Happiness can be risky

Why are some people inclined to jump out of airplanes or risk thousands in the stock market, while others find it difficult just to meet new people? Why do some of us avoid risk at all costs, while for others it’s a way of life? 

The psychology of risk-taking assumes that there are different kinds of risks. For some, risk-taking reduces boredom. For others, it’s a means to an end — a ‘necessary evil’ in order to gain something better. Risk describes a wide array of motivations and incentives.

One type of risk-taker is the ‘sensation seeker.’ They need the rush they experience when doing something dangerous; from mountain climbing and skydiving to drugs and gambling; from driving race cars to day-trading in the stock market. Risks can be reckless (such as drugs), or reasonably undertaken (as with the relative safety of organized car racing). But sensation and excitement are the motivations for all.

Interestingly, risk-taking personalities are the exact opposite of those who suffer from depression. Clinically depressed people hold negative assumptions about virtually everything. They assume that it’s not possible to get what you want in life; that people are not to be trusted, and that no matter how careful they are, their endeavors won’t turn out well. Risk-takers are just the opposite. They minimize the possibility that things might not go well, and focus on what might or can go well. Depressed people often focus on luck, or ‘fate.’ Risk-takers are more concerned with exercising control over their environment. 

Seeking that rush can be reckless. Some people drink too much and drive like maniacs. Cautious risk-takers approach ‘extreme’ hobbies such as surfing, skiing, skydiving and gun collecting with intelligence and responsibility. The difference? While some blindly go by the seat of their pants, rational risk-takers plan for and try to guard against the attendant dangers. 

Intelligent risk-taking is mentally healthy. ‘No pain, no gain’ actually means, ‘No risk taken, no possibility of gain.’ Or, more accurately, ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained.’ I spend a lot of time trying to convince clinically depressed people to think more like this.

Marvin Zuckerman, Ph.D., a researcher commenting on risk in Psychology Today, agrees. ‘Although risk-taking has negative aspects’, it is a positive force as well. Without risk, humanity would stagnate; there would be little impetus for discovery.’ He’s right. Every forward step in history involves someone, somewhere, taking a risk. What’s true for mankind is equally true for individuals: In order to accomplish something we want, we have to take chances. If we don’t, we’ll never know if we could have achieved our goal.

You want a nicer house? Or a medical degree? Or a new romantic partner? Then you figure out how to go about it. If you discover you can’t, then you have to accept reality. But if you can, you proceed without letting fear hold you back. Risk-takers trust their intelligence to figure out, with reasonable certainty, what does and what doesn’t make sense. And then they act.

Depressed people become paralyzed with fear, never progressing into the realm of action. Foregoing all risks, they’re rewarded with paralysis and depression.

The depressed person thinks, ‘Something could go wrong. I don’t want to make a mistake. So I’ll stay put.’ The risk-taker says, ‘I’m going to assume it can go well until there’s good evidence to the contrary.’ To the non-risk-taker, that attitude seems downright crazy. Yet the typical risk-taker will tell you that when the process is carefully thought out, things generally go better than expected. Even in the midst of failure or disappointment, the risk-taker feels like he’s at least living life rather than hiding from it.

Risk gets a bad name because it gets lumped with sensation-seeking. But they aren’t the same. Diving out of airplanes and the like are fine for people who pursue these activities intelligently and rationally, but they are far from being life requirements. On the other hand, neurotically avoiding reasonable day-to-day challenges and trials can be an even greater risk to your psychological health.