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Know them by their bliss

by Edward Hoffman

NEW YORK — What’s the best way to really know someone? Is it to uncover their daily worries, hassles or fears? To discern what traits they most hide from others, and perhaps even from themselves?

More than a century ago, Sigmund Freud argued that our darkest features are the most revealing — and that the deeper we go into the thicket of human personality, the more dismal our inner landscape.

Hugely influential, Freud’s pessimism permeated special education and child guidance, psychiatry and social work and — after World War II — dominated the emerging fields of both family counseling and addiction treatment. The focus was always on the negative; generally, “the more negative, the better” was the unspoken mantra of professed experts.

Personal growth was basically viewed as a process of dredging up terrible memories from one’s childhood and releasing the stored-up emotional pain. In theory, this method seemed wonderful. But Freud himself eventually found that it didn’t work — an observation that only increased his bitter pessimism about humanity by the time he died in 1939.

It was the modern guru of motivation, American psychologist Abraham Maslow, who lit another way by focusing on “peak experiences”; these are moments of great joy and fulfillment. Maslow discovered their existence in the mid-20th century while studying people of superb mental health: those whom he later called “self-actualized.” Much to his initial surprise, they reported often having ecstatic moments in everyday life — such as creating a new business product or service, or celebrating an event with friends or family.

The emotionally healthier the man or woman, the more likely he or she was to undergo frequent and intense peak experiences, Maslow found. For this reason, Maslow came to regard “peaks” as vital for day-to-day wellness: strengthening confidence, optimism and joyful acceptance of one’s talents and interests, as well as reducing stress and depression. “In other words,” Maslow declared, “peak experiences have very important consequences.”

Throughout the tumultuous 1960s, Maslow’s work on high-achieving persons and their “peaks” held huge appeal. It influenced an entire generation of American college students, and spurred an exciting new image of human potential — ultimately leading to today’s scientific specialty of positive psychology. “If you want to answer the question, how tall can (our) species grow, then obviously it is well to pick out the ones who are already tallest and study them,” Maslow asserted. “If we want to know how fast human beings can run, then it is no use to average out the speed of the population; it is far better to collect Olympic gold medal winners and see how well they can do.”

Despite Maslow’s international acclaim, he recognized that his findings were based mainly on North Americans, and thus decided to initiate cross-cultural study of peak experiences, especially in Japan. Since first encountering the Zen Buddhist writings of scholar Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, Maslow was fascinated by Japanese philosophy — especially Suzuki’s conception of total absorption during exalted states of consciousness.

Maslow viewed Suzuki’s ideas on appreciating the irreducible suchness of things (sono mama in Japanese) to be extremely important. After bringing Suzuki to lecture in the United States, Maslow eagerly planned research on peaks in Japan. But fate decreed otherwise and he died of a heart attack in 1970 before his visit could materialize.

As Maslow’s biographer and editor of his unpublished essays, I’ve not only had the occasion to lecture often in Japan about his concept of peak experiences; I’ve also recently been leading an international team exploring youthful peaks (occurring before the age of 14) cross-culturally in Asia, Europe and South America.

Though our research project is still ongoing in several countries, my Japanese colleagues and I already have significant findings to report. These shed fascinating light on Japanese cultural values — especially from the standpoint of positive psychology.

What have we specifically found? Three elements appear most salient:

Early Japanese peaks almost invariably include the presence of other people. Indeed, the most frequent category of Japanese peak experience was interpersonal joy (28.6 percent), usually involving family members. This finding is similar to what we’ve uncovered in other countries around the world. Strikingly, though, even when the youthful peak was not primarily social, Japanese tended to recount a group, rather than an individualist, endeavor.

Typical recollections were: “When our volleyball team won a school district tournament” or “when my friend and I sang a duet before our class.”

This interpersonal element contrasts sharply with that of Westerners, especially Americans — whose most joyous moments are likely be experienced alone. Organizational scientists have long observed that Japanese reject an individualistic approach to the workplace. This deeply rooted feature of their national psyche is seemingly valid for moments of great personal fulfillment as well.

Youthful peaks concerning aesthetics — artistry or music — were reported far more frequently by Japanese (16.1 percent) than by persons in any other country yet studied. For example, nearly three times more often than mainland Chinese and five times more often than Hong Kong denizens.

The specific type of aesthetic experience varied widely among our Japanese interviewees. They cited such episodes as listening to inspiring music, engaging in appealing crafts or performing music themselves. Consistent with our first finding, such performances were more likely to occur in an orchestral ensemble or a choir than in soloist activity.

Early peaks involving nature were reported by Japanese more often (25.0 percent) than by those in any other country, including Brazil and Norway. At first glance, this finding appears surprising in view of Japan’s highly urbanized milieu, yet a logical explanation is readily available.

In daily life, we tend to prize what’s rare and take the commonplace for granted. Therefore, peaks involving nature’s wonders, such as “seeing a beautiful sunset over the ocean” (as reported by one interviewee), may be cherished by those raised in contemporary Japan — whereas in an industrially developing country like Brazil, such nature experiences may be quickly forgotten.

So, returning to our opening question: What’s the best way to really know someone? According to growing scientific evidence, it is to discover what his or her peak experiences are.

And the best way for visitors to know a foreign culture like Japan’s is to become familiar with its values of interpersonal bonding, aesthetics and receptivity to nature as important features of personal fulfillment.

Edward Hoffman, Ph.D., is an adjunct associate professor at Yeshiva University and an author. Titles include “Psychological Testing at Work” (elhoffma@yu.edu).