Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
23 Aug

IE: The Power of Intermittent Euphoria

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.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. This is the first time I’ve heard an official name for what I’ve always referred to as the “Exclamation Point Moments!” in life. The times when you experience something so profound, that if you died right then you would feel it was okay because you had lived. It can happen anywhere if you are fully aware of the moment: at a concert when the last note is so perfect it just hangs in the air; or when you see something in nature that is so beautiful you almost forget to breathe. We all need these “moments’ in our lives.

    Wendy Q wrote on August 24th, 2012
  2. You always seem to capture what I’m feeling with great eloquence. I guess this need for exhilaration and excitement is universal. I get my kicks from zip lining, river rafting, scuba diving, and yes, hiking. Love it!

    Ara wrote on August 24th, 2012
  3. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for the article. I linked in my blog as one of the most interesting reads of the week.


    Zen Presence wrote on August 24th, 2012
  4. Nice post! I agree with not being foolhardy but I would add cocky and arrogant in the face of nature. Years back I was with friends in Mexico.
    We walked to a remote beach, took off our clothes and all, except me decided that the surf was too big to navigate. Because I was used to body surfing in massive waves south of Puerto Escondido I thought it would be a piece of cake and decided to show my friends how it was done.
    It was a really steep beach break (something in my cockiness that I failed to notice). I waded in, arms in the air and dodged some massive water thinking that this was a piece of cake. It was when I tried to get out that I realized that I was in big trouble. I was in a washing machine and couldn’t
    get back up the steepness of the beach. My friends were lying in the sun & oblivious to my plight. As I was being slammed again & again I thought I was a goner. With every ounce of strength I had left I saw an opening & managed to get out of it collapsing on the beach & not able to move for a long long time. It was then that the awe set in. I lived. I got through it in spite of my arrogance in the face of the awesome power of the Pacific. How could I have been so reckless?
    I’m still in awe of that teaching moment. It reminds me time and again to stay humble in what I’m in day to day. It was and still is one of the major
    teachers in my life. I’m 62 now and still take chances but now I use my senses and engage my brain.

    Doug wrote on August 24th, 2012
  5. Dancing, and the performance of dance and music provide a huge high, awe, and excitement…. and you don’t risk your life. Try salsa. I feel euphoria every time I have a great social dance. Plus, it is a physical challenge.

    Kathleen wrote on August 24th, 2012
  6. This exact thing is a big part of why I love yoga. When I can manage to do a new pose that was previously too hard, like pressing up into a headstand or sticking a challenging arm bind, I get a rush of surprise and delight. It’s the most wonderful sensation in the world. When it happens, it is because I have crushed yet another fake limitation I placed on myself. Part of the delight of the moment is the feeling of another shackle falling away.

    Rachel B. wrote on August 24th, 2012
  7. Great article. Pity that hallucinogens or other drugs aren’t in the list of “peak experiences” that can “move us in staggering ways”. And I mean come on, plants like weed, peyote and ayahuasca are pretty much Primal. I’m not saying you should use them regularly, but that’s exactly the point when it comes to Intermittent Euphoria. Just once (in a while) does the job.

    Koen wrote on August 25th, 2012
    • Poppies too.
      Last summer I made poppy seed tea mixed with instant coffee, cumin (lowers opiate tolerance), honey, and I think some cinnamon – it was delicious and quite enjoyable.

      Animanarchy wrote on August 25th, 2012
      • I’ve recently started reading Game of Thrones. They drink a lot of Milk of the Poppy. I got away with poppy seed tea at one shelter. I think I might try it here.

        Animanarchy wrote on October 16th, 2012
    • “move us in staggering ways”.. literally!

      Animanarchy wrote on August 25th, 2012
    • “The Botany of Desire” by Michael Pollan, Chapter 3.

      W.J. Purifoy wrote on August 27th, 2012
  8. My wife and I visited a winery near St. Helena, CA last week. It was one of the tiny, secluded vineyards where they only produce a few thousand cases a year. Sitting on the back patio of the owner’s house overlooking their vineyard, a vegetable garden, and the edge of the forest, I noticed several wild turkeys poking around at the edge of the garden. They lingered for a moment and then disappeared into the forest. It took my brain several seconds to process the fact that these were wild animals (which I’ve never seen before) and not a planned part of the setting. Everything just fit so well together – the tomato plants and lemon trees in the garden, the rows of grape vines sagging under the weight of almost-ripe grapes, the cool mid-day breeze under the enormous oak shading the patio.

    The wine was pretty good, too, and was poured for us by the 75-year old wife and co-owner of the estate. She told us about the evolution of the winery, which she has been a part of for 47 years, and explained the subtle variations in the wines caused by the growing conditions from year to year. Sharing a couple of hours of her life in a perfect setting was pure euphoria, even before I had the first sip.

    MarkA wrote on August 27th, 2012
  9. Man you’re killing me. Here I am, congratulating myself on my supreme course management skills while playing golf. Now I’m being told I need to take more risky shots!! haha.

    One of your better articles, Mark. How about an article one day on the primal benefits of playing golf? Even before I got into primal food, I remember reading that four guys chasing a golf ball down a fairway together is analagous to a hunt.

    Doug wrote on August 27th, 2012
  10. I need some IE for sure. I don’t know what’s wrong with me lately. I am an emotional wreck lately. Taking the focus off of the day to day crap and having some adventure or doing some volunteer work seems as good of an idea as any. I need some direction… some new direction because I feel like life is just flying by and I am not really a part of it. I don’t know how to change this… I feel stuck.

    Jena wrote on August 27th, 2012
    • Jena, find a place to volunteer that truly speaks to you, it will pull you out of your own head and help you feel apart of the wider community of humanity.

      Teresa wrote on August 29th, 2012
  11. Can I simply say exactly what a relief to discover somebody who truly knows what theyre speaking about over the internet. You definitely learn how to bring a difficulty to light and work out it critical. The diet should see this and can see this side of your story. I cant believe youre less well-liked since you absolutely provide the gift.

    acheter kamagra wrote on September 18th, 2012
  12. Possibly my favourite post yet. Thanks, Mark.

    Dave wrote on August 20th, 2013
  13. Hey Mark,

    Per usual, can’t get enough information from your site and loved the post. I also don’t want to be THAT GUY, who always informs you of outdated hyperlinks, but this one: “Adventure therapy, for example, is recognized as an effective treatment for everything from weight control (PDF)” is unfortunately one of those. Thanks again for everything, you continue to change my perception on life with every article I read.



    PriMatt wrote on June 11th, 2016

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

© 2016 Mark's Daily Apple

Subscribe to the Newsletter and Get a Free Copy
of Mark Sisson's Fitness eBook and more!