What keeps you safe doesn’t make you happy

We live in a head-centric society. Most of us live from the neck up – meaning solely by our intellects. However, this is a recipe for unhappiness, because our brains are wired to keep us safe, not happy. Our brains do not care that we’re happy, it cares that we are alive. This is why choices that keep us safe – i.e. avoiding all types of anxiety-provoking, uncomfortable feelings – don’t always bring us joy or contentment.

For example, what makes me feel safe is to be by myself, and to essentially hide myself away. I do not like attention, it is very overstimulating for me. But what brings me joy is writing and expressing myself, and this necessarily brings with it some attention and a need to interact with others. These are conflicting needs, and it takes conscious choice daily to take small steps out of my comfort zone. But in walking my talk, it allows me to empathize with others who go through the same struggle of safety versus happiness.

Dr Elaine Aron mentioned in her HSP book how it can be dangerous to give a highly sensitive person too much safety, because then we can cling to it and get lost in the addictive and hypnotizing sense of security. I find that to be true – but what actually brings me out of my comfort zone is the fact that I am also a HSS – as a high sensation seeker, I cannot dwell in safety for long without getting painfully bored and needing something to shake things up. Without some variety in my routine, I start to get antsy and over time, depressed.

How to balance need for safety and novelty

Have you found yourself falling into a rut? I know I need help getting out of that rut, too, sometimes. Here are some ways I have found useful when I get a little too comfortable.

  1. Build novelty into your routines. Prioritize novelty and turn it into a habit. For example, make it a fun game – e.g. go check out a new store, new part of town, new restaurant every Sunday.
  2. Do a different version of the same thing for a small, not overly stimulating dose of novelty. For example, instead of picking up an entirely new sport or exercise, do a different version of it. Like yoga? Try hot yoga. Enjoy going to the gym? (Ugh.) Try out a new gym.
  3. Understand your brain. Your body + brain love habit energy. Your soul is creative energy – creative energy is necessarily unpredictable, thrives on novelty and spontaneity. Both parts of you are equally valid. Both parts need to be expressed!
  4. Time novelty well. Know that new things can be stressful, even if it is something positive and enjoyable. You may not be keen to take on new/fun things when you’re already going through a period of change, like changing new jobs or moving house. Give yourself more time than you think you need – for example, give yourself 6 months to settle into a new job, and a year to feel truly comfortable there. You’re more likely to enjoy novel things when you’re not feeling stressed out by the other parts of your life, which makes it more likely for you to repeat the experience.
  5. Plan for recovery time. For example, avoid doing something new and overstimulating on consecutive weekends. Plan for quiet evenings around the weekend that you know you’re going to be doing something new.

It took some years of observation for me to know that my sense of contentment and joy is pretty much correlated to the amount of stimulation I’m receiving. Instead of allowing my thoughts to spiral into ‘what is wrong with my life in general’ when I start to feel my mood go down, I have learned to meet my stimulation needs, either by ramping it up or dialing it down so that I am optimally stimulated. Sometimes it really is just as simple as checking out a new museum exhibit or cafe, or meeting a friend or taking a walk in a park. Other times it’s simply taking a quiet weekend to spend some time recharging. It takes practice to know where your optimal zone of stimulation lies, so never give up exploring and being curious about it!


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