From The Archive: Maslow on Peak Human Experience
Published in 2019, this article on Maslow's concept of peak experience was one of the most popular from Sunday Letters.
Today in Sunday Letters, I’m dipping into the archive to share one of the most popular articles published for the newsletter. With some edits, I’m sharing Maslow’s thoughts on the phenomenon of peak experience; the state in which he says there is no desire, no fear, and no self-consciousness. There is the complete merging of the self in the act.
Abraham H. Maslow, in his paper, A Theory of Human Motivation1, said that man [the human being] is a perpetually wanting animal. There seems to be no denying this, and, in fact, it appears to be a fundamental basis for the apparent expansion of society. In this mode of wanting, in our desire for more, and our need to fill the psychological void, there is potential for material success or failure. There is also the prospect of Peak Experience — the seldom reached place where we may experience euphoria and complete assimilation of the self in the act.
Material gain is short-lived because although we may believe we know what we want, the fulfilled need is transient and never truly satisfies. In contrast, peak experience is a desireless state where Maslow says that all needs are met.
As Maslow states;
“The average member of our society is most often partially satisfied and partially unsatisfied in all of their wants”.
What is perhaps difficult for many of us is that we possess a certain degree of unawareness of our desirous state — we know we want something but we don’t know what it is. In this, we are fundamentally disturbed by our dissatisfaction, only partially relieved by moments of idle indulgence or a chance encounter with peak experience.
It seems that we are in constant search for ourselves in every engagement and in every relationship. Most of us work because we have to, for example, but not because we want to or because we love the work, but because we’re compelled to work. We have become conditioned and socialised towards work that has little value other than a means to pay off debt and buy stuff we don’t need. If we were brave enough, surely we’d do something else.
Unfortunately, that something else is usually frivolous and of low complexity, leaning us not towards growth, but decline. We seem to follow the rules of society to our personal disadvantage. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, for whom Maslow was a significant influence, states in his book Flow2;
…civilisation is built on the repression of individual desires. It would be impossible to maintain any kind of social order unless society’s members were forced to take on the habits and skills that the culture required whether the individuals liked it or not.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Psychologist
And so, a somewhat tragic although broadly apparent set of circumstances seem to prevail. We live in perpetual pursuit of something we just can’t quite grasp, all the while we’re engaged in daily work of someone else’s design. We get the job, the house, the husband or wife, the business, the bank account, but gratification doesn’t seem to last.
Why? What’s our motivation?
What is the drive or otherwise, that brings us to behave the way we do, to set and pursue particular goals the realisation of which fail to gratify? Is our behaviour allowing us the growth or decline of self? Abraham H. Maslow had some ideas around these questions.
Who Was Abraham Maslow?
Abraham Maslow was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1908 to Jewish parents who fled Kyiv due to increasing antisemitic sentiment in Europe. Growing up in a multi-cultural city, he graduated from City College and went on to study psychology at the University of Wisconsin. Not surprisingly, given the dominant mode of thought in psychology at the time, Maslow’s training at UW was decidedly experimental-behaviourist. His early work was focused on the social behaviour of primates under the supervision of Harry F. Harlow, who later became one of the most eminent behaviourist psychologists of his time.
Post World War II, Maslow began to develop his ideas around human motivation. They ran contrary to the Freudian ideas which focused on the dysfunction of the human mind. Maslow decided to leave animal research behind and focus on human beings and called his new discipline humanistic psychology. However, rather than encouraging further opposition between pro-Freudian and anti-Freudian thinking, he suggested the importance of integration of apparently opposite philosophies into a single unified approach.
“So many people insist on being either pro-Freudian or anti-Freudian, pro-scientific-psychology or anti-scientific-psychology, etc. In my opinion any such loyalty positions are silly. Our job is to integrate these various truths into the whole truth, which should be our only loyalty”
- Abraham Maslow
A Theory of Human Motivation
Abraham Maslow offered a theory of human motivation that was born of a movement towards a positive-growth view of humanity. Before this, a popular and dominant view was that all human motivation was driven by dark and unconscious forces that lurked within the recesses of the mind. Maslow didn’t deny negative motivation, or “deficiency-needs” as he termed them, but instead asked that we consider “growth-needs” as just as valid a motivator of human behaviour. He envisaged growth of the individual and the species, towards “full-humanness” through ultimate self-realisation, or “self-actualisation” as he termed it.
