Going for It

Turns out that trying unfamiliar things, even somewhat risky ones, can actually make us happier

By Whitney Joiner

It definitely wasn't the most rational decision I'd ever made. In the summer of 2006, I traveled to Marfa, the tiny bohemian art town on the Texas-Mexico border. I was there for work, but I fell in love, quickly and hard, with the place's kooky cast of characters and its easygoing style. And just like that, I decided to stay. I was only 28, arguably not the best age to leave behind a still-fledgling career in New York City. But the sheer excitement of the plan trumped any pragmatic concerns I might have had.


Throughout my life, the high that comes f rom experiencing newness has motivated countless decisions, both small and large, from enrolling in cooking class to camping solo on cross-country drives. And yet, if I'm going to be honest, I also have to acknowledge the flip side of that drive: the part of my personality that's wary of commitment and prone to restlessness and distraction. (Did my iPhone just ping?)

According to science journalist Winifred Gallagher, author of New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change, my attraction to novel experiences -- and the weaknesses that go along with it -- are signs of an avid "neophile," or novelty seeker. Neophilia is the trait that compels us to gravitate toward the unfamiliar -- to strike up a conversation with that attractive stranger seated next to us on the plane, to sample an octopus tentacle when we're out to dinner, to take up bongo lessons. More grandly, it's what led humans to invent everything from the alphabet to the latest app. Thanks to a combination of genetics (nature) and socialization (nurture), "humans are primed to adapt to, learn about, and create new things that help us survive and prosper," Gallagher says.

Yet not everyone reacts to novel experiences the same way. Neophiliacs, a group that some psychologists say makes up about 15 percent of the global population, represent just one end of the emotional spectrum. These fans of the unfamiliar are zealous about life but also predisposed to recklessness and a belief that normal rules don't apply to them. (Bill Clinton is one of Gallagher's favorite examples.)

On the other end of the span are neophobes, people who instinctively avoid new things. These change-averse individuals -- also estimated to constitute 15 percent of society -- are apt to get stuck in emotional and lifestyle ruts, and "can be overcautious and worrywarts," Gallagher says. On the plus side, they are often thoughtful and introspective. My stepfather, a lover of routines who's meticulous in many areas of life, could very well be a textbook example: He refuses to try any type of unknown-to-him cuisine, and he proudly wore the same wacky tie every Friday during his career as a public school teacher. Whereas neophiliacs often view sudden change as energizing, he finds it disruptive.

Somewhere in the more comfortable middle are the remaining 70 percent. Named neophiles, these people take a wait-and-see approach and are able to selectively focus on new things that are important and helpful, rather than letting any stimuli that come along hijack their attention.

A Personality Trait Grows Up

C. Robert Cloninger, a professor of psychiatry, genetics, and psychology at the Washington University School of Medicine, in St. Louis, began studying novelty seeking while immersed in research on alcoholism and drug addiction. "Experiments showed that gamblers, alcoholics, people who crave rewards" tended to score high on tests measuring novelty-seeking tendencies. Because of this, neophilia had something of a bad rap -- it was a personality trait more likely to be associated with wayward teens than with successful adults. And although researchers saw certain merits in novely seekers -- like their innate sense of curiosity -- the typical neophiliac, Cloninger says, "had an image of being immature, impulsive, and quick-tempered."

But recently, neophilia has experienced a bit of an image boost. In a study published in 2011 that followed more than 2,000 adults over 10 years, Cloninger and his colleagues found that having a penchant for the new was associated with long-term well-being. "We're seeing that high novelty-seeking is part of the constellation of traits that promotes personal growth," Cloninger says. "If someone is going to keep growing, they're not going to be content with what they've done in the past, and the advantage to being a novelty seeker is that you're curious and inquisitive; you explore new things and you're not rigid."

Bill Treasurer, a neophiliac, has made a career out of taking huge chances. He spent seven years on the U.S. high-diving team, and, in stunt performances, has sometimes leaped from heights of more than 100 feet, plunging into small pools that were a mere 10 feet deep.

"Risk takers seek out excitement to amplify the feelings of being alive," says Treasurer, who now runs Giant Leap Consulting, a company focused on combating fear in the workplace, in Asheville, North Carolina. "The people who tend to avoid risk don't want to overheat from the excitement." Now 20 years sober, Treasurer is also aware of neophilia's liabilities. "A risk taker could steal a car for excitement as a youth--or could start a new business as an adult," he says. The secret is finding ways to channel a risk-taking appetite into productive actions. When neophiliacs succeed in doing so, Treasurer says, "it can be tremendous for society -- they're often entrepreneurs and inventors."

