Four months ago I moved to Italy. Did I know anyone in Italy? No. Could I speak Italian? Nope. Was this helping with my career? Probably not. I almost vomited with terror on the nine-hour flight from Kansas City, Kansas to Rome, Italy. Buying that ticket was the biggest risk I have ever taken in my life, and you know what? I have never felt more alive.
It turns out doing things that scare you is an essential part of human happiness. Evolutionary psychologist, Nancy Etcoff, explains in her book, Survival of the Prettiest, how our brains are hard-wired to enjoy taking risks.
Humans evolved to fit into the world of our hunter/gatherer ancestors – but not in the modern world. So we did not evolve for happiness, but instead for survival. Therefore, in order to achieve happiness in today’s world we need a dose of pre-historical danger.
“Pleasure and the positive-reward system is for opportunity and gain,” Etcoff writes “and pleasure involves risk, taking a chance that can override some of your fear at that moment.”
This theory was validated by William Gurstelle in his book Absinthe and Flamethrowers: Projects and Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously. For the book, Gurstelle surveyed thousands of people and found that risk takers are more satisfied with their lives than those who stay in their comfort zone. He argues that risk-taking satisfies a primal human drive for self-improvement and growth.
Think about it; have you ever had to give a speech in public? If you are anything like me, in the days leading up to the speech you were nauseous, panicky, maybe even borderline hysterical. But afterwards? Did you not feel like a stronger, braver version of yourself? By moving to a strange new place, I feel that I have truly grown as a person. And it is important to know that risk-taking gets easier; after that first big jump, I have found I have fewer reservations about doing other things that terrify me.
Gurstelle found that approximately 1/3 of the population are natural risk takers. I myself am not, but there is good news! There is nothing stopping you from taking a risk but you. The holdup is a classic case of short-term comfort versus long-term payoff. It is so tempting to stay in the safe zone in the here and the now, but at the end of the day you will look back on the frightening things with a sense of accomplishment.
The notion that risk-taking is vital to a fulfilled life is certainly not a new idea. William James was a leading philosopher and psychologist at the turn of the 19th Century whose theories are experiencing a renaissance in psychology today.
James believed that you could not get happy just by thinking happy thoughts or trying to change your attitude. Happiness, he thought, came from taking risks that lead you to become your real self.
Beyond scientific studies and old philosophers, you can find the evidence of the positive effects of doing new things in your group of friends. Who likes the girl who always says “No?” anyway? She does not have the best stories and she certainly does not have the most fun. Try not to be that girl.
It is also important to note that there are different kinds of risks. There are reasonable, calculated risks that increase your enjoyment of life. Then there are stupid risks that decrease your enjoyment of life. There is climbing to the top of a high but safe tower when you have a fear of heights; then there is driving drunk. Know the difference.
Arriving at the Rome airport I had a full on panic attack. I could not find the baggage carousel, I could not read the signs, and I could not stop sweating. I was so worried that I had made an awful mistake in leaving my family, friends and language behind, but now I have the knowledge that I am capable of something like this. I am stronger than I knew and I want to continue to make big changes and experience new things for the rest of my life. At the very least, I will never lose at the game 10 Fingers again.
Feature photo by Kongsty