Cliff diving isn’t a typical activity for a person who’s afraid of heights. But Mike, a 20-year-old intern living in Atlanta, skydives and cliff-dives as often as he can.
Sophie cycles, climbs, runs, and travels. She tried skydiving but didn’t enjoy it because she says she’s not into high-adrenaline activities. For Sophie, satisfaction comes from pushing herself in order to conquer challenges.
Kirill loves taking pictures, especially travel photos. He shoots landscapes, buildings, bridges, landmarks, selfies, nothing too unusual—except that his shots are captured from atop some of the world’s tallest buildings.
Mike, Sophie, and Kirill are all people who crave new experiences in work, in friends, and in fun. They cliff-dive, run with the bulls, drive ambulances, chase tornadoes. They are thrill-seekers and adrenaline junkies, people looking for a buzz.
To some extent, we all crave complex and new experiences—that is, we all seek new sensations. Whether it’s our attraction to the new burger place down the street, the latest shiny gadget, or the newest fashion trend, newness tugs at us.
But what sets high sensation-seeking personalities apart? It’s that they crave these exotic and intense experiences despite physical or social risk. The extreme products and activities that have emerged in the last decade—like X Games, the Extreme Sports Channel, or even Burning Man—responded to our collective interest in sensation seeking. And these extreme activities have spread quickly as their early adopters—people with high sensation-seeking personalities—devour them with gusto and share their experiences enthusiastically on various social media platforms.
Others may wonder what’s “wrong” with these people: Why would they rather risk their life parasailing than relax with a nice book on the beach? Indeed, there can come a point when sensation seeking becomes an unhealthy obsession. However, high sensation-seeking individuals may experience less stress and may be more resilient and fearless and calm in the face of danger. It’s this personality that fuels first responders, Olympic athletes, and adventure travelers. So, there might be something to learn from the thrill-seeking personality. What is sensation seeking and what can we learn from the high sensation seekers around us?
How we spotted sensation seeking
Research on sensation seeking didn’t begin in the base camps of Mount Everest or on the cobbled streets of Pamplona or even the racetracks of Talladega. It began in a dark room filled with nothing—literally. Researchers weren’t seeking to explain mountain climbing or race-car driving. They were trying to get to the bottom of mind control.
Among those embarking on this research were Marvin Zuckerman and his lab at McGill University in Montreal. In a typical experiment in Zuckerman’s lab, participants would spend hours in environments where they could hear or see very little. In some cases, people would sit alone in a dark, sound-dampened room with nothing to do.
Zuckerman wanted to know how people reacted to a loss of sensations. For the first hour or so, all the research subjects simply sat in the nothingness. But after that, things changed. Some sat quietly for hours upon hours. Others fidgeted, squirmed, and became bored and anxious, among other things.
Strangely, no existing psychological test could reliably predict how subjects would react to sensory deprivation. Zuckerman and his colleagues speculated that some people were high sensation seekers and some were not. Zuckerman realized that sensation seeking was not only a quest for external stimulation, as they had originally thought; it seemed as though high sensation seekers wanted unique experiences, too. He argued that sensation seekers are sensitive to their experiences and choose stimulation that maximizes them. Sensation can come from emotions, physical activities, clothes, food, or even other people. Someone with a high sensation-seeking personality actively pursues experiences.
Because of this active pursuit of new experiences, sensation seeking doesn’t just describe reactions to a sensory-deprivation experience. Sensation seeking can reach into every aspect of life. It can affect your choice of activities, the way you interact with other people, the things you do for fun, the music you like, the jokes you make, and even the way you drive.
If you think of sensation seeking as a continuum, high sensation seekers are at one end. They are always seeking new experiences, even if (and in some cases because) they come with risks. Low sensation seekers, on the other hand, may actively avoid new experiences.
Most people, as you can imagine, fall somewhere in the middle. Most people seek out new experiences unless there’s something to lose by doing so.
Are you a sensation seeker?
Zuckerman recognized that the high sensation-seeking personality is complex. It is made up of four distinct components, each of which contributes to an individual’s unique way of seeking or avoiding sensations.
Thrill and adventure seeking. When you think of sensation seeking, thrill and adventure seeking probably come to mind. This component of sensation seeking emphasizes the enjoyment of at least moderately frightening activities. Those with high thrill- and adventure-seeking personalities seek out physical activities that are exciting and risky.
Remember the extreme selfie artist Kirill, the Russian Spider-Man? He didn’t use safety gear. For thrill and adventure seekers, risks may be ignored, tolerated, or minimized, and may even be considered to add to the excitement of the activity. In contrast, those who don’t seek out thrill and adventure may avoid activities that seem risky or dangerous.
