Curiosity: Driving To Health, Meaning & Fulfilment
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“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 would be curiosity.”
- Eleanor Roosevelt
Our daily lives are profoundly shaped by a great number of goods and services that are a product of curiosity. Starting with electricity, to the cars we drive, to the transistors in our mobile phones, to the internet. These are just some examples, that easily illustrate how vastly different life would be today if it weren’t for someone’s applied curiosity.
Curiosity, I believe is the mother of most skills, and an engine propelling us forward towards growth, progress, and meaning in life. According to Todd Kashdan, professor of Psychology at Mason University, curiosity is a state of active interest, that is, a genuine motivation to learn more about something.
Children are the best examples of heightened curiosity. Their spark and zest for life are contagious. Questions predominate their speech and the way they interact with the world. In fact, studies report that 70 percent to 80 percent of kids’ dialogues consist of questions. No topic is off limits or tabu, and everything about life and the world is worthy of their curiosity.
That same study found that adults only spend 15 percent to 25 percent of their communication time asking questions.
What happens as we grow up, that makes us focus so much on answers that we stop questioning?
Why We stop Questioning
One of the predominant ways children interact with the world is through exploration. They are not expected to know answers and gather knowledge in order to apply it in a productive and useful way. Hence, they’re free to follow whatever sparks their interest, to ask questions beyond any predetermined notion of reasonability, and to engage with seemingly disconnected things, subjects or experiences.
As we grow up, the bias toward action places more pressure on answering questions. And tasks repeated over time are operated without much reflective thought or questioning. Through much of our day, we’re in automatic pilot, mindlessly driving, oblivious to any special or unusual features, talking about the same subjects to the same people, rarely ever deviating from our routines and established habits.
We rush through things, looking for information that confirms our own beliefs (confirmation bias), reinforcing our vision of life and the world. We fall into a very dangerous trap, the belief that we shouldn’t ask questions, or that we don’t need to. In this way, failing to expand our ways of observing and being in the world.
Why Curiosity Matters (Most)
“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence.”
- Albert Einstein
Curiosity is this wonderful ability that allows us to seek novelty both in the familiar and the unfamiliar. Have you ever been around a person, that no matter how many times they’ve walked inside the same house with the same beautiful view, never ceases to be amazed? That finds different angles and aspects of it to observe and wonder?
Highly curious people see things a bit differently. They’re avid observers, sensing and taking in whatever is present in their experience. They have this childlike zest and energy for life. They haven’t lost their sense of awe.
Here are some of the ways in which curiosity expands our lives by enhancing our sense of health, intelligence, meaning, connectedness with others, and satisfaction.
A 1996 study published in the journal Psychology and Aging, involving more than 1,000 older adults with ages between 60 to 86 assessed them for curiosity at the beginning of the study, and found that those with higher curiosity scores were more likely to be alive at the end of the study, which spanned over a period of 5 years.
Even though the study proves correlation, not causation, it seems possible that decreasing curiosity is associated with declining cognitive abilities and an initial sign of cognitive illness and declining health.
There’s a body of scientific evidence that correlates curiosity with intelligence. In a 2002 study, researchers correctly proposed that toddlers that scored highly in novelty-seeking (curiosity) would have higher IQ’s as older children than less curious toddlers. The toddlers were measured at 3 years old and then reassessed for their cognitive ability at age 11. The more curious 3-year-olds, later at age 10, scored 12 points higher for general IQ comparatively to low stimulation seekers.
In more recent studies, scientists from Mount Sinai Hospital found a molecular link between intelligence and curiosity. In a study published on September 2009 in the prestigious Neuron journal, researchers studied the interaction of two proteins in a small region of the brain that plays an important role in long-term memory and spatial navigation (the dentate gyrus). This study showed that some of the molecules and brain regions that control learning and memory, also control curiosity, making it possible to design drugs to improve cognition in humans.
It seems that the links between curiosity and intelligence are too strong to ignore. And, anyone whose work and most meaningful creations involves cognitive ability, would benefit from honing their curiosity.
People create meaning and purpose in their lives in many different ways. It seems that those who are deeply moved by a cause greater than themselves we’re so passionate about it that they could not stay away from it. So chances are great that if we’re going to craft meaning in our lives curiosity and fascination will have a great deal to do about it.
By fostering openness to experiences, and a willingness to look beyond common and conventional ways, curiosity is a means through which we come closer to the things that bring us greater joy and fulfillment.
4. Satisfying Relationships
In her popular Ted Talk, Mandy Len Catron, argues that anyone can fall in love by asking 36 questions. What it points to is a fundamental human need, to be seen and understood. As babies, we’re delighted with people’s natural interest and fascination with us. As adults we’re not as used to people staring at us or taking time to ask us questions we’ve never been asked before, to take a deep and active interest in all aspects of our lives.
But relationships and marriages marked by a sense of curiosity are reportedly more satisfying. Happy couples describe their partners as interested and responsive.
Two of the most prominent figures of the field of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman, PhD, and Chris Peterson, PhD, devised a scientific classification of the basic human strengths. The Via Character Strengths resulted from the study and compilation of the work of ancient philosophers, religious texts and contemporary literature subjected to the scrutiny and rigor of modern science. This research led to the recognition of 24 basic human strengths. Of these strengths, curiosity was among the five that most highly correlated with life fulfillment and happiness.
Wrapping It Up
What I hope by now is that you’re curious about curiosity and set out to explore its impact in your own life. Whether or not you score high in novelty-seeking behaviors, curiosity is a skill that can be learned and developed, giving you an opportunity to sense life before and after.
Whether you’re driven by the health benefits, the transformative power of curiosity in relationships, or how it drives us closer to joy and meaning, you are likely to find that curiosity is an essential part of an engaged and meaningful life.
“The future belongs to the curious. The ones who are not afraid to try it, explore at it, poke at it, question it and turn it inside out.”
Kashdan, T.B., Gallagher, M.W., Silvia, P.J., Winterstein, B.P., Breen, W.E., Terhar, D., & Steger, M.F. (2009). The Curiosity and Exploration Inventory-II: Development, factor structure, and initial psychometrics. Journal of Research in Personality, 43, 987-998.
Kashdan, T. (2019). The Power of Curiosity. Experience Life.
Mountsinai.on.ca. (2019). Mount Sinai researchers discover the first-ever link between intelligence and curiosity. Mount Sinai Hospital - Toronto.
Staats, B. (2018). Never Stop Learning. 3rd ed. Harvard Business Review Press.