Session Overview Peaks and Flows: Intense Joys and Optimal Experiences in Consumption

Ruth Ann Smith, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and
[ to cite ]:
Ruth Ann Smith (1995) ,"Session Overview Peaks and Flows: Intense Joys and Optimal Experiences in Consumption", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 109-110.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pages 109-110



Ruth Ann Smith, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and

State University

This session was designed to systematically explore two distinct yet related intense emotional states that may occur during consumption. Consumption peaks, a type of peak experience (Maslow 1964), are consumption episodes in which a consumer experiences great joy and excitement. Flow (Csikszentmihalyi 1990) is an experiential state of enjoyment that is intrinsically rewarding and which is sought simply for the pleasure it brings. The central premise of the session was that peaks and flows constitute an essential benefit in many consumption experiences and as such are an important factor in a consumer's continuing involvement with an activity or attachment to an object. The objectives of the session were to: 1) conceptually clarify consumption peaks and flows and 2) explore their substantive effects on the consumption of both tangible products and intangible experiences by individuals and groups.


Smith and Lee examined the role of flow in the consumption experiences of collectors. Following Csikszentmihalyi (1990), they conceptualized flow as an intensely absorbing optimal experience lying between anxiety-producing over-stimulation and boring under-stimulation. Congruence between the actor's skills and the demands of the task the actor is attempting to perform is an antecedent to this state. As a consequence of flow, the actor emerges as a more complex individual in the sense of being more highly integrated into meaningful human relationships and being more differentiated as a unique person. Smith and Lee hypothesized that if flow is an essential element in the consumption experiences of collectors, then collectors of an object would possess the antecedent match of skills to collecting task demands, experience optimality and absorption, and benefit from the consequences of individuation and integration to greater degrees than non-collectors.

The hypothesis was tested in the context of book collecting, and collectors' scores on measures of the relevant constructs were significantly higher than those of non-collectors (p<.001) except for absorption where no difference was observed. As the absorption measure did not differentiate between absorption with the experience of collecting books and absorption with the content of a book, it is likely that this exception reflected a methodological artifact of the research context. The overall pattern of results, however, was highly consistent with the hypothesis, suggesting that flow is an integral element in the consumption experiences of collectors.


Guiry and Lutz reported the findings of a two-stage investigation of consumption peaks. In the first stage, they used a structured instrument to identify the distinguishing characteristics of consumption peaks and flow relative to ordinary consumption. Novelty and communion emerged as the definitive aspects of consumption peaks, while absorption was characteristic of flow. Ordinary consumption exhibited none of these qualities. The second stage of their research employed depth interviews with five adult consumers to explore consumption peaks from a first-person perspective. Informants were asked to describe a consumption experience that was particularly satisfying to them and that engaged them very intensely relative to an ordinary consumption experience such as one might have in a grocery store. The five informants described varied experiences including the serendipitous acquisition of tickets for a sold-out theater performance, purchasing and riding bicycles on the beach, a Colorado ski vacation, taping, watching, and visiting the production sets of daytime soap operas, and running.

The interviews reinforced the definitive characteristics of consumption peaks as being both novel and involving communion, either with other people, fictitious characters, or in a more metaphysical sense through communion with nature. In addition, the peak experiences described all shared the dimension that the actor learned something important during the consumption episode. The informants learned something about life in general, about themselves and their abilities and instincts, about other people, or acquired a new skill or competency. In the case of at least one informant, the learning was profound in the sense that it altered her life course. This element of learning suggests a close relationship between consumption peaks and flows despite their unique elements of novelty/communion and absorption respectively. That is, learning requisite skills is antecedent to attaining flow and consumption peaks encompass significant learning.


Schouten and McAlexander reported on a five-year ethnographic study of consumption subcultures, or groups of people who organize themselves around certain consumption activities or the consumption of a particular brand or product. Although their research did not originally focus on consumption peaks and flows, depth interviews with Harley-Davidson and Jeep owners produced substantial evidence that these states perform important intrapersonal and social roles within a subculture of consumption. Moreover, peaks and flows result in enduring attitude change toward products and contribute to the development of brand loyalty among members of the subculture.

At the individual level, consumption peaks are novel or even unprecedented experiences that profoundly affect how a member of a consumption subculture views him or her self. A consumption peak often involves using a particular brand or product and leads to the forging of a new, stronger person-brand/product relationship. The brand/product may have originally been purchased out of a sort of terminal materialism (e.g. a Harley is purchased because it is a Harley), but following the consumption peak, the brand/product becomes instrumental to recreating the experience. Socially, a consumption peak may constitute the basis for one's status within the subculture of consumption. Further, these experiences are shared with other members in the form of narratives that may eventually attain legendary status. Both the intrapersonal and social dimensions of consumption peaks suggest their relationship to flow. That is, one experiences a consumption peak through a novel consumption episode which is later recreated and repeated by using the brand/product repetitively and by retelling the story of the experience. This repetition creates a deepening and refinement of the experience that leads to flow.


The three presentations suggested both points of difference and similarity between consumption peaks and flows. Where consumption peaks encompass elements of novelty and communion, flows involve absorption. And, a consumption peak may be attained during one's first experience with a particular consumption episode but flow appears to be achieved through the repetition and recreation of the episode, either through individual performance or group interactions. Peaks and flows seem to share the common element of knowledge or learning. A peak often involves acquiring knowledge, while flow involves refining and fine-tuning skills. Moreover, both peaks and flows contribute to a consumer's sense of self and to the formation of meaningful relationships with others.

In her comments, Scott raised several questions that were not addressed in the research presented in this session. First, because so many products are consumed simply for the experiences they offer, rather than for utility or symbolism, the issue arises of how one might differentiate these experiences from peaks and flows. Reading a cheap spy thriller to take oneself out of the tedium of a long airplane trip, for example, is absorbing but probably does not qualify as a flow state. And, while drug use may be a novel experience involving elements of communion, it may not constitute a consumption peak. Further, she argued that both consumption peaks and flows may involve negative experiences although the session focused only on the positive. She suggested that consumption peaks and flows bring an experiential aspect to consumer research that is not captured by either a classic view of consumption as utility maximization or by a symbolic view of consumption as a social construct. As such, further exploration into the role of peaks and flows in consumption seems warranted.


Csikszentmihalyi, Mihalyi (1990), Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, New York: Harper and Row.

Maslow, Abraham (1964), Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences, Columbus: Ohio State University Press.