Maslow suggested that in peak-experience human beings are; closest to their real selves, most idiosyncratic. He further stated that this is “the most important source of clean and uncontaminated data; i.e. invention is reduced to a minimum, and discovery increased to a maximum“.
It seems here he was referring to the almost organic happening that occurs when activity is engaged in for its inherent value rather than for some ulterior motive.
“The emotional reaction in the peak experience has a special flavour of wonder, of awe, of reverence, of humility and surrender before the experience as before something great”.
Self Discovery in Peak Experience
Maslow says that self-discovery, the realisation of the highest level of personal identity, is part discovery and part creativity. Identity is whatever we say it is. He claims that identity, although it may have slightly different meanings depending on how the term is used and by whom, in this case, it refers to that aspect of the self in which individuals are most their true selves. The aspects of the self in peak experience are not truly separate. They are instead, overlapping characteristics, intertwined and ultimately inseparable.
And so, as Maslow breaks down these aspects of the peak-experiencing self, he insists on taking a holistic view. In other words, we should not think of these aspects as existing independently in the realm of the psyche or physical world, but instead inseparable from the experience of the self at the highest known level.
1. Sense of Unity of The Self
Maslow says, as we find ourselves in peak-experience, there comes the feeling of unity of the self, wholeness and unification. To the observer, we seem of a single mind, less split and dissociated from the activity. The surface-level personality seems to take a back seat.
It seems this aspect, as with all others mentioned below, is a constituent of all other aspects as well as something we can speak of separately. Reading Maslow’s work and other material on the subject, coupled with my personal experience, it appears that the self is fractal, kaleidoscopic, with all aspects containing and contained in, all others.
2. Oneness With The Environment
As a person in peak experience becomes more singly themselves, they also blend with the environment, Maslow says. The I-Thou monism becomes possible; the mother becomes one with her child; the musician becomes the music, the artist becomes the drawing. He says that this is the highest attainment of identity and autonomy.
I can relate to this. When I draw, for example, when I become immersed in the work, the surface level personality of me disappears. The second I become aware of the work there is a separation. There seems to be only the activity until I step back from the work and I come ‘back into the room” so to speak.
Maslow suggests that this is the highest attainment of identity and autonomy. On reflection, it seems temporary, but I guess that’s how it’s supposed to be.
3. Experience of Peak Power
When we find ourselves in peak experience, Maslow writes, we feel at the peak of our power, using all capacities to the best and fullest. We feel a higher level of perception, stronger and more intelligent than we otherwise do in ordinary everyday life. There is no fighting against the self physically or psychologically; every aspect of the organic entity is free to act in the task at hand.
In peak experience, we are on fire; we feel like we could go on forever. We no longer restrain ourselves, and the entire organism can act uniformly to its full capacity. Maslow says, there is no waste. The totally of the capacities can be used for action. We become like a river without dams.
I run a couple of times per week. There are days when I run, and I’m in full flight, I feel like I have an engine on my back. I feel light as a feather and that I could run all day. Then there are other times when I feel like I’m dragging two lead blocks around on my feet. This is despite preparing in the same way before both runs. It happens in the gym too, if I’m going for a big lift. Sometimes I’m in the zone, and sometimes I’m not.
Maslow recognises this phenomenon as effortlessness and ease of functioning. He says what takes effort, striving and struggle at other times becomes easy and effortless in Peak Experience. It comes of itself, as he puts it. Artists, writers, business people, scientists, all people in all domains of work have the opportunity to display this characteristic of identity when operating at their peak.
The only question is; how do we hit that spot more often and on purpose? I don’t believe it’s possible to make it happen. It instead occurs as a natural consequence of doing for the right (intrinsic) reasons.
5. Self Determination
When we find ourselves in peak experience, we feel greater responsibility for outcomes. Rather than a subject at the mercy of external influences, caused, determined and helpless, we feel to be the “prime mover” as Maslow puts it. We feel in charge of our destiny, captain of our own ship, fully volitional.
