The surprising science behind having an amazing adventure


It's 12:37 a.m. You snuck backstage at your favorite band's concert, and you try to play it cool when the lead singer invites your crew to the afterparty. By 2 a.m., you are in a tabloid-worthy celebration surrounded by the inaccessibly famous.

Recounting this story to your envious friends makes it seem like serendipity guided you. But if our most adventurous experiences happened purely by chance, we would all live randomly exciting lives, and we do not. It had to be something you did that night that made your experience more thrilling. But what was it?

As a human behavior scientist, I spent more than a decade trying to solve this puzzle. I have conducted my own research and collected and tested behavioral research from top minds across academia. In the process, I was crushed by a bull in Pamplona, swam in freezing Antarctic waters and crashed Kiefer Sutherland's Thanksgiving dinner after battling him in drunken Jenga.

Jon Levy

What I've discovered is that every adventure follows a four-stage process backed by scientific research. I call it the EPIC Model for Adventure, and anyone can learn it.

Stage One: Establish

You need to set up the right conditions for an adventure.

First, surround yourself with the right people. The right group can make terrible parties fun, but similarly, the wrong group can make amazing events awful. Indeed, research by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler found that your community has a staggering impact on your behaviors, habits and happiness. They researched how obesity spreads and discovered that having an obese friend will increase your own chances of obesity by 45%, as well as your own friends' chances by 25% and your friends' friends' by another 10%. Everything from happiness and voting habits to smoking and divorce spread from person to person in such a way. So, logic suggests you should seek to connect with people who are positive, supportive and encouraging.

Second, strive to create an experience that is novel. Researchers Nico Bunzeck and Emrah Düzel found that our brains respond to novelty relative to how unfamiliar something is, and this entices us to explore. The researchers conducted brain scans while showing participants both familiar and novel images. They found that less familiar images produced more heightened responses from the center of the brain responsible for novelty called the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area. The key, then, to having an adventurous experience is to be in new places and try new things. That means you should visit a new bar, city or country and discover what's out there. Also try taking up a new activity. If you have to stay near home, create a game (a goal and some rules) to increase excitement. (Example: How many strangers can you convince to buy you drinks?)

Jon Levy

Stage Two: Push boundaries

Creating an adventure also requires you to push past your social, physical and emotional boundaries.

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, peak human performance is achieved only when we reach outside of our comfort zone. Don't take on a task so hard you'll fail constantly, but it does need to be difficult enough that you're focused and engaged. This is where growth happens. 

Importantly, taking risks does not mean you have to put yourself in danger. Research by Joseph LeDoux examining the neuroscience of fear and anxiety demonstrates that although our brains process perceived risks like bungee jumping very differently from the immediate threat of bodily harm of something like running with the bulls with Pamplona, our physical responses to the stimuli are almost identical. This means you can have an exciting life without actually being in harm's way.

Jon Levy

So go make friends with strangers. Talk your way into a party. Climb a mountain. Whatever it is you choose to do, make sure you are grappling with your fear and pushing yourself beyond your boundaries.

Stage Three: Increase

The third step involves maximizing the emotional value of the environment you are in.

This step probably feels like common sense; no one wants to leave an experience while they're still having fun. But it bears repeating that a big key to having an adventure is making sure you don't cut out early on an exciting exploit.

There are a variety of techniques you can leverage to keep a fun experience alive. Try creating a challenge between the members of your group. This will increase testosterone and help your friends bond even further. Or consider delighting your friends with a surprise midway through your experience. The brain region associated with reward responds more during unpredictable situations. The key to making the most of each adventure is to keep people engaged every step of the way.

Jon Levy

Stage Four: Continue

The final stage involves knowing how to conclude your adventure: You need to either pre-select where you'll go next or decide to end spontaneously, but with style.

If you choose to go to another location, consider the risk and unpredictability, the ambiance and activity and how you'll get there. If there is a good match for your group, continue your adventure by looping back through the steps above.

Otherwise, it is important to end with style. Imagine participating in a study in which you put your hand in a bucket of ice water for 60 seconds, and then a second time for 90 seconds, but the temperature rises by one degree in the last 30 seconds. Which of these scenarios would you want to repeat? Almost everyone chooses 90 seconds, willingly taking on 30 additional seconds of discomfort. The reason, according Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman who studies similar subjects, is that we don't remember the duration of pleasure or pain. We just remember the peaks and endings of our experiences. 

In the case of an adventure, don't push past the point of enjoyment, because you'll remember your experience less fondly and be less likely to participate in the future. The key is to always end on a positive note.

Adventure is available to anyone. The critical elements are to pick the right companions, do something new, push your boundaries and follow the four-stage EPIC path. In the process, you'll become a different person. Pushing past your comfort zone will better prepare you for the challenges of life.

For a full-guide on living a more adventurous life, check out my new book The 2 A.M. Principle: Discover the Science of Adventure.