Why doing something that scares you makes you happier

The web is full of cheesy inspirational quotes. One of the most popular quotes on Pinterest is by the late Eleanor Roosevelt: “Do one thing every day that scares you.” And she was on to something. Doing something that scares you actually makes you happier.

Why is that?

Think of yourself in a stressful situation. You may need to deliver a presentation, travel to a foreign country by yourself or ask your boss for a raise. Thinking about it alone will probably already make you feel uncomfortable.
Overcoming a stressful situation requires us to being able to handle the discomfort induced by that situation. When we learn that we can actually handle the stressful situation or deal with the stressor, we overcome our fear. We now know that we can deal with it. This feeling of overcoming our fear induces positive feelings like pride, relieve and an overall happy state.
This may sound a bit vague to you, but notice that we already do this when we experience physical stressors. When you want to overcome a smoking addiction you accept the discomfort of the nicotine withdrawal. When you want to lose weight, you accept the discomfort surrounding changing your eating habits. We accept the discomfort in order to overcome a problem and become healthier.

So why do some like the feeling of being scared, and others don’t?

Some of us like horror movies, crazy roller-coaster rides and sky-diving while others don’t. Most of us probably know that dopamine plays a role in this. But why do we see such big differences between people?
A study by David Zald looked into the difference between people in their chemical responses to thrilling situations. The results showed that thrill-seeking was linked to the density of dopamine auto-receptors. These receptors decrease dopamine production when dopamine levels rise. Fewer receptors lead to higher levels of dopamine which in turn triggers a bigger reward from thrilling experiences. These people get a bigger ‘high’, enjoy the thrill more and are less bothered by the risks.

What will you do today that scares you?