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Our Risk is Our Cure

The Pandora's box lurking inside me opened the weekend I learned to ride a motorcycle.

Friends invite me down to their place in Laguna for a little getaway. It’s a lovely autumn day and perfect for a ride. The coastal breezes will salve my spirit as the ocean’s whoosh and saltwater tang work their magic on my clenched heart. It’s been too hot here in Los Angeles, and the stress of city life has given me lockjaw.

I pull out Izzy Bella, my matte black Harley Sportster. There’s something about traveling by motorcycle that wakes me up to the beauty that is my life. But first, I have to battle the terror that doesn’t want me to do anything or go anywhere. The fear wants me to keep my life small, predictable and far too safe.  

Lately, I’ve been looking into the components of happiness. A few years ago, I found myself in my mid-40s, having lost much of the pleasure and joy that had once animated me. I was the mother to three nearly adult children, a suburban wife married 25 years, a homeowner, a professor. All the demographic markers of my life were in place.

Yet I was miserable much of the time. Is this what success looks like? I didn’t know where I had gone wrong.

My father was dying and my marriage had grown barren. My kids no longer needed me. The Pandora’s box lurking inside me opened the weekend I learned to ride a motorcycle. Two months later, the day after my father died, I walked into a dealership and bought a 3-year-old brawny road machine.

Risk taking, I found, was something I needed. I had lived too safe a life for too long.

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“Female Motorcycle Riders Feel Happier, More Confident and Sexier Than Women Who Don’t Ride,” reads the press release. Describing the responses of 2,000 women – half motorcyclists, half not – the survey reports that motorcycle riding greatly improves a woman’s feelings of overall self-worth. More than twice as many women riders say they always feel happy; nearly four times always feel sexy. Three in four believe their lives have improved since they started riding.

Though the study is a blatant effort to sell motorcycles to a mostly untapped market, the stats make an important point: When we challenge ourselves, we feel good. And therein lies happiness.

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Within minutes of starting the bike, I settle in and get comfortable balancing on this powerful rail of iron. Soon I’m wending my way from Silver Lake down the 5. Wall-to-wall semis surround me, stained concrete is everywhere I look; a miasma of exhaust envelopes me. I straddle the line between lanes, dodging cars that fail to use their blinkers, drivers who don’t see me, motorists who are texting. Sweat slicks my palms as I offer a grateful high sign to those who scooch over a bit to give me space.

Like many things in life, we sometimes have to wade through the ugliness to find the beauty, make our way straight into the fear to find our courage.

In my research, I’ve found that many factors contribute to feelings of wholeness and happiness. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes one of the most crucial components of happiness – “flow state,” he calls it – as that mental space when you exert energized focus and are completely caught up in enjoying an activity, not thinking about its potential outcome or payoff. When in flow, nothing else matters; the experience is so enjoyable that you’ll do it regardless of cost. You cease to be aware of yourself as a separate entity. You lose yourself in the experience.

This is how I feel now as the traffic thins and I can give Izzy all the juice she’s begging for, wanting to run free and curve toward the ocean, leaving deadlines and emails and missed phone calls in my wake. At this moment, I don’t wish I were somewhere else or doing anything else. I’m focused to a laser point of consciousness, set on one particular, solitary goal: to arrive in Laguna safely.

Risk taking is only one of countless ways to access flow, but an effective one. Contrary to popular belief, the risk taker’s enjoyment doesn’t arise from the danger itself, but from her ability to minimize it. “What people enjoy is not the sense of being in control, but the sense of exercising control in difficult situations,” Csikszentmihalyi writes.

By the time I hit Laguna Canyon Road, I’ve found what I’m looking for. The physical beauty lifts my spirit, but a key ingredient for me is time on the bike. Riding a motorcycle reminds me that I’m stronger than I think I am. I’m exerting some small measure of influence in a life that often feels chaotic and too big. Today, I remember that I’m brave. If only for this one moment, I’m a tiny bit badass.

Getting comfortable on the motorcycle has also helped me become more at ease with uncertainty in my personal life. So much of my past has been spent striving – for an education, the right career, a good marriage, the best opportunities for my children, a sense of security. But now I see I placed too heavy a value on achieving them.

Contrary to what we often believe, happiness and flow moments are not events that happen to us. They’re experiences we make happen. They occur when we take our body or mind to its limit in a deliberate effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.
That’s not to say such experiences are absent of fear.

Every time I get on my motorcycle, I feel trepidation. I’m as afraid of dying as anyone. But when I achieve flow, my dread, along with worries about how I’ll survive as a now-single woman in my 50s, takes a backseat. When I focus intensely, uncertainties slip out the back door, leaving only concentration and a sense of wholeness.

I arrive in Laguna and follow the road as it rises above the ocean into the canyon in Arch Beach Heights. From my friends’ house, it’s all present: the ocean and its blue-green richness stretching out to the west, the brine-y odor wafting up to me. To the east lie the rugged, chaparral-covered hills and rolling canyon. Life with just one side – only safety, as I’d long tried to achieve – is unbalanced. But taken together with all the not-for-sures and nature’s wild beauty, it sings.

Before I pull off my helmet, I feel my cheeks compressed against the interior helmet shell. My smile is so insistent, it feels like it might crack this carapace open. In this moment, I’ve found it: This is what bliss feels like.

This, I remind myself, is happiness.


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