Plans put on hold. Frenzied weekends or meticulously stacked PTO hours all idling but raring to jump into action. WE NEED ACTION! "How is that these other adventure peers are out there getting after it? What am I missing out on this time?" Many of us are climbing the walls, having heartbreaking stare-downs with gear, and just feeling "off." But is it healthy? Brad Meiklejohn has been asking himself this question and offers his opinion about the downsides of adrenaline addiction and FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). In our collective downtime, perhaps it's time to recalibrate what truly scratches the itch and makes us feel happy.
By Brad Meiklejohn
It seems there is always something else that we would rather be doing. We want to be out there, but we are stuck in here. Our friends are skiing, boating, hiking and we are not. We are missing out, and it feels lousy.
Happiness is there, we think, not here.
"We commonly mistake excitement for happiness," observed the Burmese meditation master Sayadaw U Pandita. I was pole-axed when I first heard that pithy observation. That's the story of my life. I have been running from one adventure to the next with the mistaken assumption that I can perpetuate happiness if I never stop moving.
Ask anybody, and they'll tell you that I love adventure. Running wild rivers, climbing wild mountains, skiing wild snow, and chasing wild animals have defined my life. I've had more than my share of exhilaration. For nearly five decades, the ball never touched the ground.
But as I grew older, I couldn't keep the ball in the air full time. Like an injured shark, if I wasn't going forward, I was sinking. I was a junkie in perennial need of an adventure fix, but running out of functioning veins to stick the needle in.
Adventure addiction is endemic to Alaska, my home state. We pack the short, intense summers with twelve months of urgency. My friend Matt calls it the Recreation Rat Race. The salmon are running, and so are we, terrified of getting to October with no adventure scalps to show. Not having a wilderness outing in the bank by the end of June makes many people I know surly and deeply anxious. We elevate those who seem to always to be on cooler trips than us, and we fail miserably in comparison.
It's not just Alaskans who suffer. This thing has a name, an acronym, and a Wikipedia entry. Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is "a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent."
I have a good friend, one of the most prominent adventurers in Alaska, who openly expresses jealousy about my outings and anxiety about getting his next fix. This is not just an amusing neurosis; two friends of mine took their own lives when they were consumed by it. Thirty others close to me died skiing, climbing, and paddling, unable to resist the allure of obviously dangerous situations, because, in their words, "that is where I feel most alive," "it's totally worth it," "I am at my best when I risk it all" and "this is what makes me happy."
I could still end up as one of those numbers.
I grew up believing that happiness was out there, as Mom would always say, "What are we going to do today to get outside for some fresh air and exercise?" I distinctly recall the family anxiety levels rising if we let a sunny day "go to waste."
My path led me into skiing, climbing, and avalanche forecasting, a working definition of the dirtbag good life. After many close calls and dead friends, I deliberately dragged myself away from Utah to escape the recreation rat race and my circle of adrenaline junkies. But in relocating to Alaska, I slid back into old habits, switching over to packrafting as my drug of choice. I fell in with an adrenalized crowd and got carried away on the current, not wanting to be that guy who couldn't stone up and was left behind. I was once again trapped in the persona of "Bradical" that needed to be groomed and enhanced with ever cooler and harder trips.
I am writing this because I still struggle with an unhealthy relationship with recreation. Looking out from my desk on a sunny summer day makes me anxious. The urgency of the summer calendar makes me irritable. The knowledge that my friends are planning and doing cool trips gnaws at me. Bradical wants to "re-create" something, but he's not sure what or why.
By pegging our happiness and our self-esteem to going and doing, we build a trap we can never escape. Even if you could sustain the Endless Summer, you'd still just be a gerbil on a wheel, mistaking excitement for happiness. Every single adventure in our lives has ended, and with it, the temporary thrill. While there was some satisfaction at the time, sooner or later, that faded out, replaced by restlessness, anxiety, and anticipation for the next hit.
The cycle that keeps us hooked on recreation is the same one that operates for addicts of cocaine, alcohol, chocolate, email, and Facebook. It's a simple process called "operant conditioning" wired into us by millions of years of evolution: we are triggered to do a behavior that offers a reward. The triggers typically register as forms of stress that we experience in the mind or body. It might be hunger that causes us to seek food that fills our belly. It might be boredom that causes us to check our email for a dopamine hit. It might be depression that causes us to ski, climb, or paddle something risky to improve our self-esteem.
There are plenty of good reasons to enjoy nature and adventure. Exercise and fresh air have proven health benefits, and spending time with friends outside is undoubtedly good for us. But if your time outside is a compulsion, something that you have to do to feel sane and happy, you may have an unhealthy relationship with recreation.
