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.
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.
Rule #1: Regrets Stink
On a muggy morning in 2005, my father collapsed after 18 holes of golf. An employee attempted CPR. An ambulance arrived. I raced to the hospital with my wife, but Dad was dead before he reached the ER. All that remained were long forms on clipboards and unexpected funeral plans; the dumb, numb shock that accompanies sudden death.
I hate to call what I experienced after Dad's death a midlife crisis, because that seems so cliché. It was more like a midlife evaluation. The way coaches adjust the game plan at halftime. Dad's grieving friends wrote to say how he'd changed their lives, and I thought — "What will people say when I'm gone? What have I done that matters?"
I was struggling to find my purpose. And then a friend gave me some advice: "You only know about yourself when you're outside your comfort zone." Without really planning on it, I started volunteering around the world and plunging myself into sometimes scary, always fulfilling experiences.
Bronnie Ware, a former palliative-care nurse in Australia who worked with patients nearing death, wrote an article on regrets that is quietly circulating on the Web. It discusses the most common regrets she heard from dying patients. At the top of their list: They wished they'd lived a life that was true to themselves and that they'd realized more of their dreams.
While volunteering at a climate-change research project in Ecuador, I met an over-40 British college student named Ellen. She'd been romping through rain forests for nearly a month with students half her age, assisting a scientist studying global warming's effect on Andes vegetation. Ellen previously worked for a government contractor, until she read a line in Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, which notes that an average human life lasts just 650,000 hours.
"I remember reading that sentence," said Ellen, "and attending a meeting at work and thinking, 'Why am I giving you lot one of my hours?'"
Because of that, she left her job, left her comfort zone, went to school – and changed her life. No regrets.
Rule #2: Discomfort Leads to Happiness
Even bad experiences can have good results. Here's some of what I endured as a global volunteer: I was kicked by a horse, scratched by children, I lost half a thumbnail after slipping on a slope in the Andes (which felt a bit like an interrogation technique used by secret police), I nearly stepped on a tarantula, I was forced to drop my pants by Israeli security, I suffered stomach viruses in China and Kenya, I slept on the floor for two weeks in an unfurnished apartment with 18 guys and one bathroom, I had a spider bite on my arm the size of a golf ball … you get the idea. And yet thinking about these incidents makes me smile.
"A lot of people see anxiety, fear and nervousness as a warning that says, 'Danger! Danger!' but it's actually a sign you're moving forward," says Susan Biali, M.D., a Canada-based wellness expert and life coach. In a study published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57 percent of participants were happier after spending money on an experience instead of on stuff, compared with 34 percent who chose material goods. That's because we truly own our experiences, a Cornell University study theorized, and unlike, say, an iPhone, they don't become outdated. And as experiences turn into memories, we tend to appreciate them more, even the lousy ones.
As the Cornell researchers noted, we typically define our happiness by comparing ourselves with others — which means if you have a 24-inch flat-screen TV and your neighbor buys a 30-inch, you feel like a jerk. Experiences, however, evoke less envy because they're more unique, so they make us happier. And happiness helps us live longer: A study published in 2011 found that happy people were 35 percent less likely to die a premature death than their less content counterparts.
Rule #3: Your Brain Craves Challenges
If your brain is a garden, new activities are mental manure: the fertilizer for new brain cells. Trying something new can improve your "neurocognitive scaffolding," as one research team calls it, but you also need to challenge yourself: meaning you should turn off Celebrity Apprentice and take a class or meet friends for a stimulating chat. Volunteers who tutored struggling students in reading and math improved brain plasticity and delayed age-related neurological decline, a Johns Hopkins University study found.
"Breaking habits opens up millions of neurological synapses," says happiness expert Rick Foster. "Take a new route to work. Get out of bed on a different side. Brush your teeth with a different hand. It stimulates your brain."
Rule #4: Love Is Like a Snow Globe
It's way more fun when you shake things up. And a marriage that's boring now only becomes less satisfying over time, according to a study of married couples in Psychological Science. Spending time together helps, but falling into dreary, moldy-marriage traps — meeting with a tax attorney is not a date night — will not rekindle passion. Try something new! When my wife and I taught English in Costa Rica, it was exciting to see us escape our usual roles: to watch her play dodgeball and bowl with kids using a tennis ball and soda bottles for pins.
"I think you need real change to spice up a long-term relationship," says AARP relationship expert Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D. "Boredom is the enemy, so creativity is the rejuvenator."
What's the wildest rejuvenator Schwartz has seen? One couple, she says, became swingers in their 60s (which, I'm sorry, is a bit too far outside my comfort zone). Another couple studied aikido, a Japanese martial art. Easier alternatives include traveling to an exotic destination or creating a joint enterprise, like a small business or foundation. The point, says Schwartz, is to try new things and gain new intimacy: "Change the mind," she says, "and the body follows."
Rule #5: Feeling Stupid Is Good
This one I feel strongly about. Each time I volunteered, whether building rock walls in the West Bank or working at a school in China, I felt very much like a bai chi, which is roughly the Chinese word for idiot. Every experience was new, from the food to the language. In Kenya, I tried to say the Swahili word for shared taxi — matatu — and instead said matiti, which means … boobs. As in, "Wow, the boobs are nicer here in the city .…"
But I came to cherish my stupidity. Every time I felt dumb, I learned something. As Alina Tugend writes in Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong, "the fear of making mistakes is a cudgel that hangs over so many of us," preventing us from taking risks. So here's my risk-taking, rut-breaking advice to you: Don't be bludgeoned by fear. Embrace every opportunity to be a bai chi.
Ken Budd is author of the new memoir The Voluntourist – A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate, and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem. He is giving his earnings to the organizations and places where he volunteered.