Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Risk Homeostatis and Travel

Risk Homeostatis is a theory put forth by Ontario psychology professor Gerald J.S. Wilde. He has written two whole books about the theory so forgive my paragraph long explanation of it, and read "Target Risk" and "Target Risk 2" to get a full understanding.

The basic idea is that we all have a comfortable level of risk at which we feel "normal." And if one part of our life becomes less risky, we will compensate for that by doing more risky things. There is much debate about this idea in highway saftey circles. There are some studies that show drivers are less careful around bicyclists who wear helmets than around those who don't. There are some studies that show drivers who have anti-lock brakes drive more foolishly than those who do not have them because they feel they'll be protected. There are also other people refuting these things. And it would be incredibly stupid to not wear a helmet and not take advantage of safety equipment on cars because this is a theory, and the differences are not significant enough to warrant giving up safety meaures.

That said, I refer you to the idiot in the four wheel drive truck who was next to you at a stop light during the last ice storm and peeled out as if the road were completely clear because he assumed the four wheel drive would protect him. I once saw such a fool smash the back end of his shiny four wheel drive right into a light pole as he fishtailed into it after such a manuver. Fortunately, nothing was hurt except his truck, and probably his pride.

I hope heaven will forgive me for taking the tiniest bit of satisfaction out of that. It wasn't that I wanted to see his pretty red truck smashed. But I wanted him to get the idea that - hey, there's ICE on the freaking road. It's slick. Just because you have four wheels driving on ice instead of two doesn't mean ice has suddenly become less slick. You idiot. Okay, that last editorial comment was uncalled for, but, really, how stupid do you have to be to not catch on that ice is slick. And that light pole could have been my car, or a pedestrian or the nursery inside a house.

Okay, so, as you've probably figured out, I think there's something to the idea of risk homeostatis, but I like to apply it to more interesting things than traffic. Not that that's not a good, practical idea and all, but practicality isn't exactly always my strong suit.

I've been thinking about it in terms of "adventure." A few years ago researchers said they had discovered the "adventure gene," meaning that some of us are born wanting/needing more adventure in our lives than others. I think there's something to that, too. I know in an average group of folks, when conversation turns to topics that include some "uncertainty" in them - like travel - I'm generally at what most people consider the far edge of risk taking. I'm not. At all. But, I live in a place where people don't meet a lot of adventure travelers - the true kind of adventure travelers.

What's important to understand is that I don't think I take any unnecessary risks, but for many people just telling them you've gone to Nicaragua is out of their comfort zone. Never mind we were staying in something more closely resembling a resort than a hotel and that we were driven around all day by a taxi driver from one place to another. The mere idea that a person would go somewhere where officials wander the streets with machine guns in plain view is out of some people's comfort zones. I don't think of that as especially adventurous since I've witnessed that in multiple parts of the world. Even going somewhere where you don't speak the language and have to hire your own taxi driver is overwhelming to some folks. I don't always believe the graffiti proclaiming "Muerte" (death) to one politician or another is an indication anyone wants to harm me. I'm not going to miss the opportunity to climb up a live volcano, even if there's the tiniest chance - and I do mean tiny tiny tiny - that it could erupt and kill me while I'm there. It didn't.

Of course, I could be caught up in a coup in some place I want to go, but that's why you always keep your passport, a credit card and some cash on your physical person at all times - just in case you need to exit a country quickly. It's why we have money belts and other such devices. And, let me state for the record, that nothing like that has ever happened anywhere I've ever been and I can't imagine it would. Nonetheless, when I'm travelling I bear those things in mind. People get stuck on old ideas - Nicaragua is all about the Sandanistas, Columbia is all about cocaine, etc. etc. etc. People - the eighties are over - even if shoulder pads do come back in style.

I get very lax about that sort of thing in Europe although one of the scariest crowd situations I've ever been in was at the Bastille in Paris on an election night. But, it was very interesting to be sitting in our favorite pizza place a half block away and watching news reports from there while we were hearing it in real time through the open door, occasionally stepping out to witness the real life event unfolding. Again, nothing bad happened. It was just "tense" for awhile.

And, I think it's all a matter of degrees. There are travellers who hitch hike the Trans-Siberian Highway. It makes bribing someone to let you climb a pyramid on a military base in Egypt seem very, very, very tame. I am in the latter category, not the former. I don't have that in me. I'm not that adventurous. I don't want that much risk and discomfort in my life.

The Trans-Siberian Highway is 11,000 kilometers long. For those of us more used to miles, that translates to a little over 6,835 miles. I read it is highway like we think of in places, and a gravel road full of holes in others. No thank you. I'm not made of the kind of strong stuff that hitchhikes at all, much less for nearly 7,000 miles in snow and ice. I'd like to take the train ride. Maybe. I need a bit more info. That might be like being imprisoned in a moving car for a very long time. Or it could be really cool. I'll get back to you on that one.

Well, I've digressed, as I so often do.