It's worth asking yourself a few questions. Do I have to do X to be happy? If I don't do X, do I feel anxious or frustrated? If others are doing X and I am not, am I happy for them, or am I jealous and depressed? If I do X, how long does the satisfaction last? Your answers will reveal whether you have an unhealthy relationship with recreation.
The obsessive drive to recreate is often felt first as a gripping restlessness or anxiety that climbers call "pacing the cage." Pay attention to exactly how this feels in the body. Does this stress dissipate during and after recreation? Is the stress greater if you cannot recreate? How quickly does it return?
The more often you give in to the stress and attempt to alleviate it with recreation, the more pronounced and regular the stress becomes. If you "scratch the itch" the wound never heals. We convince ourselves that our stress can only be relieved by a dose of recreation. If you always seek recreation when you feel blue, soon you are medicating ourselves with recreation. If you can't recreate, your depression deepens. This becomes a never-ending cycle that leaves you permanently anxious and dissatisfied.
The way to break the trigger-behavior-reward cycle is to observe it closely, from beginning to end. The boredom, anxiety, or restlessness that triggers you to recreate can feel solid, permanent, and intolerable, but by paying attention, you see that the stress is actually flimsy, temporary, and bearable. Learn to recognize the early signs of stress in your body and mind. Become friendly with the stress, welcoming it, even giving it a name. Wait out the stress and see that it ebbs, flows, and fades away if you don't feed it.
When you give in to the urge to recreate, notice your state of mind and body. Are you tense, narrow, and driven or relaxed, open and flowing? Do you have a tight object of focus or a broader arena of expansive awareness? Is it pleasurable to recreate, or does it feel like a task or a mission? In my experience, when I am in the grips of the recreation rat race, I feel attached to an agenda that will provide relief by scraping the monkey off my back.
Nothing delivers, and nothing lasts. The gratification that we get from recreation fades quickly, often within minutes, before dissatisfaction returns. We attempt to re-create this thrill by posting to Facebook, bragging to our friends, reliving the YouTubes, and savoring the memories, but the thrill is gone, and it is never coming back. Recognizing that recreation provides only temporary stimulation, not long-term happiness, helps us lower our expectations and reclaim a healthy relationship with recreation.
If you are addicted to dangerous sports, you should carefully consider the trade you are making. Whatever gratification you receive from risking your life is temporary, but the potential consequences are permanent. The fleeting moments of glory are never worth the pain that will afflict your friends and family for years.
We have a mistaken hierarchy of experience. We place some experiences above others. We love steep powder but are bored on low angle slopes. We are engaged in exciting whitewater but frustrated by flatwater. We feel alive in the wilderness but deadened between trips. This push-me-pull-you way of living keeps us leaning into some parts of our lives and away from others. Liking and disliking are the roots of discontent. Invariably, the stronger our likes, the stronger our dislikes. But just as we can't keep the adventure ball forever in the air, we cannot engineer our lives to get only what we like.
If you are reading this and feeling like you just can't relate to the adrenaline junkies, you are missing the point. Addiction to movement is not just a hardman problem. The mechanism of compulsion is the same one that drives us to check our email, refresh our Facebook feed, eat more than we should, and binge on Netflix. If you ever find yourself saying "I just need to get some fresh air," or "I can't sit still when the sun is shining -- I just have to get outside," or "I can't think straight until I get some exercise," or "I need to go for a walk to clear my head" you really are no different from the adrenaline junkies.
Everything we do is an attempt to overcome dissatisfaction. Everything, including breathing, is a response to suffering. While we have to do certain things to survive - breathe, eat, sleep, and drink – the rest is extra. The point here is not that we shouldn't take some pleasure in life; the point is that clearly understanding the mechanism that drives our choices gives us greater freedom and peace.
Here's a liberating secret: all experience has the same value. Contentment, satisfaction, and lasting happiness are available to us all the time, no matter what we are doing, no matter where we go, no matter who we are with. You can be just as happy sitting in traffic as skiing deep powder. True lasting happiness has nothing to do with where you go or what you do. If your happiness is situational, it's not real happiness.
Nothing is ever missing from your life. Nobody else is getting what you deserve. You are right where you belong. You are the right person to be you.
Bradical is no longer the right person to be me. My happiness is no longer tied so tightly to excitement. Bradical is still a friend, but I don't listen to him as much now.
Ambassador Brad Meiklejohn is The Conservation Fund’s Alaska Director. Motivated by a sense of urgency for the losses occurring in the natural world, he’s following the legacy of his grandmother who fought for women’s voting rights and a great uncle who stood up against McCarthyism.