Towards the end of his life in 1970 the psychologist Abraham Maslow – best known today for his theory of the hierarchy of needs – considered putting self-transcendence at its top – above self-actualisation.
Beyond the ‘merely healthy’ individual he suggested – were those who became better human beings for others as well as for themselves.
And a key factor in this transition he suggested was what he called ‘peak experience’.
By this he meant ‘rare – exciting – oceanic – deeply moving – exhilarating – elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality’.
Recent research appears to bear him out.
The psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner claim to have found that experiences of awe – ‘in the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear’ – can lead to significant positive changes in behaviour.
They monitored people on whitewater rafting trips and visits to groves of giant trees (this was after all California) and found that compared to a control group these people afterwards made more ethical decisions and showed greater generosity and compassion.
‘Even brief experiences of awe’ they concluded ‘lead people to feel less narcissistic and entitled and more attuned to the common humanity [we] share’.
Piff and Keltner have become firm advocates of what they call ‘everyday awe’ and encourage people to actively seek it out.