, how often do we suspend our own yearning for excitement? Beyond the artificial drama that can fill our time, euphoric experiences are sources of stimulation that genuinely feed the spirit. We’re right to crave them. Paul Pearsall, author of AWE: The Delights and Dangers of Our Eleventh Emotion, suggests awe has the power to enhance both our physical and mental health. Witnessing or pursuing something that brings us to the edge of our own experience can awaken us. “Awe is the basic human emotion,” Pearsall explains, “that lifts us far above languishing, not because it makes us feel good, but because it makes us feel.” Through risk or awe, IE is ultimately about experiencing the core of life as the grand and precarious force it is.
From an evolutionary perspective, IE dovetails with the uncertain existence of our ancestors. They lived with threat the way few of us do today. Though their days were hardly one continual bout of human to beast combat, they engaged with danger on a frequent, albeit intermittent, basis. Evolution rewarded a measure of risk-taking, which motivated everything from big game hunting to global migration. A transcendental sense of connection and awe would’ve bound people together in powerful ways. Euphoric awe and exhilaration could’ve worked, as University of Michigan professor of psychology Barbara Fredrickson explains, as “‘broaden and build’” forces that expanded our ancestors’ thinking and “behavioral flexibility.” Translate this to today, and we first acknowledge we’re lucky to have to seek out risk. Nonetheless, we’re wired to handle it. On some level, our human brains still expect the unexpected. The pursuit of IE, however, doesn’t mean being foolhardy or putting ourselves in worthless danger. Euphoria comes from more than risk. Grappling with or encountering a force larger than ourselves, we learn respect. We gain an educating, stabilizing, even comforting sense of humility.
As research has shown, we measurably benefit from IE related pursuits. Beside the physical exercise inherent to many IE activities, there’s the uniquely rewarding adrenaline rush to be had in so-called “extreme sports” as well as other activities that vigorously test more emotional and creative capacities. Yet, the draw is more than the adrenaline cascade. It’s often the discipline, the challenge to one’s self, the connection with nature and perhaps with others. Adventure therapy, for example, is recognized as an effective treatment for everything from weight control (PDF) to addiction, behavioral issues to past abuse.Participants develop their coping mechanisms for stress as well as their self-esteem and interpersonal trust.
In terms of euphoric awe, Pearsall explains the neurological and hormonal shifts associated with awe have been shown to boost immune response, lower cortisol levels, and decrease the duration of adverse cardiovascular responses to negative feelings. In studies (PDF) conducted by researchers from Stanford and the University of Minnesota, subjects who experienced awe during the experiments showed more patience and less materialism. They literally felt they possessed more time and were more motivated to help others with their time. Feelings of awe, the researchers suggest, enhance our experience of the present and even alters or slows our perception of time itself.
Then there the effects euphoric experiences can have on the big picture of our lives. IE has the power to psychologically fortify us. As research confirms, it builds our personal resilience. We create a reserve of joy, of rejuvenation, of perspective with which to bounce back from adversity. True euphoria doesn’t simply up the ante for future thrills: it sharpens our whole perception and perhaps appreciation of experience. When we let it, IE can sensitize us to the wonders – both joyful and fearsome – in our daily existence. It can also inspire us to offer more energy, creativity, and novelty to our relationships. Having expanded our personal dimensions, we bring more vigor and vitality to life.
It’s true we each gravitate to our own sources and levels of stimulation. Some of us are natural thrill seekers. Others enjoy the rush of a good adventure but don’t require the same risk to come away altered for the experience. Even that, experts explain, comes down to a confluence of environment and genes. It’s part of the complex, hybrid picture of human individuality. As diverse as our novelty drives may be, however, we’re all enhanced by moments of physical, emotional, and cognitive rapture. The challenging pursuits that can fuel IE – whether extreme sports, creative performance, or life altering volunteer work – embody the “optional that isn’t optional” Primal principle. To use Ackerman’s framework, the “deep play” of these experiences harness the power of our species’ plasticity. They keep us growing, invigorated, and youthful.
Within the precarious, the unlikely, the bold pursuits of our lives, we continually expand the sense of our own strength and limits. When we test ourselves, we connect with what is most essential in our humanity. We scale the uncertain heights of existence itself – of physical risk, bodily endurance, emotional depth, creative power, and human connection. Safety is a blessing, but there’s also something to learned from risk. As Diane Ackerman puts it, “Where there is no risk, the emotional terrain is flat and unyielding, and, despite all its dimensions, valleys, pinnacles, and detours, life will seem to have none of its magnificent geography, only a length.” In the context of a lifetime, these realizations and moments of intensity are ours to carry with us. They help expand the proportions of our living and fill a well that sustains the life we go back to.
Thanks for reading today, everybody. I’ll talk more about IE next week, but let me know your thoughts. Have a great week.