The idea of risk homeostatis, from an adventurous travelers view, can be thought of as, "if your life gets too safe (dull), you find a way to introduce risk into it through travel. When you get to the level of risk where you're comfortable, you back off. So, maybe you need a Europe level of risk. Maybe you need an Iraq level of risk." I feel certain I will never seek a level of risk where I want to hitchhike nearly 7,000 miles. Other people may never seek a level where they want to negotiate for transportation with someone in a language they don't speak, which I get an odd sort of thrill out of. Others may never want to go beyond reading a good adventure book.

All of those are perfectly wonderful. The trick is to recognize your own level and embrace it. I've seen many, many people on the road in various places that simply should not travel. They spend the entire time:
1. wishing they were home in their own beds (if your bed is that amazing you should make sure you're in it each night - do not willingly depart from it)
2. asking why museum tags aren't in English (because we're in a country where English is not the native tongue, although many places provide English as a courtesy and please view it that way - a HUGE courtesy)
3. complaining - about everything - food, hotel, traffic, people, prices, landscape, service, subway, attractions, cleanliness of the streets/people/buildings/transportation, maps, busses, signage and the local dress/religion/way of life (didn't your mama ever tell you if you can't say something nice to keep your mouth shut? well, I'm telling you now)
4. wanting to be home (PLEASE... go home... better yet, don't leave home... but if you've made the mistake and left home when you shouldn't have, please immediately take a taxi /train/bus/rickshaw/private car/subway/or other conveyance to the nearest airport and rectify the situation. They will take you home. To your bed. You will be happy. We will be glad to not be listening to your incessant complaining. It's a win-win for everyone. Lets just all be grateful.)

I'm quite fascinated by the idea that we all have a level of risk at which we feel comfortable - a set point, if you will - and that we seek to keep that in balance through whatever means.

I've noticed that in the last few years I've had less of a desire for travel. I still feel it - intensely - but I haven't acted on it because of a variety of things happening in my life. But I believe we all do basically what we want to do and if the desire had been overwhelming I would have found a way to act on it. In the last few years my life has been very topsy turvy for a number of reasons out of my control. Has my risk level been satisfied in other ways? Is that why I haven't acted on travel? My life has felt much less "safe" since 2001 and I've only left the country twice since then and both trips were pretty easy to do and very safe - not a lot of risk involved.

What this tells me is that I need to make my daily life much more "safe" feeling so the desire to travel can be satified. Now, how to do that? Isn't that always the question.


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term "flow" to refer to those experiences we've all had where you lose track of time when you're doing something you enjoy. For me that can happen when I'm writing or painting. I look up and realize it has been two and a half hours since the last time I noticed what time it was.

It's never a task we don't like but it can be something we're not particularly skilled at. Csikszentmihalyi said in the book, "It is not the skills we actually have that determine how we feel, but the ones we think we have." Isn't that interesting when you think about it? The "optimal experience" he's talking about has nothing to do with our skill level, only with what we believe it to be. I've always been a a believer in just trying new things. I like to do lots of things, but I don't care if I do them all really well.

For example, I wanted to knit. So, I got a book and learned how to cast on and do basic stitches. I bought some yarn. I made some scaves. I'm happy. By comparison, my friend Andrea is a knitter extraordinaire. She likes things to be as perfect as she can get them. Me, not so much. I'm content to just make it passable and enjoy the experience. But, of course, we're having different experiences, and that's cool. I'll bet she's in the flow when she's knitting. And, of course, her projects look much better than mine. But, I'm content with my tiny little bit of knowledge. Now, on other things, I might want to do them as perfectly as I can. But, I don't want to sacrifice the experience of trying something by thinking it has to be perfect or there's no point. Flow can happen to a knitter like me, if I think my skills are good enough. And it can happen to a knitter like Andrea, whose skills are great.

There's a long list of things that have to be "just right" for us to achieve flow. We have to be engaged in a task that's challenging enough to keep us interested, but not so difficult we're stymied. We need uninterrupted time and we need to see some progress. These are just some of the main components.

You often see referneces to flow from the self-help gurus, and some are pretty sloppy about giving correct attribution. But, if you want to get it straight from the horse's mouth, read the book, "Flow, The Psychology of the Optimal Experience."

I was thinking today that it has been a long time since I've been in the flow of things to the degree I lost track of time - that I was having that optimal experience. I haven't been able to be in my art studio in a long time now since it's upstairs, and I didn't have any time to paint at the end of last year either. So, there's one of my main sources of flow cut off.

I can get into the flow in writing but I really need that uninterrupted time for that and I haven't had much of that the last few months. That is something I desperately need to correct. I need to find a stretch of time when I can just sit down and write and write and write. It seems there is always something interferring with that these days and I need to address that.

Thing about when the last time was you were having an "optimal experience." Has it been awhile? I think it has for most people. And that's a shame. Shouldn't we be doing this on a regular basis? It seems we should. That is only logical. But, it seems to be hard for us to achieve flow.

Hutchinson Artist Don Fuller at Sandzen Gallery

Hutchinson Artist Don Fullmer has an exhibit at the Birger Sandzen Gallery in Lindsborg, Kansas, from January through March of this year. The Sandzen Gallery has hosted numerous well known artists, so Don is in good company. See a video of some of the pieces.

Don opens his Main Street studio during art walks sometimes. It's well worth a visit to see his process.