Here’s Why Radically Intense Experiences Make You a Better Person

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What does it mean to be truly alive? We’re not talking about the meaning of life, or what it means scientifically to be a living being. We’re talking about that exhilarated, happy, fulfilled, high vibrational state of being REALLY alive. What does that mean to you? It’s a hard question without a right or wrong answer. Though recent research is pointing to a surprising fact: intense experiences, and embracing those extremes, might be a big part of the equation when it comes to living a meaningful life and being your best version of yourself.

Think about the scariest thing you’ve ever done. All of our answers will range dramatically depending on our personal definition of scary. I went snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Most people wouldn’t consider that to be scary, and people go snorkeling all the time. But I did it after having a full-on panic attack because I am irrationally afraid of sharks and I’m not so fond of poisonous jellyfish or drowning either. (Background: I was stung by a Man-Of-War Jellyfish when I was 10 years old and I can still recall the debilitating pain. I’m also fairly certain I was killed by a shark in a past life, but that’s neither here nor there.) Anyway, it’s all relative where fear and extreme experiences are concerned. For me, that experience was traumatic and terrifying. It was also one of the most spectacular, memorable, mind-blowingly gorgeous and special experiences of my life. Yes, I saw lots of sharks. No, I didn’t die.

In 2005, I decided I was going to run a marathon. Not a half marathon, not a 10k, a full, 26.2-mile marathon. The New York City Marathon to be exact. It was on my bucket list, I had been a runner and athlete all my life, so how hard could it be? Well, it was hard AF. I trained all the time. I woke up at 5am often to squeeze in a training run. I injured my knee. I didn’t lose any toenails but I did spend a lot of time tending to blisters. I did physical therapy to fix my knee. I ran through pain. But I did it. I finished 26.2 miles and crossed the finish line in tears, but they were happy tears mixed with sweat and pride. And then I did it again 4 more times, including once just 10 months after having my son. It was extreme and kind of crazy and super draining in more ways than one, but the high of accomplishing such a challenging goal and such an intense experience made me feel more alive than anything else. 

Anyone who has been through an intense experience knows the feeling — it’s an overwhelming awareness of the blood pulsing through your veins. Of what you are capable of. Of what a miracle it is that our bodies can even operate on such a vibration. It feels really, really good. I was more aware of my place in the world and of what I am able to achieve than ever before. 

So the real question is, is this feeling (and the insane measures you are willing to go to in order to obtain that feeling) a necessary step to feeling alive, or merely a perk for anyone willing to go to extremes? And is it better to embrace extremes and feel alive, or to practice a more neutral, tranquil and balanced existence?

If you ask the experts, an argument could be made for both cases, so let’s unpack the facts.

Extreme Experiences Lead to a Fuller Life

A recent study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology set out to investigate what makes an experience meaningful. Is it the positive or negative aspects of the event? The intensity? The outcome? To take a deep look at this topic, researchers Sean Christopher Murphy, a psychology researcher and data scientist, and his co-author, psychologist Brock Bastian of the University of Melbourne, surveyed more than 500 people about the most significant experiences they’d had in the past year. Participants were asked to recall the events and then rate how meaningful they were, from their happiest moments to their most painful experiences. What they found suggests that the intensity of an experience matters more in terms of predicting meaningfulness, rather than the positive or negative emotions associated with the event. 

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The research found that “both extremely painful and extremely pleasant events are more meaningful than milder events.” This can be explained largely due to the fact that extreme events — both good and bad, joyful and difficult — share features in terms of their emotional intensity and the way that they often lead to deep and lasting contemplation. “While extreme positive and extreme negative events differ in many important ways, this research shows that they share key characteristics (including their extremity) that lead people to find them more meaningful,” the study found. 

It’s good news that these intense, extreme experiences do not need to be negative. It’s a hard pill to swallow that in order to really feel alive you need to suffer. The whole “without pain, there can be no pleasure” outlook doesn’t always fly with us. And this research supports that you don’t necessarily need to survive difficulty, heartbreak, pain or suffering to feel alive. Positive (but still extreme) experiences can also bring about that same level of joy. While past research has implied that “meaningful lives are forged in difficulty, soul-searching, and rumination,” Murphy explains this new body of research is proving that “there’s nothing ‘shallow’ about enjoying intense positive experiences.”

Extreme experiences, both good and bad, can all help you become a better version of yourself. They leave a lasting impact, they open your eyes to new challenges and new rewards, and they make you think about the kind of life you want to lead. But before you make any plans to go bungee jumping or to go diving with great white sharks, there’s something to be said for living a life of peace and quiet as well. 

Balance is Key to Happiness

On the flip side of the “what it means to feel alive” debate, some experts argue that living a balanced life and striving for tranquility is more beneficial to your overall wellness, from your mental health to your emotional and physical health. You’ll feel happier and more fulfilled, they say, if you achieve balance and calm. Once upon a time that was a challenging point to prove. Though more recently, studies have shown that practicing mindfulness, meditation, yoga, breathing exercises and more can all boost immunity, reduce anxiety and depression, and improve relationships.

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For example, researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD looked through nearly 19,000 meditation studies, and eventually, they found 47 trials on meditation and health that they deemed well-designed studies. Their findings, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, suggest that mindful meditation can help ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression, and pain. 

One of those studies was conducted by Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Her findings indicate that “a mindfulness-based stress reduction program helped quell anxiety symptoms in people with generalized anxiety disorder, a condition marked by hard-to-control worries, poor sleep, and irritability.” 

Clearly, there are two schools of thought and two distinct opinions on what it means to be happy, how we cultivate joy and what makes us feel most alive (and what it even means to feel alive). But the key takeaway seems to be that these two things and two ways of living can coexist. We can derive joy from struggle, from radically emotional events, from extreme adventures and also from joyful experiences and new life stages. We can also accomplish a different kind of fulfillment and happiness from a life of tranquility, as that provides different benefits for your psychological well-being. Both your mundane activities and your more extreme adventures are important parts of becoming the best version of yourself. You learn from your intense experiences, and you take care of your health from more mindful, calm behavior. It’s all important, and it can (and arguably should) exist together.

We’re not saying you need to go skydiving if you want to feel alive, and we’re not suggesting that complete calmness and balance is the only way to feel whole and satisfied. Let’s put it this way, we’re going to try a little bit of both, and hope that a mix of extreme (relatively speaking) behavior mixed with mindful actions leads to the ultimate happiness we’re all seeking.