Peril Is Simply the Pursuit of Happiness

     

    Looping upside down and rocketing forward fast enough to shove your eyes backward through your head is blatantly contrary to the theory of natural selection. Yet we step off them dazed and confused while grinning from ear to ear. With rollercoasters, like many of the things we’re addicted to, the threat of calamity is what makes them endearing. We can’t stop doing exactly what we swear will kill us. 

    Harvard University psychologist Robert Solomon’s 1974 “opponent-process theory” attributes the bizarre allure of dangerous pursuits to how our body’s normal response, or “A-process,” to an external stimulus gets countered and eventually overwhelmed by an opposite “B-process.” That initial euphoric A-process of nibbling some chocolate, for example, will eventually be diminished and superseded by the choco-sadness B-process that comes about when the sweet taste is over. And with repeated use of the stimulus over time, whether it be chocolate, rollercoasters or even cocaine, the initial feeling lessens while the secondary response takes over. 

    In Solomon’s particular study, skydivers’ emotions were studied during and after the jump from an airplane. While there was an initial feeling of complete terror for the more inexperienced divers, their emotions turned to ecstatic relief and pleasure upon landing safe and sound on terra firma. As the divers did more jumps, the more pleasurable feelings of the B-process started to take precedence, and the addiction levels started to rise. 

    While this doesn’t bode so well for incorrigible substance addicts who start experiencing debilitating withdrawals and less intoxication with repeated drug use, it explains many of our seemingly dimwitted behaviors. Take the need for speed, for example. The thrill of driving fast is in some ways a response to the terrifying feeling of having no control. Some people just rejoice in having shorter travel times between Point A and Point B, but for most freeway fanatics, the subconscious sensation of crossing boundaries without dying causes great elation.  

    This mentality is the same that leads edgier individuals to push the limits of every boundary they can find, such as the law. Shoplifters and pickpockets in particular have been known to feel a powerful emotional “rush” when they get away with minor thefts. In many cases, this addictive reaction provides them greater satisfaction than do the stolen items, leading to chronic stints of crime. 

    So the next time you’re peering over the precipitous edge of a ridiculous coaster at Six Flags with your life flashing before your eyes, decide whether that gut-wrenching drop and moment of sheer primal terror is worth that surge of post-traumatic exhilaration. There are nearly endless options of dumb things you can do to get your B-process fix. Just don’t try them at home.

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