Lose yourself: How transcendent experiences can boost your well-being

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A growing body of evidence suggests that doing things that make your sense of self fall away can make people happier, less stressed and even kinder to others. Here’s our short guide to achieving this state



Health



2 March 2022

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A FEW years ago, psychiatrist Roland Griffiths published the results of some intriguing work with people facing imminent death. His team wanted to see if it was possible to reduce anxiety and depression in people diagnosed with terminal cancer by inducing an intense self-transcendent experience, in which a person’s sense of self temporarily falls away.

Fifty-one people received two doses of the psychedelic psilocybin, previously shown experimentally by Griffiths and others to reliably induce what they call “mystical-type” experiences. Five weeks after the first dose, 63 per cent of them had a clinically significant reduction in depression symptoms and 51 per cent saw a reduction in anxiety symptoms. Five months later, many still had fewer symptoms.

Frederick Barrett, part of Griffiths’s team at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, says it isn’t clear that the therapeutic effect was entirely down to the transcendent experience. But “a lot of people believe that is the case”, he adds, “and I’m one of them”.

If he is right, it is a striking example of how self-transcendent experiences, though temporary, can provide a lasting boost to well-being. And they don’t have to be the intense experiences induced by psychedelics. Just staring in awe at magnificent trees or concentrating intensely on a challenging task also seem to have the capacity to make you happier, less stressed and kinder to others.

Now, some researchers are developing brain stimulation techniques that could induce self-transcendence, or at least accelerate the positive effects of mindfulness and meditation. So, should we all be seeking to lose ourselves more often? And if so, what is the best way to do …

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