Is Risk The Cure to Our Mass Languishing?

Amid global upheaval, a daily routine has never been more alluring — but chaos and unpredictability may be as essential to our psychological wellbeing as they are inescapable.

Article by Helen Hawkes

water drain down on stainless steel kitchen sink hole. top view sewer in washbasin. household plumbing. cleaning and hygiene concept.

Of all the songs that have emerged from pandemic life, it is perhaps Em Beihold’s “Numb Little Bug” — a track that went viral on TikTok — that best reflects an unsettling aspect of the current collective psyche. “Do you ever get a little bit tired of life?” asks the artist. “Like, you’re not really happy but you don’t wanna die?” Catchy pop production aside, the song’s lyrics give voice to a kind of mental and emotional fatigue that psychologists refer to as “languishing”. It’s the opposite of flourishing; or as Dr Amantha Imber, an organisational psychologist and the founder of the behavioural science consultancy Inventium, describes it: “You’re not waking up and jumping out of bed.”

The unpredictable nature of the world we live in — climate change and the likelihood of more extreme bushfires and floods, coupled with international conflict and Covid-19 — might be to blame for this mass ennui. Or is it the safety culture we have unwittingly slid into (even before the pandemic), a way of life that discourages us from taking the risks necessary for individual and collective progress? In the book “Safe Enough: Managing Risk and Regulation” (2000), the academic Mark Neal argues that risk aversion in Western society has become “both the norm and the key fin-de-siecle cultural value”. Human existence has always been a risky affair, he says, but in bygone times the culture reflected these perils and they were considered part of life.

“In Victorian society, people did not expect to live to a ripe old age and were relatively stoic about the real and immediate risks to their lives they were confronted with daily,” he writes, adding that even as late as the early 20th century, “the incidence of death in childbirth was high, infant mortality was high and the risks of death from influenza and tuberculosis were high”.

As the standard of life improved, people began to rethink their relationships, circumstances and place in society. Simply put, we began to expect more, with less risk. “Every day we are exposed to accounts of instant wealth, instant beauty, instant perfection,” Neal writes. “People are brought up to seek individual growth, to express themselves with no regard to self-control or restrictions — in other words, to expect health and happiness.”

As the author and cultural critic Virginia Heffernan sees it, humans are not disposed to radical departures from their daily rounds. And so we seek excitement in efficiency. As she argues in Politico magazine: “the recent fantasy of ‘optimising’ a life — for peak performance, productivity, efficiency — has created a cottage industry that tries to make the dreariest possible lives sound heroic.” What if, instead of turning to bestsellers for tips on automating our behaviours, from bed-making to business meetings, we sought joy in spontaneity? If it’s a meaningful life we seek, Heffernan argues that we must take a more expansive and braver approach to our everyday existence.

The quest for a life less ordinary has been complicated by the pandemic, of course, during which health restrictions made our world safer but tamer. By promoting solitude to reduce the spread of the virus, policy necessarily deprived us of the intoxicating chaos of uninhibited mingling with other members of the human race. And we’re still feeling the effects of those restrictions today, says Imber. “Post-lockdowns, we have become very sensitised to external stimuli. A large variety of sounds and people, even on a commute, can be overwhelming.”

In August last year, more than 40 per cent of us were regularly working from home, reports the Australian Bureau of Statistics, a trend it predicted would continue after the pandemic. There can be little less exciting than, day after day, finishing breakfast then walking a few steps to the home office (or even staying at the kitchen table) for Zoom meetings. Likewise, binge-watching Netflix is no substitute for music festivals, think-tank conferences or other events where the atmosphere vibrates with ideas and possibilities. So why is it that, although most Australians are fully vaccinated, our lives have been reduced to the living room?

Is it because we are encouraged to feel fragile? In “Safe Enough”, published more than two decades ago, Neal writes that those who perpetuate controversies relating to industrial products and processes, be it overhead powerlines, alcohol, food additives, cars, sugar, salt, mobile phones, soft drinks or water purity, contribute to our intolerance of risk. If it is a more spontaneous, joyful life we seek, it may be necessary to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom.

Granted, we are not immune to dangers or natural disasters (the United Nations predicts the latter will occur about 1.5 times a day globally by 2030) but, in spite of what we may believe, we are actually living longer, healthier, safer, wealthier, freer and more peaceful lives than those who came before us.