We also appear this way to others, Maslow says. We seem strong and single-minded, assured and confident of the road ahead. This characteristic of identity would seem to be a requirement for leadership, in the captain of a team, in the manager or the chief executive of a corporation. Maslow says that it is often possible for the therapist to see this moment of self-realisation arise in a client in therapy.
6. Free of Inhibition
There is no presence of inhibition, fear, doubt or worry in peak experience. There are no psychological breaks to our performance, such as that caused by self-consciousness or performance anxiety. No outside forces are intruding on our action, and there is no second-guessing.
Maslow suggests this is both a subjective and objective phenomenon and can be described further in both ways. Csikszentmihalyi’s work in this regard is a deeper dive into this idea3.
As a consequence of the absence of self-consciousness, there is the opportunity for spontaneity. In the individual, there is an innocence, a naivety and an unguardedness. There is no experience of a threat to the self, so we have the opportunity to enter the flow state.
It’s difficult for me to separate these two aspects (six and seven) of identity in peak performance for to me, they seem like the same thing — like two ends of the same stick. Maslow separates them but only to discuss them. These individual aspects of identity in peak experience are, as he says, all aspects of each other.
8. Purposeless Creativity
Here, Maslow says creativity can be expressed without premeditation. As a result of lack of self-consciousness, lack of ego-led sense of self, there can be more significant improvisation and self-expression in its purest form. The behaviour is created from nothing, no planning or activity along rehearsed preconceived lines. There is no preparation, design or rehearsal required. There is no need or purpose, yet there is purposefulness in the act. It is timeless in so far as the creative behaviour comes out of now, all past and future merge into the moment of the act without premeditation.
“Peaks are not planned or brought about by design; they happen”. — Abraham Maslow
I can relate to this sensation, and it forms a core element of what I have come to know as Purposeful Accident; the materialisation in our experience of favourable conditions by merely engaging in daily work for its own sake. There is no time, no space, only the infinite creative moment, albeit rare that we experience it.
And so we are brought to the timeless quality of peak experience. In peak experience, the individual is free of past and future. There are no demands or expectations, and the fullness of the self is available in the experience. There is no self-evaluation of the performance, no expectation in the timeless moment of now.
The memory of previous performances or expectation of future performance falls away as the central more integrated self takes command. Deliberate Practice4, of course, plays a role but only as prior daily practised behaviours are drawn into the performance automatically. There is no need for the individual to make things happen. It all happens by itself — now.
10. Pinnacle of Individuality
All of this, as Maslow suggests, can be put in terms of the acme of uniqueness, individuality or idiosyncrasy. He says in peak experience, the roles we play, the surface level identity of the ego drops away, and we are more wholely individual than before. Whatever we are in ordinary everyday life, whatever identity we find at that level of existence, we are more than in peak experience.
I struggled with this aspect of Maslow’s list of qualities. All I can do is consider it from my personal experience and try to relate and understand what he means. For me, it seems that my personality, my self, disappears altogether in peak experience. Everyone else disappears too. In art or writing or sport, it looks the same. Sometimes there’s a mild awareness that others are there, but for the most part, I’m on my own. In fact, as I said above, often there is not me to speak of.
The jury is out on this one. More digestion of the material is required.
11. Merging of I and Other
It may seem as we make our way through these aspects of identity in peak experience, that we are saying the same thing differently. Maslow acknowledges that, however, there are subtle differences, and I hope these can be seen.
Maslow suggests here that the person becomes pure psyche and less an object in the world. As the ego-led self interacts in the world, it perceives others are often its enemy, or perhaps adversary or competitor. There is I and Other. The psychoanalyst, Lacan, in his concept of The Mirror Stage (5) referred to a “big Other” (society and its rules) and a “small Other” (other people or egos), and parallels can be drawn here.
By letting go of the need to control the other and allow it to exist under its own rules, Maslow says, I can emancipate myself from the not-me and live by my own intrinsic laws. He says that in peak experience, both my internal intra-psychic laws and the extra-psychic laws of the other are not so different and can be integrated.
12. Unmotivated by Needs
Maslow says that for the individual in peak experience, there is the phenomenon of feeling unmotivated, or undriven by needs, especially lower-level deficiency needs. He says that in the highest level of experience of the most authentic self, there is non-striving, non-needing, non-wishing. The individual simply is. Everything, he says, comes as it is needed and of its own accord without effort and execution of the will. It seems a point of equilibrium has been reached, albeit temporarily.
