The Nature Fix: Why We’re Hardwired for Adventure

A couple of years ago, a stay-at-home mom named Gillian Schair was watching a TV show about a lady detective in the 1920s who belongs to a race car driving club. “I thought, ‘I want to start a club of women who do exciting adventures together,’” she said. So, Schair, who lives in Portland, Maine, turned off the TV, gathered 25 friends into her living room and launched the Ladies Adventure Club. It now boasts 175 women of all ages who go outdoors in all weather conditions to climb mountains, paddle rivers and bays, ski, snowshoe and camp.

“I feel more alive when I adventure,” Schair told me recently. “I spent a good portion of my life being a little bit afraid, not willing to take risks. Then in my 30s, I decided I don’t have to be perfect. It’s okay to take risks and fail. It opened up something inside of me and made me feel energized and thrilled. Being a little outside our comfort zone pushes our interior envelopes a bit.”

Neuroscience, psychology and even anthropology back up what Schair has experienced. Humans are meant to seek adventure. Homo sapiens became the world’s most successful hominid in part because we migrated all over the globe into nearly every possible ecosystem. The thirst for new, exciting experiences is part of our DNA, although some of us crave it more than others.

Humans are meant to seek adventure.

Letting ourselves be the fun-seeking, exploratory animal we are—pursuing adventures outside—can have big, even profound, impacts on our otherwise citified selves. That’s one of the reasons clinical psychologists are increasingly turning to “adventure therapy” to help patients deal with relationship problems, self-confidence issues and post-traumatic stress.

What makes adventuring so powerful for our psyches? It’s complicated, according to Colorado-based therapist Aleya Littleton, who specializes in recovery from trauma. An activity like rock or ice climbing demands presence, mindfulness and an ability to slow down the breath, assess your environment and take action. The metaphors of progress and accomplishment are useful (Climb on! One foot in front of the other!), and so is the physiological regulation of our nervous systems. “Adventure therapy is about finding your strengths,” Littleton said.

Studies have shown that adventure experiences can improve self-competency, personal empowerment, trust, personal identityemotional resiliency and social bonding.

And it can just make us stoked. There’s something about playing in the sweet spot of arousal—the emotional zone between boredom and total fear—that fully engages us. Psychologists call this a state of flow. A little bit of fear, which could be re-framed as excitement, energizes a healthy brain and forces us to pay attention. It helps us be mindful and fully engaged, and it’s a key part of mastering skills. If we’re practicing a sport we love in a landscape we love, our brain will release rewarding neurotransmitters, like dopamine and oxytocin.

Adventuring in the winter can also create an extra thrill from being a little farther outside our comfort zone and from the novelty of it, if we are new to sports like snowshoeing, ice climbing or skiing. And don’t let the weather keep you indoors. A 2008 study led by University of Chicago psychologist Mark Berman found even in crummy, blustery weather, subjects who hiked around an arboretum in January showed improvements in short-term memory and attention.

For Gillian Schair, winter also means extra solitude, and the happy absence of Maine’s famous flying, biting insects. “I love the snow, the trees and the pine-tree feel of the air. There’s something about being outside when it’s cold and still.”

Her advice? Grab a friend, some warm clothes and a thermos, and get outside.

Read more stories in The Nature Fix series