“In Australia, we don’t have bombs flying or snipers on the street,” says Nick Enfield, a professor of linguistics at the University of Sydney and the inaugural director of the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre. “Yet we resist the idea that some aspects of our lives, including personal growth, are anti-fragile and need to be pushed to get stronger.” Research shows that emotional resilience is enhanced when people undergo multiple experiences of stress over time because they develop coping strategies that can be called on in the future. In other words, the confidence that helps us step outside our safety zone and discover the thrill of living functions like a muscle, growing stronger with use.

Dr Glenn Singleman, a physician and professional adventurer, believes habits may be the greatest risk to personal fulfilment. “Never taking opportunities for self-actualisation is one of the tragedies of life,” he says. “We are lucky enough to live in a world where we have that possibility — many other cultures have to worry about food or shelter — but how many people actually pursue that?” He and his partner, the author Heather Swan, are passionate about extreme sports; by climbing rocks and jumping off mountains, they engage with fear so that they might learn to overcome it. “The level of self-awareness spreads out into the rest of our life,” says Singleman. He and Swan recently helped set up a skydiving program in Antarctica and quit the city to buy a 40-hectare farm.

For Mackenzie Casey, an Australian entrepreneur who founded the peer-to-peer fashion app HUMM in New York at age 20, being in the exact same position in your career or relationship in a year’s time is a lot more scary than doing something outside of your comfort zone. Two years after she created the app, Casey raised two rounds of funding by pitching to more than 100 venture capitalists from Silicon Valley to New York. “Standing in front of a roomful of accomplished businesspeople, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed. But the thought of living a life in fear and not taking a risk far outweighed the possibilities of ‘What if?’,” she says.

The social entrepreneur John Wood faced a similar decision. Following a trip to Nepal, he shocked his colleagues by abandoning his role as a director of business development at Microsoft to found the global nonprofit Room to Read, having promised a headmaster he would return to the country with books for his students. Wood’s organisation now improves literacy and gender equality for more than 23 million children in low-income countries. Reflecting on his decision, he says he had two options: remain in tech or “jump out of the aeroplane and pray that the parachute would deploy”.

Of course, the solution to overcoming fear and a life of mediocrity is not necessarily to leave your job or take up adventure sports. It could mean committing to a challenge that matters to you — a project you find interesting or a worthwhile goal, such as developing a better relationship — and re-thinking rigid patterns of behaviour while respecting some fundamental structures. Expanding your comfort zone should be done slowly and systematically. As Singleman points out: “We are risk managers, not risk takers, who learn the rules of a sport before engaging in it.”

Researchers have posited that thrillseekers may have a variant of the D4DR gene that makes them less sensitive to feel-good dopamine and more likely to seek stimulation, however study results are inconclusive. Rather, epigenetics suggests that our behaviour determines how our genes help write the story of our lives. This means that any one of us may benefit from adopting a bolder philosophy. In the Politico article, Heffernan urges readers to consider the work of the Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus. Recognising that the universe refuses to comply with our natural desire for order and meaning, Camus argued that we must learn to live in the present moment and to take ownership of our individuality — essentially, to live as rebels.

Perhaps the pandemic and perils of climate change will force us to realise a stark reality: life is short and we had better make the most of it. Is it possible that the restrictions we’ve lived through could inspire us to become more innovative, adaptive and resilient? They might prompt some of us to turn our back on behaviours that weren’t serving us. Looking abroad, there is anecdotal evidence of people abandoning safe but boring nine-to-five jobs and starting the business they always dreamed of, and of partners leaving unsatisfying relationships to strike out on their own.

Harnessing our “anti-fragility” may lead us somewhere we once considered too extreme, expensive or risky, whether it’s moving countries or founding a not-for-profit. To start, Swan proposes a tandem skydive or a hot air balloon flight at sunrise; this, she says, will blow away the cobwebs and reveal what’s been hiding beneath. History is rich with examples of risk takers who changed the world, from Amelia Earhart to Harvey Milk and Greta Thunberg. It remembers few who chose the well-trodden, but dull, path.

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression and anxiety, help is available from Lifeline on 13 11 14 and Beyond Blue, 1300 224 636.

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our seventh edition, Page 44 of T Australia with the headline: “The Rewards of Risk”