Ecstasy Photo courtesy of Deposit PhotosOpens in new window

Ecstasy is one of the variety of positive emotionOpens in new window or affective states that also include happinessOpens in new window, joyOpens in new window, contentment, pleasure, excitement, satisfaction, and others.

According to Bagozzi (1999), the English language has about 40 words that describe states that are variants of happiness.

Distinctions between some affective states are subtle, and some researchers have attempted to develop ways to categorize the states in an effort to aid in clarifying the differences. Russell’s (1980) circumplex modelOpens in new window is the product of such an effort. Russell identified two basic dimenseions on which affective states differ:

  1. degree of arousal and
  2. degree of pleasure.

In this model, ecstasy is characterized as very high in both pleasure and arousal. To contrast with other positive affective states, excitement is about as high in arousal as is ecstasy but is not as high as in pleasure. Happiness is not quite as high in pleasure and is significantly lower in arousal compared to ecstasy.

Some psychiatrists, philosophers, and others have attempted to understand ecstasy from a more personal, experiential perspective.

Beer (2000) and Roth (2000) discuss the distinctions that the 19th- and 20th-centruy German psychiatrist Willy Mayer-Gross made between happiness and ecstasy.

According to Mayer-Gross, a state of ecstasy involves a complete focus on one’s own inner life and leaves little room for awareness of the external world. While happinessOpens in new window involves some degree of self-centeredness, the positive affect also moves outward, encompassing the world outside of an individual’s mind.

Another difference is that although ecstasy is an intensely felt emotion, there is calmness in it; the ecstastic individual feels no need to act, whereas happinessOpens in new window tends to propel one forward and encourage engagement with the world. Ecstasy is associated with a dissolution of the self, whereas happiness is not. The only unpleasantness in ecstasy is a possible fear—fear of loss of self.

As Beer (2000) writes, four broad causes of ecstasy have been described:

  1. religious,
  2. everyday,
  3. psychiatric, and
  4. drug induced.

The distinguished 19th-century American psychologist William James (1902/1979) wrote extensively about religious ecstasy. In everyday ecstasy, the individual feels a loss of self and a connection to something larger, perhaps the universe. This may occur through numerous routes, including sexual experience, feeling of love (e.g., romantic, friendship, family), awe while experiencing nature, and a revelation or epiphany.

A number of psychiatrists (e.g., Anderson, 1938) have discussed ecstasy involved in some psychotic experiences that occur with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder (manic depression), or other disorders. Feelings of ecstasy are commonly reported in drug-induced states.

See also:
  1. Anderson, E.W. (1938). A clinical study of states of “ectasy” occurring in affective disorders. Journal of Neurology and Psychiatry, 1, 80 – 99.
  2. Bagozzi, R. P. (1999). Happiness. In D. Levinson, J.J. Ponzetti, & P.F. Jorgensen (Eds.), Encyclopedia of human emotions (2nd ed., pp. 317 – 324). New York: Macmillan Reference USA.
  3. Beer, M.D. (2000). The nature, causes and types of ecstasy: Common. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, 7, 311 – 315.
  4. James, W. (1979). The varieties of religious experience: A study in human nature. Glasgow: Collins. (Original work published 1902).
  5. Roth, M. (2000). Ecstasy and abnormal happiness: The two main syndromes defined by Mayer-Gross: Comment. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, 7, 317 – 322.