The Magic of a Little Danger
To get happier, be brave, not reckless.
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
“You wouldn’t believe it. It’s like a wonderful nightmare.” This is how Bill Gorton, the hard-drinking veteran in Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, describes the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. Every year at 8 a.m. on July 7, six full-grown bulls (accompanied by six oxen) chase young local men called mozos (and no small number of foreign tourists, thanks to Hemingway’s popularization of the festival) through the town’s streets to the bullring, where the animals are dispatched in bullfights later in the day.
If this ancient rite sounds dangerous, that’s because it is: Since 2005, at least 78 people have been gored, some fatally. Most of them are foreign tourists, known for partying all night before running bleary-eyed down the unfamiliar cobblestone streets in front of fast, aggressive animals that weigh more than 1,000 pounds. And the danger is precisely the point. To hear Hemingway tell it—and to see the streets fill with approximately 1 million tourists each year—few things are more thrilling than trying to outrun these bulls at the possible cost of your life.
Maybe the running of the bulls sounds ridiculous to you. But the tradition offers each of us a lesson about exposing yourself to a bit of danger—the real kind, not the fake stuff like roller coasters and haunted houses. If you need to feel more alive, or increase your courage, or see what you are made of, doing something that knocks you out of your safety zone might just be the solution. Perhaps that shock to the system doesn’t involve as much danger as running with the bulls; maybe for you, it’s learning to drive a Vespa, saying “I love you,” or giving a speech in public. Either way, a bit of fear and danger, experienced on purpose, can work magic.
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Risk taking for its own sake can be a noble cause. For example, scholars in 2012 who interviewed practitioners of dangerous sports, such as hang gliding and white-water kayaking, found that their motives included excitement, achieving goals, strengthening friendships, testing personal abilities, and overcoming fear. Some extreme athletes describe the experience as sacred, or beyond words. They might even enter a “flow state,” an effortless condition of feeling both completely immersed and totally in control.
But sometimes, risk taking can be a sign of trouble. For example, people who find normal activities under-stimulating might look to dangerous pastimes as sources of stronger sensations, even at the risk of self-harm. These people are known as “high sensation-seekers,” and they tend to have low amygdala reactivity, meaning that their fight-or-flight response is muted. They also exhibit blunted stress and startle responses, and underestimate the likelihood of bad outcomes. People with low amygdala activity are more likely than others not just to jump from airplanes or tease dangerous animals but also to engage in dangerous substance use, such as binge drinking.
You can think of people who take risks for the right reasons as brave, and those who do so in an attempt to remedy their low arousal as reckless. Scientists have successfully distinguished between the two types using brain scans. Brave people typically have normal limbic systems (where the amygdala is located) and feel fear, but work to overcome it. Reckless people, usually with dysregulated limbic activity, fail to recognize danger and thus are heedless of risks. No doubt many people running with the bulls are brave, but many are reckless.
Hemingway wrote about running with the bulls because he had done so in 1923, on the urging of his fellow author Gertrude Stein, and found it completely invigorating. Ironically, Hemingway himself is not a good example of positive risk taking: He was a sensation seeker with a self-destructive history of dangerous binge drinking.
As much as some people enjoy risk—whether brave or reckless—the happiness they derive tends to occur after the fact. In 2019, researchers studying downhill mountain bikers found that the riders said that the sport gave them a lot of happiness; however, their happiness was lower during the activity than before and after. The thrills seem to come more from having done something risky than actually doing it. In other words, you might be happy to have run with the bulls, but while running you will probably just be really scared.
Done right, engaging in something a bit dangerous can enhance your courage and raise your happiness. Done wrong, it’s just stupid, and you might get hurt or killed. Here are a few guidelines to apply this rubric to your own life.
1. Find your bulls to run with.
When it comes to happiness, your extreme sport might not technically be a sport at all. Among my three adult kids, two have gone skydiving to challenge themselves (as have I), while the other thought it was an idiotic idea (as did my wife). But that latter child will be getting married next month at age 24, a decision that to many people his age sounds scarier than anything happening today in Pamplona.
Think about the things you’ve been putting off or feel like you can’t do that might be possible with some real bravery. Maybe the challenge is physical, like bungee jumping, or maybe instead it is social or emotional, like telling someone your true feelings or getting serious about a job change you need to make. Maybe it is to go back to school or to leave a city where you have lived your whole life. If it sounds simultaneously possible and terrifying, you’ll know you’ve found the right thing.
2. Envision bravery—but not recklessness.
Nelson Mandela once said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” These are inspiring words from a man who can teach us all a thing or two about taking a risk for the greater good. But the question remains: How do I conquer my fear?
The first step is to envision yourself doing the thing that scares you, and how you will feel about yourself if you take that risk. This will get you used to the idea, and make it less daunting.
Think clearly, however—using your conscious brain to reason, not just your amygdala to feel. In some cases, the odds of failure are so high and the consequences so dire that the act is reckless. If you don’t know how to climb, don’t try to free-solo El Capitan. In many cases, however, visualizing your white whale will lead you to realize that the odds of catastrophe are extremely low (for example, skydiving in tandem with an instructor) or that, even if things do go south, they won’t end in death (for example, confessing your love).
3. Make a sensible plan and follow it.
After reading my column about walking the Camino de Santiago across northern Spain, a reader reached out to say that she had decided to go do it—the whole month-long, 500-mile walk, not just the junior week-long version I did. It was a personal challenge for her that went against her long-held self-image of someone incapable of strenuous physical activity and pain.
My advice to her was to plan the trip a year in advance to have time to study up, read about the history and philosophy, and—most important—get in physical shape. If you want to raise your happiness by taking a risk, you need to do it right, and not just by acting on impulse. In fact, the research shows that happiness and impulsivity are largely incompatible. Furthermore, making a plan allows you to savor the person you want to become—a person who does a hard thing of her own volition, precisely because it is hard.
Skydiving is fun, but I’ve realized that it isn’t my Pamplona; it didn’t frighten me at all. Come to think of it, I don’t think running with the bulls would scare me much either. It’s not that my amygdala is on the fritz, though; physical harm just isn’t my source of anxiety. Professional failure is.
Changing jobs and careers every decade or so is my own extreme sport. When I left my career as a musician to become an academic, I felt completely insecure and afraid. But the stress strengthened me and ultimately gave me greater confidence in my ability to make the next career change. When I left academia to run a large nonprofit, it wasn’t nearly as scary, because I believed that I could become competent in my new career. After all, I had done it before.
Go ahead and peek through that door you’re afraid to open. You might let out a bunch of angry bulls that have been itching to chase you down uneven streets. But your best self might be in there with them.
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