The Raccoon Test

The insula is a lobe deep in the br ain that helps govern emotional arousal. When a neophiliac is shown something new, the insula immediately triggers a "check it out!" reaction. In the same person, the region of the brain that reins in the impulse to take risks, the anterior cingulate cortex, switches on only after the person is already primed to proceed with a novel experience. Scientists know this because they've scanned the brains of neophiliacs and neophobes with magnetic resonance imaging machines. In the brains of the latter, the sequence is reversed, prompting those who are more circumspect about new things to experience a strong "avoid" reaction.

Gallagher sums it up in lay terms: If a raccoon walks through the yard at a barbecue, the neophiliac says, "Let's go check out the raccoon!" and starts striding toward the bandit-masked beast. The neophobe, meanwhile, digs in his heels and says, "It could have rabies; let's back off."

On a neurochemical level, it's dopamine, the neurotransmitter in charge of the brain's novelty- and reward-seeking responses, that's playing a decisive role. "Dopamine makes you want things, especially new or pleasurable ones," writes Gallagher in New. "Whenever you encounter something that's enjoyable, like a glass of wine, or intriguingly novel, like a glamorous stranger at a neighborhood party, a spritz of dopamine jacks up your level of arousal."

In the 1990s, researchers discovered that people who are high-level novelty seekers are more likely to carry a variant of a dopamine gene, one that may wire them to be even more aroused by stimuli than the general population. Scientists believe the genetic variant emerged 50,000 years ago through evolution, giving rise to a dopamine receptor that is, ironically, less capable of binding to dopamine. Carriers of the weaker receptor are more likely to "seek out strong stimuli, or they get bored," Cloninger says.

It's a variant that 25 percent of Americans of Western European descent share, according to researchers at the University of California-Irvine, which means that a large portion of our population is genetically inclined to embrace change. "America is a land of immigrants, who are right away open to new experiences," Gallagher points out, "or they wouldn't have picked up and moved."

Lessons in Balance

Last year, John Sharp, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, traveled with his family to their favorite beach in the Bahamas. "One of my daughters decided we should go to another beach and take a surf lesson," Sharp says. "I didn't want to go. I just wanted to treasure the days and keep things the same." He was the lone dissenter in the group, he says. "But once I reframed it as 'This is an adventure!' instead of thinking it was a ridiculous idea, I cheered up, and we had a great time."

Sharp, who specializes in treating addiction and attention deficit disorder, among other psychiatric conditions, believes that novelty seeking offers a way to stay actively engaged with life over the long haul. "Happiness isn't being cheerful all the time," he says. "It's being interested in things -- finding out more about something, learning how to appreciate something better, incorporating something new that fits in with what you already have."

Yet as anyone who once had a funky, fashionable wardrobe and now wears elastic-waist pants knows, we're less likely to try new things as we grow older. Cloninger found that between the ages of 20 and 60, novelty seeking drops off at a rate of about 10 percent per decade, which can make staying receptive to newness a challenge. "As we age, we need to try not to let ourselves get in a rut, but to continually challenge ourselves with new ideas," he says.

To that end, both Gallagher and Cloninger say it's vital to use big-picture life values as motivation. For those at the low end of the neophilia spectr um, that may mean taking the carpe diem concept to heart, remembering that the more we embrace life, the more we'll get out of it -- whether it's trying a new restaurant or applying for a more fulfilling, if somewhat daunting, job. "I do think that a lot of people who have a high need for novelty appreciate just how fragile life is," Treasurer says. "I want to get in as much of this life before I kick as possible."

And for those of us who seize the day a little too often? The goal, says Cloninger, is to pair novelty seeking with persistence, and with what he calls "self-transcendence" -- an interest in working toward something larger. "We have to think not only about craving pleasure and getting thrills, but also about what's meaningful to us," he says. "That's where persistence comes in -- it's a bridge between seeking satisfaction and seeking meaning." In other words, the best adventures have value beyond becoming entertaining stories told at the bar.

Given my neophiliac tendencies, persistence hasn't traditionally been my strong suit. But in recent years, I've become much more attuned to its benefits. I'm still here in Marfa. And contrary to my restless nature and a lifelong skepticism of religion and spirituality, I began studying meditation in a Tibetan Buddhist community about 10 years ago. It started out of curiosity -- but I stuck with it, committing to a teacher and daily practice.

Gallagher likes to tell the neophiliac that she should stop using her inquiring mind "like a floodlight, and start using it as a laser." Sitting, and watching my breath, even during those moments when I'm dying to check e-mail, has certainly required self-discipline. And these days, when I realize that I'm bouncing in multiple directions, I find it's much easier to rein myself in and laserize. I've been surprised at how often focusing on just one thing -- one train of thought, one relationship, one goal -- has offered its own brand of excitement, one that is much more enduring.

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