As we commence the annual ritual of pledging to be trimmer, thriftier, tidier and overall more disciplined human beings, consider adding another goal to the list of resolutions: riskier.
Whether it's reaching for Mount Everest or reaching for a promotion, plunging from a perfectly good airplane or plunging into marriage, 2014 can be a year of living adventurously, if only we confront those primal fears that so often hold us back.
Three authors with varied perspectives weighed in on the value of taking risks and releasing the stranglehold of fears that can keep us from pursuing potentially enriching experiences.
David Ropeik, risk perception consultant
Feeling afraid evolved as an adaptive trait, an intuitive reaction that allows you to make a quick judgment about whether something is a threat when you don't have all the information, said David Ropeik, a risk perception consultant and author of "How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts" (McGraw-Hill).
"Risk is not a fact," Ropeik said. "It is a feeling."
Although that instinct worked wonders for our primitive ancestors fleeing lions and bears, the more complicated risks of the modern world require more careful thought, Ropeik said.
Otherwise, we fear some things too much and some things too little, and the mistakes can be dangerous. For example, many people might fear going scuba diving on vacation in the South Pacific, lest they encounter a very unlikely shark, while they wouldn't hesitate to venture into the sun for hours without sun protection, despite plenty of evidence of the dangers.
"We should challenge ourselves to be more critical thinkers," Ropeik said. "Don't just react and you're done. Get the facts, have more say in the combat with your feelings."
Individual life experiences as well as personality traits influence what we see as risky in the world, which is why some people are terrified of earthquakes and others are far more petrified of commitment.
Several characteristics of the risks themselves also feed our gut feelings that drive our fears.
For example, if the benefit that would result from taking the risk is overwhelming, people feel less scared of it, Ropeik said. Having more control also makes something less scary. So does familiarity.
To mitigate fears so that you feel more comfortable taking a risk, address those characteristics, Ropeik said.
To use the scuba diving example, you might envision and focus on the beauty of the South Pacific and other benefits. To gain some feeling of control, you might do research on which waters have man-eating species and avoid them. You might make the unfamiliar experience more familiar simply by visiting Trip
Advisor and getting acquainted with the region.
Those steps don't necessarily make the experience any safer, but it starts to feel less scary, Ropeik said.
Alternatively, people should be aware that some situations with a high benefit, control or familiarity profile don't feel risky when actually they are, such as texting while driving, and should be careful not to get too comfortable, Ropeik said.
Sharon Salzberg, Buddhist meditation teacher
Though conventional wisdom suggests we are most afraid of the unknown, Sharon Salzberg believes her fears stem from a feeling that she does know what will happen if she takes a risk — namely, that her efforts will flop. That foregone conclusion made her timid about writing her first book even as all her colleagues were doing so. She was closing doors before she opened them.