I was on a trip in Mexico for some R & R. As the days passed and I unwound, amazing things happened: I surfed for the first time. I went to a raucous midnight street fair. I swam in a cenote (basically a sinkhole). I felt bold, gutsy, alive!
Then I came home and returned to my previously scheduled non-adventurous existence: my daily hour on the elliptical, the oatmeal I eat every morning. Granted, it's a very satisfying recipe (oats, almond milk, cinnamon, nutmeg, berry compote, brown sugar). Still, I could at least have granola.
When I was younger, excitement seemed to arrive at my door. As a reporter for Rolling Stone, one week I'd be hoisting pints with Bono and the next hitching a ride on Beyoncé's tour bus. I kept a bag packed for spontaneous excursions to Costa Rica or Sun Valley. But once life's responsibilities started piling up, I downgraded to weekend warrior.
My pulse-pounding jaunt in Mexico illuminated just how oddly lopsided my life has become. Why cram all the excitement into a trip? Wouldn't it be more beneficialnot to mention more funto zhush up my daily life? Yes, it would, confirms psychologist James Loehr, EdD, co-founder of the Human Performance Institute in Orlando: "Our research shows that the ability to just view life as a hope-filled, exhilarating adventure represents a tremendous happiness and health advantage."
RELATED: Best and Worst Ways to Cope With Stress
Why we like to be boring
Now that I've hit my mid-40swith a mortgage, a husband and a preschoolerI'm usually concentrating on getting through the day intact. For some of us, family obligations dampen the rock-climbing spirit that ruled our single years; it's safer to watch The Amazing Race than to test our own limits. And there's security in routine: When life throws you one crisis after another, at least you can count on your oatmeal.
This craving for order keeps us from striking out on adventures, says Tamar Chansky, PhD, a psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, Pa. "One accomplishment of getting older is gaining decision-making power," she notes. "We prefer to predict and controlexactly what table we want at the restaurant, the row we want at the movies."
RELATED: 7 Steps to Instant Calm
Fear of failure can also make us prisoners of predictability. Children may be game to try anything and fall flat on their butts, but grown-ups get wary. "Many adults believe their physical and mental capabilities are fixed and can't be improved," says Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD, associate director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia Business School. "As a result, our goals tend to be about proving ourselves within familiar territory." Yet her research has found that achievements of all kinds are completely within reach if we don't focus on acing thembut rather relish the process of getting better.
The benefits of breaking out
A major factor in how much we enjoy life is whether we're learning new things, per a global survey by the Gallup Organization. In fact, the brain's regions for pleasure light up when presented with novelty, finds research by neuroscientist Gregory Berns, MD, at Emory University. There are health perks, too: Studies have connected curiosity and being open to new experiences with a sharper mind. The more you challenge your brain, the more nerve pathways formpotentially slowing age-related cognitive decline and staving off Alzheimer's. In one study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, students who learned a new language grew more complex white matter, aka the communications network. Another study drew a link between curiosity and longer life expectancy.
Happily, there's no need to do a Tough Mudder to reap these benefits: Dr. Berns has found that you can gain just as much from little thrills as large ones. Think playing tourist in your own town, as Lu Ann Cahn, a TV news reporter in Philadelphia, recounts in her book I Dare Me: How I Rebooted and Recharged My Life by Doing Something New Every Day. She walked across the Ben Franklin Bridge and whizzed down the city's giant wooden slide ("a blast"). Then she went to parties and movies alonewhich, as a wife and mother, she'd stopped doing. As she says, "We limit our experiences when we say we can't go somewhere by ourselves."
Outdoor activities provide a special buzz, research shows. For one, natural settings boost mood and energy better than the indoors. Thank the rush of fresh oxygen that physically recharges you, and the mentally invigorating change of scenery. You also feel pumped by your efforts, notes New York City sports psychologist Leah Lagos, PsyD, who works with Olympic medalists: "If you row across a lake, you can see the start and finishwhich adds to your sense of achievement."
Yes, jumping into an activity can be intimidating. "Expect that it will feel weird at first, but like getting into a pool, it's usually just the initial shock," says Chansky. Last summer, she climbed on a bike for the first time in 30 years. Although her husband liked to cycle, she says, "bike riding had become that 'thing' I didn't do, and I was craving the challenge. I got hooked!"
RELATED: 25 Surprising Ways Stress Can Hurt Your Health
At the very least, you'll have a decent answer to "What did you do this weekend?" (There are only so many times you can say, "I binge-watched Scandal.") "A life lived on the couch isn't really lived," says Caitlin Muir, 28, a communications manager in Portland, Ore., who realized she'd been compiling a bucket list without doing any of it. "I don't want secondhand adventures, to always be wistfully flipping through National Geographic or thriving off tales from friends." She recently painted a picture (No. 51), camped on the beach (No. 79) and learned the names of the stars (No. 92).
As for me, Cahn advised that I say yes to the next invite I'd reflexively refuse. So I let a friend corral me into taking a belly-dancing class. I felt ridiculousand my spastically gyrating form in the mirror confirmed that I looked ridiculous. The next morning, we complained to each other about the searing pain in our abs and backs. Then we signed up for another class.
When you do something exciting, your brain triggers your nervous system to pump out the hormone norepinephrine, explains Vineeth John, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Texas at Houston Medical School. "This accelerates your respiratory and heart rates and releases glucose, making more energy available." In case you need it for, you know, cliff diving.
RELATED: 19 Natural Remedies for Anxiety
The feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine is released, too. "It works on the brain's reward circuit, providing the sensation of novelty," says Dr. John. Do something physically demanding and your body will also churn out anandamide, known to inhibit fear.
RELATED: 12 Ways We Sabotage Our Mental Health
Here come the endorphins. These chemicals help alleviate the pain of rigorous physical adventureand give you that natural high. Here are some ideas to start an adventure of your own:
Mini Thrill #2: Go on the roller coaster with your family instead of being the bag holder.
Mini Thrill #3: Google something you've long been curious aboutbesides what your ex is up to.
Mini Thrill #4: Make a new workout playlist, already!
Mini Thrill #5: Institute Fancy Wineglass Fridays. They'll break eventually; might as well put 'em to good use.
Mini Thrill #6: Dare to try a new gym class, like Piloxing (a Pilates, boxing and dance combo).
Mini Thrill #7: Find a new fantasy getaway with Mosey, an app full of hidden-gem trips.
Mini Thrill #8: Write a haiku (first line five syllables, then seven, then five). Three lines later, you're a poet.
Mini Thrill #9: Would it kill you to wear prints?