Craving Adventure: the Novelty Gene
Are you happy? We all want to be happy, but surprisingly few Americans are. All you have to do is read any of the latest statistics on the rate of alcoholism, addiction, depression, anti-depressant drug prescriptions, suicide and crime to soon reach the conclusion that overall, we are an unhappy nation doing everything we can to avoid our reality. Sociologists back that up by doing surveys of contentedness and happiness around the world, and America usually ends up way day the list in our total satisfaction with our lives.
And yet you have to wonder why? The poorest among us have better health, more food and possessions than the great majority of the people of the world. And the average American lives a better life from a physical point of view than 90% of the people who have ever lived—past or present. Obviously, an abundance of the necessities, and even luxuries, of life do not make us happy. So what will?
I think were bored, terminally bored. Humans were never bored until recently; boredom is a modern invention. Our ancestors were constantly on the move facing new and exciting places and situations. Every day was a new adventure of some kind whether it was big or small. Wanting something new, something novel is literally in our blood.
There has been a great deal of research in the last 20 years on genetics and its role in happiness. One of the surprising findings is that we have a gene that makes us crave new things. It has been labeled the “novelty-seeking” gene and researchers are calling it neophilia (neo=new philia=love; the love of the new). A great deal of research is showing it to be one of the most important determiners of our overall well-being. Vandwellers cut to the chase and call it “itchy-feet.” Here is a quote from a very good article on it: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/14/science/novelty-seeking-neophilia-can-be-a-predictor-of-well-being.html?_r=0
Fans of this trait are calling it “neophilia” and pointing to genetic evidence of its importance as humans migrated throughout the world. In her survey of the recent research… the journalist Winifred Gallagher argues that neophilia has always been the quintessential human survival skill, whether adapting to climate change on the ancestral African savanna or coping with the latest digital toy from Silicon Valley…. “Although we’re a neophilic species,” Ms. Gallagher says, “as individuals we differ in our reactions to novelty, because a population’s survival is enhanced by some adventurers who explore for new resources and worriers who are attuned to the risks involved.”
The adventurous neophiliacs are more likely to possess a “migration gene,” a DNA mutation that occurred about 50,000 years ago, as humans were dispersing from Africa around the world, according to Robert Moyzis, a biochemist at the University of California, Irvine. The mutations are more prevalent in the most far-flung populations, like Indian tribes in South America descended from the neophiliacs who crossed the Bering Strait.
In other words, due to a genetic mutation, humans as a whole have a tendency to be adventurous wanderers. It’s been an important part of our survival as a species and is still crucial to our development as well-adjusted, happy human beings. Because America is a nation of immigrants, we consistently test as one of the most novelty-seeking places on earth. Think about it; most of our great-great-grandparents took all kinds of risks to come here and start over a brand-new life, in a brand-new place that most often spoke a brand-new language. Now that’s novelty seeking! And they passed those genes down to you and I.
I got to thinking about this when a Canadian reader asked me why so many Americans have such a fascination with Alaska. Sure it’s a beautiful place but there are lots of places just as beautiful. Why Alaska? Even a casual look at American history shows that we are a tremendously restless people and we have been on the go every-since we first landed on Plymouth Rock. There was always somebody with itchy feet who had to go over the next hill to the West and see what was there. Finally we had gone as far West as we could go, but we still yearned for movement, adventure and newness. So we went North to Alaska, and we’ve been doing it ever since.
For many of us (but certainly not all) there is a deep inner cry for something new, for something different and risky. We hate the mind-numbing tedious, monotony of our life. Every day is the same week after week, month after month, decade after decade–and then we die. That’s something to look forward to! Alaska cries out with wild adventure, newness and risk, something every novelty-seeking neophiliac cries out for. The majority of times when I tell people I lived in Alaska most of my life they are quick to say that they have always wanted to go there. Now I know that’s literally in their genes!
If you have any lingering doubts about the novelty gene, just go watch some kids at the local park. What are they doing? They are having imaginary adventures and slaying dragons and fighting enemies. Or ask them if they want to go on a scary ride at the amusement park. Most will jump at the chance! They are the living embodiment of the ideas of the novelty gene that’s present in most of us. Ask a child what they want to be when they grow up and their answers will most often be something exciting, adventurous and risky.
But then they grow up and what happens? That spirit is crushed and pounded into the dirt by their parents, schools and society. Every effort at originality or adventure is pounded out of them by decades of brainwashing. Modern society needs working drones, not adventurers! The “American Dream” is made to look so appealing and at the same time non-conformity is not tolerated. Move into a van and you’ll soon find out how America actually hates anyone who chooses true freedom. It persecutes them until they become good little sheep again.
A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for. John A. Shedd
I think that’s the secret to why we are so unhappy as a nation, we refuse to do what we were built to do. Our genes urge and demand us to be one thing but society forbids it and forces us to be something else. Little boys want to be cowboys, fireman or pirates but instead they become accountants, insurance agents or “middle-management.” For little girls it’s much worse, they are told all they can be is wives, secretaries, teachers or nurses. When I was a boy I wanted to be a bush pilot or trapper. My ultimate hero was Dick Proeneke who wrote “One man’s Wilderness” and lived alone near Lake Clark in a cabin he built himself and trapped, hunted and fished to live. Instead I became a grocery store clerk for 35 years—and I was always unhappy.
Today, since I started living in a van, for the very first time I’m happy and content. What about you? I have to wonder why you are reading my blog, and probably others like it. I think I’m a decent amateur writer and photographer, but I don’t think that’s why you’re here. I think you have that novelty-seeking gene and some part of you longs for something new and exciting, and I offer it to you vicariously. However, there are many people who are much more adventurous than I am and doing much more exciting things; I’m a wanna-be compared to them. But what I’m doing is easily obtainable, anyone can do it. You can too!
I’m hoping that if you have the novelty seeking gene, becoming aware of your genetic compulsions will let you make some adjustments that make you happier. I’m not saying you have to sell everything, move into a van and head off into the sunset or you’ll be miserable. I’m not saying you have to jump out of an airplane; most of us have been so brainwashed by society true adventure is no longer an option for us. Out true spirit is so crushed and demoralized we can just barely find it. But I do think that by being aware of the need for new things and adventure you can begin to make simple adjustments to your life that can satisfy those needs within your current situation.
Spend some time examining your life, particularly when you were a child and adolescent. What made you happy? What did you want to do that you never could do? I don’t mean be an astronaut or a pirate, that’s not realistic. You must have had some attainable dreams. I loved nature and hiking and so now I live in nature and hike a lot. Start with those things and see if you can’t incorporate them into your life. If that isn’t practical or doesn’t work, then start adding other new and slightly adventurous things into your life.
It might be best to start with some small, safe things and then try to make them increasingly adventurous and dicey. Most of us are so afraid of failure that the risk of failure keeps us from trying anything even slightly difficult. Try to embrace failure as normal and healthy and actually desirable. For example, if I suggest you try to paint or draw or play the guitar, you are very likely to say, “Oh, I can’t do that. I’m no good at it.” Have you ever tried, I mean really tried by taking classes or getting a tutor? Probably not, you’re too afraid of looking silly or failing to even start. The little boy or girl in you sure wishes you would!
“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Anais Nin
For me the day came when the misery of my life was too great and I was going to change everything or I was going to die. I’m so glad I did!