This morning? OK, this post is not for you… it’s the rest of you, which would have included me at one point.
There’s lots of talk about stress. Plenty about depression and anxiety. But far less about positive human experiences. That’s why I want to talk about exhilaration today.
Exhilaration is a hard feeling to define but one we instantly recognise. It’s a sense of freedom and quiet inner joy. It’s when you feel a sense of rising above the banalities of life. You are lost in the moment.
Something like what I’m calling exhilaration has been described well in a book called “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (and if I’d been able to spell his surname from memory, that probably would have been a cause for momentary exhilaration.)
Abraham Maslow, in classic psychology literature, talked about something he called “peak experiences” in life. I’m not sure that that is quite the same as what I’m describing, in that peak experiences are described as “rare” and “exciting” – whereas the experiences I’m referring to don’t need to necessarily be grand or exceptionally memorable. However, he does use the term “exhilarating”, which is the feeling I’m describing here. We might call them “peak moments”, and they are worth pursuing.
I have felt this sense of exhilaration in many contexts:
- Running while listening to music through various times in my life… lost in Angels & Airwaves, Placebo, the Cure, Queensryche (although you may not agree with the specifics, feeling exhilaration while absorbed in music is a common experience)
- Playing the clarinet alone in my room for hours
- Doing astanga yoga in silence in a room full of yogis with Krishna Dass thumping through the speakers
- Singing with a huge choir at maximal volume
- Riding my bike down a hill at breakneck speed through Toohey Forest (actually, I’m not much of a daredevil, and the “breakneck speed” is undoubtedly mainly in my own mind)
- Rollerblading at maximal speed
- Rollerblading at maximal speed while singing at (submaximal) volume (aren’t you glad you don’t live in my neighbourhood?)
I’ve had periods of my life when that feeling of exhilaration was lacking, or at least very rare. This is not the same as being depressed or even apathetic. It’s almost more a “forgetfulness” about how to experience the full range of inner experiences. Now, before I get any more philosophical, let me defer to an expert.
Csikszentmihalyi (yes, I had to look back to spell it) presents some aspects of a concept called “flow” that describe what I’m attempting to here.
- Complete absorption in what you are doing
- Merging of action and awareness
- Loss of reflective self-consciousness (this describes well the rollerblading + singing example above!)
- Distortion of temporal experience – meaning time passes faster than normal
As suggested by the last point, you “lose time” when you feel exhilarated. But in a strange way, you gain time as well, because nothing exists except in that moment. It is the ultimate experience of living outside of time.
Why am I writing about this? Because I think we underestimate how incredibly valuable this experience is for our health and well-being.
Euphoria is known to relate to the production and binding of endorphins and endocannabinoids in the brain. These are involved in the experience of the so-called “runner’s high”. Interestingly, the experience of music involves these substances as well as dopamine (the “reward” neurotransmitter).
Producing endorphins enhances your stress response and is linked with feelings of pleasure.
Sounds like something we should all be pursuing a bit more, don’t you think? What’s your favourite way to experience exhilaration?