Maslow says the individual now acts totally, without deficiency, without need to avoid pain or hunger or displeasure. Behaviour becomes self-validating. At this level of peak experience, Maslow calls the person godlike because gods are considered to have no need or want, no deficiencies, no lack.
13. Artistic Expression
Expression and communication in peak-experience often tend to become poetic, mythical and rhapsodic as if expressing a natural language of being, Maslow says. He suggests that, at the time of writing, he had only recently become aware of this aspect of identity in peak experience and so didn’t say much more about it.
However, it seems like another aspect of authenticity and it is something I have seen in artists, writers, musicians and other naturally creative people, who, it seems to me, are capable of acting more authentically than most other people. Most people insist on putting on the most elaborate show to hide their authentic selves.
14. Sense of Completion
Maslow says that all peak experience is a completion of the act, total discharge, catharsis, or climax. Completion of the act is of vital importance, the absence of which in clinical respects, can reflect a psychic disturbance and a playing out of illness in the body or a behavioural abnormality. Completion played out in the world of people and things is perfection, justice and beauty.
The inner and outer worlds are isomorphic, Maslow writes, and are dialectically related, i.e. they are mutually causative. He askes how does this influence identity? And suggests that only those of us who reach peak experience can find closure or completion and that those who do not peak always have a deficiency.
However, I would assert that completion is temporary and that even for those of us who reach peak experience in work or play, there is the inevitable fall from grace. The peak-experience/non-peak-experience is an ever-moving psychic thing. It is never complete. We never get it done.
The playfulness Maslow refers to here is not a frivolous idle and pointless play undertaken as a means of distraction from reality. It is instead a higher level of playfulness. Maslow says it is existential in the sense that it is an amusement or delight with both the smallness and the largeness of the human being that transcends the dominance-subordinance polarity of ordinary everyday existence.
Hierarchial structures we see acted out in society seem not to be of concern to the individual in peak experience. He calls it a transcendence of locality, time and space, of history and the ego-led surface personality. He calls playfulness in this sense, a resolver of dichotomies and a solution to insoluble problems.
Maslow says that to be amused by the particular circumstance, not in a mocking way, but in an accepting and loving way, allows us to live simultaneously in the inner and outer world without conflict.
16. Surprise Happenings
Finally, Maslow discusses the phenomenon of what I have come to know as Purposeful Accident. He says that in the culmination of peak experience, in its completion, there is the sense of surprise, of “I don’t deserve this”. Peaks, he says, are not planned or brought about by design; they happen.
What would life be like if we could plan it all? How boring it would be. The fun of life is in curiosity and revelation and it is this surprise that Maslow is speaking of. The phenomenon of human existence is remarkable and ultimately unknowable. It is only naive ego-led minds that believe otherwise. The future does not exist nor does the past, all that exists is now, and it is here that we can be our true and authentic selves. In that state of mind, we have the opportunity to be surprised and delighted by life.
Maslow concludes this chapter of Toward A Psychology of Being, with the idea that in these 16 aspects of identity in peak experience, we can resolve the dichotomous relationship between pride and humility by combining and fusing them into one superordinate unity. It is akin to the Yan-Ying principle found in the Buddhist philosophies which says that life is a dualistic yet cooperative entity where nothing can exist without its apparent opposite.
Maslow suggests that the goal of identity, self-actualisation and autonomy, seems to be simultaneously and an end-goal and a transitional goal. That is to say, doing the work and realisation of the end result bring about the feeling of success. It is the paradoxical nature of the self in its expression and is the nature of existence.
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Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396. doi: 10.1037/h0054346
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow. [Place of publication not identified]: HarperCollins
Wilder, W., Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, I. (1989). Optimal Experience: Psychological Studies of Flow in Consciousness. Man, 24(4), 690. doi: 10.2307/2804304
Anders Ericsson, K. (2008). Deliberate Practice and Acquisition of Expert Performance: A General Overview. Academic Emergency Medicine, 15(11), 988–994. doi: 10.1111/j.1553–2712.2008.00227.x