A Dangerous Happiness dangerous happiness

For believe me: the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is to live dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas!

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Joyous Knowledge, 238

According to Martin Seligman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, there are three levels of happiness in life.

  1. The Pleasant Life in which we seek happiness by maximising the quantity and quality of pleasurable sensations
  2. The Good Life in which we attain happiness by achieving commitment and competence in work, play and love
  3. The Meaningful Life in which happiness flows from a deep sense of fulfillment by living for a purpose greater than oneself

I want to suggest a forth level, or better, a forth perspective on happiness.

  1. The Dangerous Life in which we strive for happiness by opening ourselves up to the excitement and opportunities of risk

Positive Psychology lists twenty-four character strengths the discovery and development of which leads to personal happiness. Three of them are: curiosity/interest in the world, leadership, and hope/optimism.

Pandora’s Box

Curiosity is dangerous. Nietzsche ‘s quote mentions exploration of the unknown. The drive to experience new places, new people, and new ideas is usually considered positive and healthy. Such an inquisitive spirit is the basic motivation behind all learning and information gathering.

Of course, exploration can be physically dangerous. But recent research has shown that the emotion of curiosity itself can lead humans to expose themselves to aversive stimulifor no apparent benefits. The human need to resolve uncertainty, regardless of the consequences, sometimes leads to trouble, as Pandora found out.

Believing in yourself is dangerous. Another study showed that believing in ourselves increases risk taking subjects who are led to believe they are very competent at decision making see more opportunities in a risky choice and take more risks. Part of this belief was due to positive feedback, and part due to strong self-belief, or, as psychologists call it, self-efficacy .

Risky Business

Optimism is dangerous. Optimists show considerably less risk-aversion than pessimists, both in relation to risk perception and actual risk taking. An uncertain environment can contain a situation of either pure chance or imprecise probability. In both counts, optimists are willing to plunge in where pessimists fear to tread.

So, even in Positive Psychology, here is no positive without the possibility of a negative. There is no happiness without the danger of pain. There is no reward without risk. If you want to grasp at more happiness, then you must relish embracing the dangerous too.


Christopher K. Hsee and Bowen Ruan. “The Pandora Effect: The Power and Peril of Curiosity.” Psychological Science 27, no. 5 (2016): pp. 659 666.

Krueger, Norris, and Peter R. Dickson. “How believing in ourselves increases risk taking: perceived self-efficacy and opportunity recognition.” Decision Sciences 25, no. 3 (1994): 385-400.

Tadeusz Tyszka (Kozminski University) and Jaideep Roy (Murdoch University). “Optimism and Attitude Towards Risk.” Kozminski Business School Working Paper Series No. 06 (2008).