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Happiness Is Risky Business

5 Best Practices of Happy Risk-Takers

By definition, risk defies common sense. C'mon, it’s not exactly rational to jump out of a plane (unless it’s groundbound and you've got a parachute), gamble in the midst of a bad economy, scale mountains, bungee from a bridge, or drive 30 miles over the speed limit—just for kicks. But there’s a tantalizing element to risk. An element of swagger and seduction. A provactive force that flirtatiously compels us toward the irrational: the thrill of the unknown. 

Point blank: while risk doesn't always make sense and despite the fact that many people have a hard time managing the uncertainty that comes with risk-taking, risk does make life more interesting, more engaging and quite frankly, more exciting. And let's be honest, who doesn't enjoy a stir of excitement at least every once in a while? But does risk-taking make you happier?

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We’ve been taught our whole lives that risk is a bad, bad thing. Why? Perhaps because risk can lead to failure, and we tend to believe that failure itself is a bad thing. And why should we believe otherwise? Society labels people as either not-at-risk (good) or at-risk (bad). In fact, our brains are wired to be alert of risky situations (and for good reason). Thus, it seems quite paradoxical to include risk-taking as one of the primary behaviors that leads to the ‘good life’.

Despite its bad rap, risk-taking is essential to learning what your limits are, to growing as an individual and to cultivating a thriving life. Risk is something to be fully embraced and celebrated! Without taking risks, it's impossible to learn the skills that enable you to thrive in life, like learning to manage emotions in uncertain circumstances - which life is full of. Unfortunately, some people indulge in reckless risky habits like drunk driving and excessive gambling. That's not the kind of risk I'm advocating. Most of you, however, dream of taking risks wrapped in the package of a cross-country move, a new romance, a bold career change or an exciting adventure like traveling to far and exotic places. And that's the stuff I want for you! The stuff - good stuff - you can have if you read on!

John Tulloch and Deborah Lupton, professors in Cultural Studies and Cultural Policy at Australia's Charles Strut University, believe that risk-taking is a part of self-improvement and that it’s part of a ‘wider discourse’ of personal growth, providing an opportunity to escape the mundane and even offers a sense of excitement through self-actualization. In fact, Lupton and Tulloch have linked risk to “self-improvement, emotional engagement and control”. So, if risk is a good thing, why do we fear it? Obviously, something can’t be risky if there’s no chance for loss – after all, risk involves putting something at stake. As researcher Barry Schwartz explains it, ‘Loss hurts more than gain feels good’. At the end of the day, losing something of value – like our self-esteem, money, or an opportunity – feels emotionally bad, and often so bad that we avoid taking chances even when it’s on what we want most in life. This is called risk aversion, and many of us are risk averse. 

But Tulloch and Lupton believe that risk-taking is about self-improvement in a world that is restricted and offers limited opportunities for challenge. Think about it for a moment. Many of us sit in cubuicles day after day, go home after work, watch television before bed and wake up the next morning to rinse and repeat. In a life like that, especially during challenging economic times when we are bombarded day after day with messages of playing it safe, how many opportunities do we have for this kind of self-improvement uness we create it for ourselves? But if you're a naturally risk-averse guy or gal, here's some good news for you.

One golden glimmer to emerge from research on risk is that: good risk-taking can be taught, according to Barbara Sahakian, professor of clinical neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine.

Here's how to become a positive risk-taker:

1. Increase your risk tolerance. In their research on risk, Norris Krueger, Jr. and Peter Dickson found that small doses of risk-taking behavior can increase self-efficacy—the “I think I can” psychological phenomenon associated with human flourishing! In other words, you can increase your risk tolerance by first taking small risks—risks that make you slightly uncomfortable. As your comfort level grows with small risk-taking, you can move on to bigger risks. 

2. Expect and prepare to fail. Recently, Camerer and Phelps, of New York University, performed a gambling experiment where some participants were asked to pretend that the gambling task they performed was something they did every day and to expect losses. The other participants were not told this. Interestingly, what Camerer and Phelps found was that the participants who expected losses were free of worry and were actually able to perform better than their peers. The take home: knowing the possible losses of a risk and whether you can handle such losses or not enables you to take more risks and make more positive risk-taking decisions. Determine what the worst thing is that can happen with the particular risk, and come up with a plan on how you to handle the failure. 

3. Channel your inner super hero. Many people are risk-averse because the uncertainty that comes with risk-taking prompts anxiety and stress, and deep down, they believe  they can't handle it. However, you're a lot tougher than you think, and you have the ability to manage your thoughts, beliefs and emotions in a way that will help you reduce anxiety (in uncertain circumstances) and build the courage to take risks. From the field of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, one clever and effective trick is to challenge counterprductive thoughts by capturing the specific thoughts and beliefs that drive feelings of anxiety—and challenging those thoughts. What’s the proof for and against those thoughts and beliefs? Work on replacing fear-inducing thoughts with thoughts that promote courage.

4. Become more risk aware. Lupton believes that risk-taking emerges not only in response to the self-improvement culture, but also due to the current state of risk awareness amongst everyday people. She also feels that “heightened awareness of risk may itself lead to a desire to take risks”. Therefore, just thinking and learning about risk taking may actually increase your chances of taking positive risks. But be cautious not to overthink it by spending too much time dwelling on the possible negative outcomes. 

5. Learn the routine/risk balance that's best for you. Lupton also believes that people require both ‘routine and risk’, frequently vacillating between the two. It's true that there are many circumstances in life that are routine and fundamental. And for those who are excessively adventure-seeking, like myself, the challenge is in finding happiness in routiness of daily living. For most though, the challenge is incorporating the thrill and excitment and growth that comes from positive risk-taking amidst their day-to-day routine. The truth is, a healthy, thriving life requires both risk and routine, and finding the right balance for you is key!

So, will risk-taking make you happier? In light of the research on risk and my plethora of personal risk-taking ventures, I'd bet the pot on "yes". Few (if any) people ever look back on their lives and wish they had taken less risks. For me, personally, life without risk is as illogical as it is unimaginable. Last year I left the best career opportunities of my life, my friends and family and all the comforts of the American lifestyle to travel as a missionary for 11 months through 11 third-world countries. Walking away from everything I loved was a huge risk, but I can honestly admit that in doing so I experienced my best year ever.

Indeed, life's too short to risk living too comfortably.

Angie LeVan - from a train in India
 

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Angie LeVan, MAPP, is a resilience coach, speaker, trainer and writer, dedicated to helping individuals and organizations/businesses thrive!

Angie is available for presentations, workshops, media commentary, and private life coaching. For more information see: ajlevan.com.
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References:
Fahey, J. (2008). A Risk Worth Taking. Forbes.
Krueger, N.F. & Dickson, P. R. (1994). How believing in ourselves influences risk taking: Self-efficacy and opportunity recognition, Decision Sciences25, 3, 385-400.
Lupton, D. (1999). Risk. London. P.157.
Schwartz, B., personal communication, November, 2008.
Tulloch, J., Lupton, D. (2002). Life would be pretty dull without risk: voluntary risk-taking and its pleasures’, Health, Risk and Society, 4, 2, 113-124; 122; 117.

Angie LeVan works at the Clinical Research Unit at the the University of Pennsylvania Abramson Cancer Center.

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