Curiosity: The Revolutionary New Year's Resolution
If you ask your friends about their New Year’s resolutions, you’ll probably hear the common list ... lose weight, live healthier, be happier, get organized, have better relationships, etc.
What about more curious? Chances are curiosity isn’t at the top of most people’s list.
Although the old adage claims curiosity killed the cat, modern science links curiosity to well-being and other facets of The Good Life. I believe everyone would benefit by considering curiosity as a New Year’s Resolution.
Curiosity is a state of active interest or genuinely wanting to know more about something. As you can imagine, when we are interested in something, we are more motivated and likely to explore it. When we explore, we gain knowledge and information. This makes us feel more competent and boosts our mood and self-esteem, which then leads us to explore and learn more … and so on. This is a reinforcing cycle, or positive feedback loop, in which curiosity fuels curiosity.
Although curiosity is a universal trait, everyone varies in their level of curiosity and it is influenced by numerous things like genetics and our social and physical environments. There are highly curious individuals who prefer complex, new and surprising activities. But for others, curiosity is a fleeting moment of wonder. The good news is that you can become more curious and there are good reasons, too, to amp up your level of curiosity.
Curiosity remains the crux of innovation, but it’s not just for scientists anymore. Curiosity is linked to greater well-being, motivation, creativity, self-esteem, fulfillment, flexible thinking and problem solving. Curious people show better perseverance toward their goals and perform better than their less-curious counterparts in various domains like sports, academics and work.
Perhaps the best news of all is that some of the other byproducts of curiosity are probably already on your list of New Year’s resolutions: Happiness, better relationships and health.
Curiosity is strongly linked to overall happiness and well-being. More specifically, curiosity promotes a positive mood, enhances pleasure and ultimately helps individuals find fulfillment and meaning in life. When I work with people who tell me they haven’t found what makes them happy, or their passion in life, I work with them to hone their curiosity. When we are more open to new experiences, we are more likely to encounter the things that we enjoy most. New experiences come with trial and error, but remaining open will lead to other experiences, allowing us to eventually discover what we are passionate about.
People rarely think of curiosity as an important ingredient in thriving relationships. But, consider the wisdom of Dale Carnegie in his landmark book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Carnegie nailed it many decades ago and recent research still supports it. Asking questions and showing genuine interest in others’ work and hobbies, etc. is a natural way to build relationships. It is no surprise curious people report having more satisfying relationships.
Curiosity encourages personal growth, allowing members of a couple to gain respect for each other. It also helps establish warmth and harmony when couples engage in new activities together. Curiosity also changes the lens through which we communicate, by allowing us to be more open-minded, flexible and non-assuming.
Here’s the paradox: That which unites us can also divide us. Many people report they value certainty and predictability in their relationships. However, research shows that abandoning certainty and adding surprise and novelty can help relationships thrive. At first thought, that may seem counterintuitive. But when you reconsider, you may realize that the novelty and surprise that come along with curiosity can add excitement and growth to a relationship, and prevent boredom and inertia.
Some of the most profound research findings on curiosity relate to our health. My friend and colleague, Todd Kashdan, Ph.D., author of Curious: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life, offers this great insight into curiosity:
Being curious prevents some of the cognitive problems that often arise as we get older. When scientists looked at the brains of patients with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, they found clear degeneration in the brain circuits linked to being curious. There are promising signs that training people to be curious, by attending to what is novel in their environment, engaging in new hobbies and activities, and pursuing familiar tasks in new ways, reduces the risk for these diseases. Curiosity also has the potential to reverse some of the natural degeneration that occurs as we age. There is some evidence that highly curious people live longer, but even more important, these highly curious people live better.
Curiosity: resolution or revolution?
I believe curiosity is a stellar New Year’s resolution. Although curiosity is easy to talk about, it is not as easy to hone; it almost takes a personal revolution. Why?
Some people are intimidated by curiosity, and wrongly assume it is only for the highly intelligent. The truth is that interest is in the eye of the beholder. You can be curious about anthropology, Justin Bieber’s hair, World War II, scuba diving, the origin of Kansas City barbecue or jazz or contemporary art, and reap the same benefits of curiosity.
Another reason people avoid curiosity is because the unpredictability and uncertainty in pursuing something new may create anxiety and tension. Although a certain amount of certainty is important in our lives, we mistakenly believe that we will be happier if we have absolute certainty. The truth is that life is uncertain, and the quest for certainty can undermine the excitement and fun in life.
What if we knew everything that was around the corner? There are no spoiler alerts here, but what if you knew ahead of time the ending of movies like The Crying Game, The Usual Suspects or Planet of the Apes? Would you enjoy them as much?
True, uncertainty creates some anxiety and tension. But is it so bad? Think of the tension you likely felt when the University of Kansas Jayhawks played the University of Memphis Tigers in the NCAA Championship Game in April 2008. Recall that KU was down by three points with 2.1 seconds left in regulation time. Enter Mario Chalmers who made a three-point shot, the three-point shot, which tied the game and put it into overtime.
Ultimately, KU won the national championship. Imagine for a minute that you had to DVR the game and someone told you what happened. You likely wouldn’t have felt the tension, but would the game have been as exciting?
Finally, curiosity can be difficult to channel because our rules and social norms get in the way. Individuals who are actively searching for meaning and who have careers that foster their creativity, authenticity and independence have an easier time channeling curiosity. Similarly, it is so much easier for children to be curious. Children don’t feel as restricted by what society expects them to do.
Although children often have an innate abundance of curiosity, it is still important to nurture. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.”
Share Stories of Curious People
One of my daughters’ favorite stories is about a young boy named Charles who loved all things nature. Charles had collections of stones, fossils and beetles. One day while Charles was taking a nature walk, he came across three beetles he had never seen before. He was excited to add them to his collection, but the three beetles were too large to fit in both of his hands. Charles couldn’t bear the thought of leaving one behind. So, he picked up one in each hand and put the third beetle into his mouth. Suddenly, the beetle squirted a bitter-tasting stinging substance. Charles immediately spit it out. During the commotion, two of the three beetles escaped and Charles was terribly disappointed. My daughters refer to this story as “the beetlejuice boy story,” but it is really a story about curiosity.
Nurture Your Own Curiosity
You may have to abandon practicality. Give yourself permission to be you and follow what piques your interest. Concerned you’re the only one? You’re not. There is a great PBS series, The Secret Lives of Scientists, that highlights others who have given themselves permission to be curious. There is a nanoscientist who is also a photographer, and a physicist who is also a figure skater.
• Answer this question: If you could quit your day job, what would you do?
• Take a trip to somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit, or consider a Discovery retreat
• Attend a lecture on a topic you’re interested in.
• Take a course through a community college.
• Try an old activity in a new way (a new route to work).
• Make a new recipe
• Join an organization related to a cause you believe in.
• Have an attitude of play. It can make the most tedious tasks more interesting and fun.
• Let yourself be surprised by life.
• Carve out curiosity time.
Curious? There’s an app for that.
• TED talks
• National Geographic
• NPR and other news
• RSS feeds and online blogs
• Encyclopedia Britannica
• Discovery Channel
Published on January 14, 2013.