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Escape Your Comfort Zone

Finding new adventures, new risks could equal a new you! Follow these 5 life-changing rules

Ken at a street market in Xi’an, China while volunteering in 2009.

Writer Ken Budd switched up his routine by volunteering in Xi’an, China. — Photo courtesy of Ken Budd

Whatever scares you, do it. Now. Escaping your comfort zone can make you happier, smarter, more confident, more grateful and more satisfied with life — while strengthening ties to the people you love. Here's how.

See also: More ways to escape your comfort zone.

Cooking pasta for 42 children seemed like a great idea — until it was time to cook pasta for 42 children. My wife and I had volunteered for two weeks at a children's home in Kenya, and cooking dinner, we thought, would be a helpful way to thank the home's three overworked "moms." But once we saw the tublike pot needed to boil 12 boxes of noodles, and once we began chopping a mound of veggies the size of a Ford Taurus, it occurred to us that — eek — we'd never cooked for so many mouths, let alone in a third-world kitchen with knives so dull they frequently slid off the carrots.

And then, a bigger dilemma. The water for the pasta wouldn't boil.

Kenyans typically cook on charcoal stoves, and this one, a creaky outdoor model, was struggling to generate heat.

Twenty minutes passed. No bubbles. The sky grew dark. My wife and I grew nervous. Inside, 42 hungry kids wondered: "Where the heck is dinner?"

Finally, after almost an hour, the pot began to gurgle. We soon served up mass quantities of spaghetti — one girl had a noodle on her head after licking her bowl — and the beef in our sauce was the first meat the kids had eaten in more than a month. We felt relieved, exhausted and invigorated, common feelings for anyone who's dared to escape his or her comfort zone.

Busting out of your comfort zone can make you healthier and happier, and you don't need an African adventure to do it. It can be as simple as trading sudoku for crosswords.

Risk-taking diminishes once we hit age 50, the journal Psychology and Aging recently reported — so if you need incentive, consider this: Boredom kills. Too much tedium can increase health dangers such as smoking and drinking too much, and it can shorten your life span, according to researchers at University College London. Which means, yes, you can literally be bored to death.

I think we can do better. Over the course of three years, I embarked on my own quest to escape my comfort zone, volunteering in six challenging locales around the world, from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to Bethlehem in the conflict-ridden West Bank. This is how my own routine-busting rules can add zing to your life.

Next: Rule #1: Avoid regrets. »

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