Experience seeking. Even if you’re not an extreme thrill and adventure seeker, there may be a component of sensation seeking that applies to you. So, while you may not like to skydive, you may still exhibit a sensation-seeking trait associated with people who enjoy new, complex, and intense sensations and experiences. Remember Sophie, my second example at the beginning? She has a high sensation-seeking personality by virtue of her love of challenges and travel. While she scores low in thrill and adventure seeking—she wouldn’t go skydiving again—she would most certainly score high in experience seeking.
Disinhibition. Disinhibition involves our ability to be spontaneous. It includes searching for opportunities to lose inhibitions. People with strong disinhibition tendencies act without consideration of potential consequences, while people with low disinhibition tendencies control their behavior more carefully and think through more of the consequences, looking before they leap. People high in disinhibition? They just leap. It might not be surprising that these people are more injury-prone and more likely to participate in activities such as the World Naked Bike Ride.
Boredom susceptibility. This boils down to one’s ability to tolerate the absence of external stimuli. Those with high scores in boredom susceptibility dislike repetition—for example, the same food too many times in a row, or routine tasks at work. They tire easily of predictable or boring people, and they get restless when things are the same. They have a preference for exciting people and variety, and they experience extreme restlessness when escape from tedious consistency is impossible.
What can we learn from sensation seekers?
People with high sensation-seeking personalities don’t just crave high sensation-seeking environments, they thrive in them. In those moments, the high sensation-seeking person is in their element and can function very well where a low sensation-seeking person might crumble. It might be cliff diving for Mike, adventures for Sophie, or extreme selfies for Kirill: In those environments, they shine.
There are, in fact, tremendous advantages for those who covet thrills. Such people can often feel a sense of calm when skydiving and are likely to feel relaxed in other high-pressure situations.
But what if you aren’t like Mike, or Sophie, or Kirill? Is there something can we learn from sensation seekers? Yes, a lot! Here are three things I think we can all learn from sensation seekers.
1. Go with the flow. Sensation seekers are often trying to achieve a “flow state,” which psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as “being fully immersed, holding an energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment of the moment.” In this state, a person is hyper-focused and connected to what they are doing. Their emotions are channeled, and the person feels joy in the moment.
It turns out that being in that flow state is pretty good for us. Adults who spend more time in flow are happier overall, and they tend to be more cheerful, satisfied, creative, and have higher self-esteem. Flow gives you enjoyment and makes it easier to deal with stress. Flow also enhances learning—which could come in handy for thrill seekers and pretty much everyone else.
But you don’t have to leap from tall buildings to engage in flow. There are plenty of average and even low sensation-seeking experiences that will help you to be enveloped in a state of flow, including playing or listening to music, engaging in physical activities, or gardening.
2. Feel the awe. One of the key unifying themes I found throughout my research on high sensation seekers is that the daily activities they engage in provide a sense of awe, that goosebump-laden feeling that we all know. I have started to think of them as awe seekers. Whether it’s racing around town at 100 miles an hour, running obstacle courses, BASE jumping, or even eating a new food, that experience of awe is part of the reward.
Awe is pretty good for your body, and this may be one of the reasons some of us go out of our way to seek it. Researchers from UC Berkeley asked 94 students to fill out questionnaires that told them how frequently they experienced different emotions. The students supplied saliva samples, which were then analyzed for interleukin-6 (IL-6), a molecule known to promote inflammation throughout the body. Inflammation is tied to poor health, and low IL-6 might signal good health. Happy emotions were linked to lower IL-6 levels, but the strongest correlation was with a surprising emotion: awe. The more frequently someone reported having felt awestruck, the lower the IL-6.
If scaling buildings gives you more anxiety than awe, you can find that sense of awe in activities that are closer to the ground. For me, it’s art, nature, and sunrises.
3. Not liking something isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you. Doing weird obstacle course races, scaling cliffs, jumping out of planes in a squirrel suit and flying around—these are the kinds of activities we typically associate with the high sensation-seeking personality. High sensation seekers can eat differently, too. High sensation seeking is correlated with a desire for variety in food and drinks. High sensation seekers are drawn to unusual, exotic, spicy foods from outside of their culture.
Cy, a food blogger who writes about his experiences with unusual food, is a perfect example. “Let’s see,” he says. “I’ve had fish eyes. I’ve had bull testicles, but those were a delicacy in Spain. Chicken hearts was another one. I remember when I ordered chicken hearts, I got a lot of weird looks and nobody wanted to try my dish.” When I asked Cy why he tries these foods, he instantly responded, “Why not? What’s the worst thing that’s going to happen?”
You may not crave fish eyes, but we could all learn something from Cy. When some average and low sensation seekers are introduced to something new and unusual, they often reject it simply because it is unfamiliar or unusual. It might be good to ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen if I try this?” We might be missing out on new and wonderful experiences just for the fear of not liking them.
So, while you may not take up Olympic skeleton racing anytime soon, learning about sensation seekers may inspire you to expand your experiences a little more. As Csikszentmihalyi suggests, “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive relaxing times … the best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”