The Altered States Economy
As a species, we are spending a whopping four trillion dollars every year to alter our consciousness - that is a quarter of America’s annual GDP. One in four Americans are on psychiatric medicines, and suicide is up for every population ranging from age 7 to 78. In a flow state, creativity and motivation improve by almost 400%.
"How many surf bums who can’t keep a job washing dishes will be up at 5am putting on a gritty, sandy wetsuit to paddle out in cold, sharky water for just one shot at a barrel? That’s motivation. If you could bottle that, then what’s possible?” Jamie Wheal
Altered states are broken down into three categories:
Mystical states: Induced by practices such as meditation.
Flow states: Often triggered by physical activities and movement.
Psychedelic states: Pharmacologically primed or induced.
In altered states, people tend to report four core experiences: feelings of selflessness, timelessness, effortlessness, and richness (STER). In part, we can identify these attributes thanks to recent advances in the fields surrounding the study of altered states—psychology, technology, neurobiology, and pharmacology.
Why are people spending so much money to get into an altered state? The answer goes way beyond boosting productivity or profits.
Wheal explains, “Most of us are tired, wired, stressed, and constantly reflexive.” But in an altered state, something very different happens to our minds. Our inner critic finally shuts up, and we get relief from our constant mental chatter. The scientific term for this experience is “transient hypofrontality,” which is when the brain’s prefrontal cortex—the part that controls executive functioning—slows down.
Because of this, altered states don’t just help push physical and mental boundaries, they provide a temporary mental off switch, which many of us desperately need.
Wheal says, “One in four Americans are on psychiatric medicines, and suicide is up for every population ranging from age 7 to 78. There was just a study last week that said that diseases of despair (like depression and anxiety) are the number one killer of middle-class white Americans…Our inability to change the channel, it's literally killing us.”
Even if only momentary, an altered state experience is so unique and freeing that once people get a taste of it, they’ll often go to great lengths to have another. But could this ecstatic pursuit become addicting or self-serving? Wheal says it could, but it certainly doesn’t have to. In fact, there’s a bigger message that Wheal wants readers to take away: “Don’t die wondering.”
“If you have questions of whether there’s capital “M” more in life—go find it. It’s there, and it’s there through a dozen different doors.”
Whether altered states help companies increase productivity, entrepreneurs reach a breakthrough idea, or artists tap into their creative genius, they leave us feeling like we got a glimpse of something greater.
As esoteric as it sounds, is that not what life’s really all about?