Risk, happiness and why you should do dangerous things

January 18, 2010


During my freshman year of college, I saw this image on the cover of someone’s textbook. I asked the student what he was studying, and instead of the usual “Bio,” “Business,” or “Busch Light,” he pushed up his glasses and wheezed out the words “Actuarial Science.” After pretending to know what that was, I found out that an actuary calculates the risks and costs related to insurance and investment policies.
 As a long-haired, Frisbee-chasing 19-year-old, I thought this was the silliest profession you could imagine.  I stayed away from all things math, insurance and corporate in the years following that encounter, but I’ve recently become fascinated with concepts of risk and how they shape our world.

I’d like to share a smartly done video that crunches the numbers of the mortality risk behind a few everyday choices.  I highly recommend that you take a few minutes to watch it.  (It involves bacon sandwiches, biking and a disturbing samba scene.)

It’s good to know that you have a one in a million chance of being killed for every six miles you travel by motorcycle, but it becomes especially interesting when Dr. Risk juxtaposes the danger involved in an activity with the joy that activity brings him. He notes that humans have a distorted sense of risk and often believe the world to be more dangerous than it really is. Dr. Risk chooses to participate in a few relatively risky behaviors because he feels that the happiness those activities bring him is worth it.

I’m glad that a risk expert has it figured out, but what about the rest of us? SXSW kicked off 2009 with a keynote that dug into the relatively new science of happiness. A central theme in this field is that humans are notoriously bad predictors of happiness.  Would you rather win the lottery or become a quadriplegic? Think for a second, then flip a coin. Both groups report similar levels of happiness.

We’re in a tight spot: We don’t know what is dangerous, and we don’t know what makes us happy. I’m no expert, but I think it helps to think short-term. Long-range financial security doesn’t do it for me, but I love nothing more than spending time with friends, getting outdoors, and eating and drinking like a king. Regarding risk, the only thing I remember from junior high gym class is the statistic that shows that young people are most likely to die in car accidents or drug overdoses. Older people encounter their biggest health risk in preventable diseases.  So I’ll avoid drunk driving and feel free to challenge my metabolism.

Dr. Risk considers himself “a professor of risk encouragement.” I suggest that we be good students and eat sketchy sushi, bike the Greenway at night (while keeping eye out for falling shopping carts), and hop on a snowboard.  Don’t take life too seriously; you’ll never get out alive.