“You risk so much hesitating to fling yourself into the abyss” – 18th Century French Monk

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek” – Joseph Campbell

When was the last time you did something adventurous? Just to be clear, I’m not referring to thrill-seeking activities like skydiving or whitewater rafting, or anything else you might have on your bucket list. Far from it. I’m talking about deviating from your usual routines, such as trying a new food or restaurant, changing the route of your walk, talking to a stranger, or being open-minded to learning something new.

We humans are creatures of habit, mainly because trying something new or out of the ordinary can feel incredibly stressful. And the older we get, the more stuck in our ways we tend to become. But being tightly tied to our routines and never leaving our comfort zone can be unhealthy. In fact, falling into predictable patterns of behavior can make us feel like we’re languishing, “a condition that is characterized by a lack of motivation, low energy, and a general feeling of hopelessness”.  These feelings can lead to a decline in our overall mental health if we don’t take steps toward cultivating a sense of wonder and adventure.

When you do the same thing over and over, your brain goes into what researchers call “autopilot mode.” This is because you know what to expect and how to respond, and you don’t have to pay attention to the present moment. By avoiding doing things that are new or uncomfortable, we stop forcing our brains to work and make hard choices. For instance, always walking the same route, eating the same foods, talking to the same people, or performing the same job in the same way day in and day out. Routines have their place, but not when they put your life on autopilot. Research shows that when we slip into predictable routines, especially as we age, life loses its meaning. Older adults, on average, are less motivated to seek new experiences and skills, which might indirectly accelerate aging and cognitive decline.

The Benefits of Adventure, No Matter Your Age

People walking along a trail in the forest

Being adventurous isn’t just for young, carefree types. It’s something anyone can seek at any age if we want to live well and feel more alive. It feeds our curiosity and excitement of exploration and can satisfy our innate sense of awe, which is beneficial for our health. In his book Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, Dr. Dacher Keltner writes that “awe is critical to our well-being — just like joy, contentment‌ and love”.  His research suggests that having a sense of awe and wonder can have a calming effect on our hurried, tech-dependent lives.

Our habituation to our smartphones and social media accounts “nurtures ego-centric tendencies,” encouraging us to stare at our screens instead of deeply engaging with other people and in life. “By not being challenged, we miss something vital about being human. We never realize what we’re capable of and this limits us.” Dr. Keltner believes that developing a sense of wonder and adventure can help us get out of our own heads and “realize our place in the larger context, our communities”.

Ways to Bring Adventure into Our Lives

Adventure is in our DNA. Exploration is one of the best things we can do to live in the moment, learn new things, experience awe, and more. As we grow older, it’s common to become less flexible and more stuck in our ways. Neurologist Dr. Philippe Douyon says that our adult brains benefit from novelty and new experiences. If we’ve retired, he insists that we should be “constantly evolving, learning new skills, interacting with different people, learning new languages, traveling the world, having new experiences”.

Some people are more open to new experiences and adventures, but even if you’re a homebody, you can still find ways to develop an openness through everyday choices. Choose a food you don’t usually eat, listen to music that you aren’t familiar with, take a different route on your walk, or take part in a social activity where you are inclined to have conversations with new people. One great option is to find that social connection and taste for adventure by joining our Off the Beaten Path Walking/Hiking Group. Each weekend we set out on a new adventure, usually within an hour’s drive from Davis, to challenge our minds and bodies by navigating unfamiliar terrain while taking in the sensory experiences of nature.

Humans are the ultimate explorers. No other animal species has traveled the world and adapted to various outdoor environments like we have. The curious nature of our species has led us on adventures to navigate thousands of miles on foot, sail across oceans, and cross continents in trains, automobiles and airplanes. We have gone to the moon and back, and possibly someday to Mars. By tapping into our instinctive urges for exploration, wonder and adventure, we can better understand the world around us. More importantly, we can learn something about ourselves and what we are truly capable of.