Happiness favours the risk takers.

Posted on March 9th, 2014

I've just gone out on a limb. I've chosen to use the traditional spelling of the word "favours" in the title of this post. Any Americans reading this will surely assume I'm English and dismiss what I have to say here as being irrelevant to them . I'm not English, but dammit, that's the way I learned to spell it so I'm happy to take the chance.

And that's about the extent of the risk most of us will take each day. Long gone are the days when we were under constant threat from nature. Finding food meant you might well be chased by lions or bears on your way home. Even more recently, venturing off to a foreign land meant diving into the unknown. Perhaps all you knew about your destination was what you'd heard in stories by the fireside.

Nowadays, everything is known. Or a google search away. Society has given the word "risk" negative connotations. Something to be avoided, minimised at all costs. As a result, individually most of us have grown risk resistant and no longer exposed to the positive psychological benefits of risk. Oh sure, you're going to take a year off after college to backpack around Europe. But you'll have researched it, your visas will be ready, your emergency funds and your return ticket. Friends will look up to you. You crazy risk-taker you.

But this isn't risk; unless you're backpacking around the Central African Republic, you're unlikely to experience much fear. And without fear there is no real risk. But why should we take risks anyway? I once read the following question on a TED forum:
"I sometimes wonder if fear is perhaps the strongest factor that detracts from our happiness. Particularly worrying about things that have not yet come to pass.... What do you think?".
Whilst living in fear and worry will certainly not lead to happiness, neither will living in the absence of fear.

But living comfortably without fear is a good thing right? Wrong.

We live in a society where comfort has become a life goal. But comfort is stagnating. Comfort reduces the motivation for introducing the life changing transformations we need to grow as human beings. A lion in a zoo is well fed and comfortable, a lion in the wild suffers from fear - driving him to hunt for the next meal. Poachers aside, we all know which of these environments is better for the lion. Comfort is short sighted - It's good for the lion to have an easy meal, but bad if that lion never experiences having to hunt for himself.

To experience real happiness and satisfaction we need fear, we need to face fear and try to defeat it by taking risks. To explain we can refer to some science and your grandparents.

1. Taking risks releases dopamine (Short term happiness)
The neurotransmitter dopamine is also known as the happiness chemical. It is responsible for making you feel satisfied after a good meal, or really satisfied when you're having sex. Studies have shown the dopamine is also released in the brain during and after risk. Jumping out of a plane is a terrifying experience whilst you're in the plane, but the dopamine released during the free-fall and landing makes it all worthwhile.

"The bliss of falling carries on long after you've landed"

2. Risks + time = Satisfaction (Long term happiness)
Some time perspective is needed here to truly realise the value of taking risks. But ask your grandparents or someone with a lot of life experience about the risks they have taken in their lives, and inevitably you'll find there are very few risks they regret taking. Even though they may have been uncomfortable at first, the risks they've taken have helped them grow and shape the person they've become. Only through facing fear and taking risks can we truly evolve.

So although we know fear is fundamentally an uncomfortable, anxious state, it is only temporary. Soon met by the short term happiness of facing or overcoming the fear and topped off with the long term satisfaction of knowing that it is the only way to grow - to evolve.

So if you really want to be happy then get comfortable being uncomfortable. If you're cruising along it might just be time to take an exit. That comfort zone is your home base, not a place to stay, but a place to return to in between the risks you take in life - if you really want to live it.

Why American bread is so sweet.

Posted on October 25th, 2013

American bread is perfect.Each slice looks photoshopped, feels like it's been injected with air and tastes like it's been injected with sugar. It's perfect, except that it's fake. American bread can sit in your cupboard for 2 months and taste exactly as it did the day you bought it. It is manufactured to perfection. I love it, and I hate it.

This is my general feeling about living in the ole US of A. Well New York, to be more specific.

I've been here for nearly a year now and experienced the best and worst of the capital of capitalism. Giraffe-like models in their $2,000 shoes stumble along the cobbled streets of SoHo, chatting about which up-scale brunch venue they should spend their Saturday in, gossiping about that guy who drives that car who owns that art gallery. The city is career-driven, money-driven, selfish. The evenings and weekends are for self-indulgence - an all-day brunch, a band, a "showing". It's all about me, and maybe about you, if you can make me better, richer, thinner, more famous.

I’m the guy that sat on that empty island in Thailand and dreamed of opening a palm-tree bar, so I could spend my days, simply — materialism free, pressure free. And so, obviously NYC is everything that I hate.

Except I don't hate it here. I've tried my best to hate it, and I don't. In fact I've been a little afraid to go home (Sydney).

But I've come to appreciate it for what it is - its beauty and its flaws - and I have a new-found appreciate for the comforts of home. New York I'll surely miss you, it's been a wild ride, I have ridden the materialism train for a year now, and I'm ready to hop off - back to a simpler life. But before I go here's why I love you...

The 3 best things about living in NYC:

  1. The people - Manhattanites are:
    • At the top of their game. No matter what industry you're in, the best of the best are here. In NYC you're playing in the pros.
    • Friendly and helpful. After all the bad things said about New Yorkers, this one definitely surprised me. Strangers talk to each other, and I don’t just mean the crazy ones. I’ve never had so many 20 second conversations as I’ve had in NYC.
  2. The treadmill - Leaving your shoebox apartment every day in NYC is like jumping on a moving treadmill. The city that never sleeps, never really stands still, never really walks. She runs - and sometimes this what you need to get you running too.
  3. Organized chaos - Cram 2 million people into a 4km strip and chaos ensues. Except somehow it doesn't. Somehow the cogs of this crazy place move together, and amongst the garbage and traffic, are bike lanes, parks, sports courts, jogging tracks — this is a pretty darn good balance of chaos and harmony.

So as I head back to a simpler, calmer, slower pace of life, I know I'll miss you NYC. You are the beautiful crazy girlfriend I know I shouldn't be with. You are the perfect, sweet, slice of bread - but I know you're not good for me.


David Smyth. Jack of many trades, master of few. Tech Product Manager, Husband and Father. This is where I share general observations and the lessons I'm learning.