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The Rush of the Risk – Searching for Thrills

Some love the thrill. Others get scared when they just think about a fast drive or skydiving. Psychologists like author Nele Langosch are tracking down the origin of our adventurousness.

The Rush of the Risk – Searching for Thrills

A fast drive, skydiving and adventure holidays: some people are always looking for a thrill – and take considerable risks to get it. Psychologists have been doing research on this need for new experiences for a long time. And they found out one thing: a few heart palpitations can lead to lots of happiness.

The landscape is rushing by. The couple in Roy Lichtenstein’s »In The Car« seems to be moving at incredible speed. The blonde woman is being pressed into her seat. The driver is looking over at her as if to check if she is scared – he seems to fully enjoy the fast drive.

Not every one of us shares this sense of adventurousness. While some enjoy rollercoasters and motorbikes and use their vacations to jump off cliffs or backpack through foreign countries, others despise this kind of thrill. They prefer a calm routine and being in situations that surprise them as little as possible.

Psychologists call this search for thrills »Sensation Seeking«. The term was coined by the American professor of psychology Marvin Zuckerman who extensively researched this trait in the 1960s. Using a questionnaire that he had developed himself, Zuckerman was able to show that every person has a different need for new and intense stimuli. People with a high score can usually not wait to jump off a plane while strapped to a parachute, run the next triathlon or watch a horror movie. The special quality about this group is that these »sensation seekers« don’t feel crippling fear while doing these things – instead they get a thrill that is a mixture of tension and delight. To achieve this feeling, they will even risk danger.

People such as the Austrian extreme athlete Felix Baumgartner who made headlines by jumping from the stratosphere in 2012. Or the German Jochen Schweizer who bungee-jumped from a helicopter at 2500 metres in 1997 – today, he successfully sells adventure-gift cards to fellow sensation seekers. In fact, tremendous adventures seem more attainable than ever: every single year, more people climb Mount Everest than ever before.

Psychologists know that a certain mixture of tension and relaxation is perceived as pleasant. But every person differs in their perception of an ideal level of excitement. Some people already get enough of a kick out of action-packed computer games or movies while others have to climb skyscrapers to get the same thrill.

The pleasant sensation of luck during such a period of being thrilled is the result of the release of dopamine. This substance kick-starts the reward systems of our brains. The result: we feel amazing. »Sensation seekers« have the need to experience this state of mind over and over again. They become repeat offenders who live by the motto of »higher, further, faster« to meet their own boundaries. Researchers put people with different appreciation levels of risk on the same climbing course – a task that is usually a trigger for the release of stress hormones. But the »sensation seekers« had the same level of stress hormones in their blood before and after completing the course. They were sure that they were able to master the task without getting harmed.

But what exactly determines whether we love risks or not? Genes seem to play a huge part: it looks as though our need for thrills is inherited for the most part. But how strongly this adventurousness is pronounced also depends on non-genetic factors such as experience and role models. Age and gender play a part, too: young people and men often look for change. As we get older, our desire for safety increases.

Be careful: those who tread closely to the brink might fall. Some underestimate danger and lose their life during risky adventures. Other »sensation seekers« are being led astray by their need for variety: they take drugs to live through stronger and more extreme experiences or even become criminals as some research shows.

But for the most part, a little adventure is very healthy. Studies have shown that those who seek risks are more content than others. This might be because they are more successful. »No risk, no fun« as they say. And you don’t have to start with skydiving – looking beyond your regular experiences and being open to new things can be enough to make anyone surprisingly happy.