When scientists talk about a sense of adventure, they're usually referring to a physiological response: People who grab at life's possibilities respond—on a biological level—to stressful situations quite differently from the rest of us. Loehr says that when the mind perceives any variety of danger—anything from a physical threat to a grueling day with the in-laws—the adrenal cortex (the outer layer of the adrenal glands located on top of the kidneys) starts producing the hormone cortisol. Known as the stress hormone, cortisol breaks down muscle proteins into amino acids, which the liver converts into glucose for energy to help us prepare for whatever the threat is. But there are some negative effects: Your heart rate shoots up, along with your respiratory rate and blood pressure. Your body is literally getting ready for war. Humans honed this response in the Stone Age, when almost everything was a life-or-death decision, and many of us still use it as a default, even if our life isn't really on the line. We wake up each day thinking about all the things that could go wrong, producing cortisol at the tiniest mishaps. Over time this reaction becomes an overreaction, Loehr says. It exhausts us and warps our judgment. It literally stresses us out.
The more optimistic adventurers among us, however, instinctively stimulate the inner adrenal core—the adrenal medulla—which produces a hormonal release of catecholamines, including epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) and norepinephrine. Catecholamines are part of the same fight-or-flight response that got us through the Stone Age, but their effects, Loehr says, "are more related to a sense of challenge, opportunity, and adventure without all the toxic feelings that come from fear." Catecholamines help you feel high-spirited, sometimes even euphoric. And since epinephrine and norepinephrine are linked to increased mental activity, you're able to make decisions more clearly.
At his Florida center, Loehr teaches his clients behavioral strategies to shift from automatically triggering the outer adrenal hormones to the healthier ones of the adrenal medulla. This involves learning a whole new set of habits. His clients learn to start the morning with a few moments of contemplation, planning the day ahead and reflecting on what's important to them. Some give this time over to prayer; others, to meditation or relaxation.
During the day, Loehr's clients repeat to themselves mottos they've composed—like "I am self-reliant," "I am decisive," "I'm a good problem solver"—to counteract the running self-critique the rest of us tend to deliver all day ("I am way too needy," "I can't make a decision to save my life," "Why can't I solve my problems?!"). If daily affirmations aren't your speed, you might try playing your favorite kind of music at the same time every day. "We try to figure out what has given you the sense of the world as a place with infinite possibilities," says Loehr. "Then suddenly you start to frame each day as an opportunity to grow, not as Oh my God, I'm gonna die."
The next step toward a more adventurous life is getting unstuck, says Maggie Craddock, a former award-winning Wall Street money manager who now uses her degree in counseling psychology to coach employees of Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, and Credit Suisse First Boston. Craddock says that people who are feeling as if life is closing in on them have one thing in common: They're having trouble separating what they think they should want (a promotion, a big fat raise, the return of casual Fridays) from what they really want (recognition, a sense of purpose or balance in their lives). Clients often walk through the door thinking they're going to be focusing on how to get rid of the guy in the corner office, but they quickly find themselves entering a deeper discussion of what's really holding them back.
Craddock starts by talking with them about their home lives, their childhoods, their support systems. She'll ask, "What definitions of success did you get from your family?" and "How do they influence the decisions you're making today?" In answering the questions, clients sometimes see that when they're under pressure, they repeat behavior patterns from their childhood—patterns that trip them up now. They begin to realize that they might have made choices based on someone else's idea of success or happiness, which could be rethought. "People have to ask themselves, How is my sense of who I am being shaped by the people I'm around?" says Craddock. "Is that keeping me in my rut or helping me out of it?"
The way to discover your inner adventurer is not with foolhardy, death-defying acts but with balance and contemplation