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I have always loved to explore. I delight in going on meandering runs with my 13-pound dog, Simba. I find my feet turning off the known path and onto unfamiliar trails and side streets and feel a small thrill with each unexpected find – an encounter with a fox, a chat with a new neighbor, the mysterious metal sculptures that have appeared at random intervals on the neighborhood wilderness trail. The same goes for my love of road trips and traveling — the allure of the new and unexpected is irresistible. My job as a social worker on the Mobile Crisis Outreach Team is an exercise in exploration as well. We adventure around Travis County in a van to meet with clients in crisis, trekking down country roads at sunset, venturing into communities I did not know existed, and exploring the rich and varied stories of clients who range in age from three to 100 and in birthplace from El Paso to Nigeria.
Given the excitement and joy I feel when I embark on one of these adventures — or simply when I adopt the attitude of an explorer — I began to wonder if it could be a path to happiness and fulfillment for others as well. As a social worker, I am always on the lookout for mindsets and habits that can improve the lives of those suffering from the ailments of the human condition — anxiety, depression, boredom, malaise. I know exploring and adventuring make me feel alive like nothing else, but I had my reservations about its widespread application as a mood booster and a life revitalizer. After all, as human beings, we often gravitate towards the familiar. It’s a Psych 101 basic that the more habitually we encounter a person, the more we tend to like the person, and the more we see a face, the more attractive it appears to us. Furthermore, there is the oft-studied human tendency to choose friends and significant others that we later realize are creepily similar to members of our family of origin. A specific version of this is the concept of the imago, or, in layman’s terms “marrying your mother (or father).”
Despite my doubts, I plunged into the literature to try and see the other side of the coin — the side that would reveal a life of adventure and exploring might be a life of fulfillment and self-actualization. Lo and behold, I uncovered some joyous evidence in favor of this hunch. One study of college students showed that people who rank high on measures of plasticity — a combination of openness to novelty and willingness to approach and engage in those new experiences — are more creative than those who were more closed to the unknown (Silvia, Nusbaum, Berg, Martin, & O’Connor, 2009). Furthermore, being open to new experiences — a key component of the explorer mindset — predicts greater acceptance of diversity (McCrae, 1996) and higher intelligence, which is reportedly a result of the open person’s tendency to continually seek out new knowledge (Harris, 2004). Powerfully, a 2008 meta-analysis of 249 studies that included a total of 122,588 participants concluded that experiential openness is significantly correlated to happiness, positive affect, and quality of life (Steel, Schmidt, & Shultz). In less scientific terms, this exploratory attitude helps us grow and feel alive. Opening ourselves up to our worlds, with curiosity and gratitude, helps us lead lives of meaning and fulfillment.
Of course, being an explorer will and should look different for each of us. The unique aspects of your personality will determine what sorts of adventurous activities might suit you. A strong introvert, who feels rejuvenated with each minute spent alone, might choose a solo art project, a new area of intellectual interest to pursue, or a quiet hike on a lesser-known stretch of the greenbelt. Someone with more extroverted tendencies may instead find a new Meet Up group in an area of interest or may coordinate a traveling experience with friends. Because I love nature and enjoy working with youth, I volunteer as a mentor for Explore Austin, an organization that facilitates outdoor adventures like kayaking, hiking, and rock climbing for under-served middle and high school students. Most importantly, many of us could benefit from simply assuming the attitude of an explorer as we go about the regular activities of our lives. A dreaded business trip could become a tour of a new city. A typical Saturday with the kids could transform into an expedition to a far-away park, a new museum, or a nearby small town. The usual drive home from work, class or errands — which, as of now, might nearly bore you to sleep — could become an exploratory trek along a more scenic path. The options are as endless and the benefits as plentiful as the hidden joys you could find along the way. So get out there and start your own adventure!
Having trouble finding your own inner explorer, thinking of new hobbies or adventures that match your interests and personality, or mobilizing yourself to start a new adventure? Just Mind can help. You can read more about adult counseling on our service page or contact us to make a counseling appointment.
Harris, J. A. (2004). Measured intelligence, achievement, openness to experience, and creativity. Personality and Individual Differences, 36(4), 913-929.
McCrae, R. R. (1996). Social consequences of experiential openness. Psychological bulletin, 120(3), 323.
Steel, P., Schmidt, J., & Shultz, J. (2008). Refining the relationship between personality and subjective well-being. Psychological bulletin, 134(1), 138.
Silvia, P. J., Nusbaum, E. C., Berg, C., Martin, C., & O’Connor, A. (2009). Openness to experience, plasticity, and creativity: Exploring lower-order, high-order, and interactive effects. Journal of Research in Personality, 43(6), 1087-1090.