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Maximizing clients' 'peak-experiences'

January 1, 2009
by Edward Hoffman, PhD
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Addiction professionals can help build on the benefits of clients' most fulfilling moments

Edward hoffman, phd

Edward Hoffman, PhD

In addiction counseling, we are constantly on the lookout for effective ways to help our clients. The dominant medical model—emphasizing pathology—has proven to be of limited utility. Its terminology is impersonal and often demeaning, and its success rate is limited. Not surprisingly, addiction counselors often find themselves searching far and wide for alternatives.

Certainly, the rise of positive psychology and strength-based counseling constitutes an encouraging development. But these basically affirm what we already know: that focusing on client assets, talents and competencies provides the best path for recovery. But how, exactly? Though upbeat, questions such as “What's your favorite movie?” are not enough.

In this regard, an important, largely untapped resource for counselors is “peak-experiences.” First articulated by psychologist Abraham Maslow, they offer an accessible avenue for optimizing our clients' self-regard, personal responsibility and motivation for positive change. This article highlights how peaks can be integrated into addiction counseling.

What are peak-experiences?

More than 60 years ago, Maslow discovered the existence of peak-experiences when studying people with superb mental health: those whom he later called “self-actualized.”1 Much to his initial surprise, these individuals reported often having moments of great joy and fulfillment in everyday life. The healthier they seemed psychologically, the more frequently they had these moments.

As a result, Maslow asserted that peak-experiences indicate the presence of mental well-being—and often yield major benefits that include:

  • Losing, even temporarily, fear, anxiety, perplexity and confusion. Most salient is a loss of fearfulness and a corresponding gain of what Alfred Adler called “the courage to change”2;

  • Resolving or transcending life's dichotomies, polarities and conflicts. That is, situations that seemed “black or white” become resolvable or capable of fusion;

  • Gaining a greater sense of one's ability to act in the world and take responsibility for oneself and others, rather than wallow in passivity;

  • Learning that happiness and joy really exist, and at least in principle are readily available. As a corollary, one learns that life can be personally worthwhile, valuable and even beautiful; and

  • Feeling lucky, fortunate, or graced. That is, one typically feels intense gratitude. Emanating from this mood is an impulse to do something good for the world: an eagerness to repay in some way, and at times even a yearning for commitment and dedication.3

During peak-experiences, individuals often have the sensation of seeing their daily life as though “from a great height—and gaining an extraordinary sense of clarity and insight. They often report the feeling that a fog has suddenly been lifted—a fog so pervasive that its very presence had been forgotten. People, events and decisions loom in a new, more hopeful light.

Are peak-experiences, then, religious in nature? As a scientist, Maslow preferred to view peaks as natural mental phenomena, triggered by certain situations in ordinary living.4 But he respected those who saw such moments as divine—that is, sent by God. And, no doubt, some clients will take that view.

What triggers peak-experiences?

Maslow was keenly interested in what triggered these exhilarating mental states. He reported that peaks could be triggered by such diverse experiences as falling in love, seeing nature's beauty, engaging in creative or challenging work, learning a new skill, altruistically helping a loved one, and being inspired by music or art.

He also found that the presence of babies often induced parental peaks, especially for women. Indeed, Maslow noted that men generally experienced peaks through achievement and public recognition, whereas women's peaks were more often linked to affection and affiliative joy.5 Of course, women's roles have changed a great deal, and today gender differences with regard to peak-experiences are less salient. It also seems likely that the type of peak we experience relates at least partially to our individual temperament—for example, the strength of our need for aesthetics or companionship.

In collaborative cross-cultural research over the past five years, I have studied youthful peaks in foreign countries as diverse as Brazil, Hong Kong, Japan, Mexico, Norway and Venezuela. In all of them, individuals have peak-experiences, though cultural differences do exist. People in collectivist, Asian and Hispanic/Latino cultures more frequently report peaks of “interpersonal joy—usually involving family, peer group, or close friends. In contrast, Americans' peaks are more individualistic.6

My colleagues and I also have discovered several new categories of youthful peak-experience. These include “developmental landmark” episodes, typically involving a sudden stride from childhood to adolescence, and “serenity” moments, characterized by a sense of great calmness and inner peace. The latter category emerged in our recent study of youthful peaks among Chinese.7