By Todd Kashdan, PhD, Experience Life
Curiosity, at its core, is all about noticing and being drawn to things we find interesting. It’s about recognizing and seizing the pleasures that novel experiences offer us, and finding novelty and meaning even in experiences that are familiar.
When we are curious, we see things differently; we use our powers of observation more fully. We sense what is happening in the present moment, taking note of what is, regardless of what it looked like before or what we might have expected it to be.
We feel alive and engaged, more capable of embracing opportunities, making connections, and experiencing moments of insight and meaning — all of which provide the foundation for a rich, aware and satisfying life experience.
Click through for five important ways that curiosity enhances our well-being and the quality of our lives.
In a 1996 study published in Psychology and Aging, more than 1,000 older adults aged 60 to 86 were carefully observed over a five-year period, and researchers found that those who were rated as being more curious at the beginning of the study were more likely to be alive at its conclusion, even after taking into account age, whether they smoked, the presence of cancer or cardiovascular disease, and so on.
It is possible that declining curiosity is an initial sign of neurological illness and declining health. Nonetheless, there are promising signs that enhancing curiosity reduces the risk for these diseases and may even reverse some of the natural degeneration that occurs in older adults.
In his book, The Power of Premonitions (Dutton, 2009), Larry Dossey, MD, cites studies that have shown women “who regularly engage in mini-mysteries … taking on novel experiences that get them out of familiar routines (better) preserve their mental faculties later in life.” In short, a regular dose of the unexpected helps keep your brain healthy.
A 2005 report in the journal Health Psychology described a two-year study involving more than 1,000 patients that found higher levels of curiosity were also associated with a decreased likelihood of developing hypertension and diabetes. While correlation does not imply causation, these relationships suggest that curiosity may have a variety of positive connections with health that deserve further study.
Studies have shown that curiosity positively correlates with intelligence. In one study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2002, researchers correctly predicted that high novelty-seeking (or highly curious) toddlers would have higher IQs as older children than toddlers with lower levels of curiosity. Researchers measured the degree of novelty-seeking behavior in 1,795 3-year-olds and then measured their cognitive ability at age 11. As predicted, the 11-year-olds who had been highly curious 3-year-olds later scored 12 points higher on total IQ compared with low stimulation seekers. They also had superior scholastic and reading ability.
Other studies have shown that high levels of curiosity in adults are connected to greater analytic ability, problem-solving skills and overall intelligence. All of which suggests that cultivating more curiosity in your daily life is likely to make you smarter.
3. Social Relationships
It is far easier to form and maintain satisfying, significant relationships when you demonstrate an attitude of openness and genuine interest. One of the top reasons why couples seek counseling or therapy is because they’ve become bored with each other. This often sparks resentment, hostility, communication breakdowns and a lack of interest in spending time together (only adding to the initial problem). Curious people report more satisfying relationships and marriages. Happy couples describe their partners as interested and responsive.
Curious people are inclined to act in ways that allow relationships to develop more easily. In one of my studies, participants spent five minutes getting acquainted with a stranger of the opposite sex, and each person made judgments about his or her partner’s personality. We also interviewed their closest friends and parents to gain added insight into the qualities that curious people bring to relationships. Each of these groups — acquaintances of a mere five minutes, close friends and parents — characterized curious people as highly enthusiastic and energetic, talkative, interesting in what they say and do, displaying a wide range of interests, confident, humorous, less likely to express insecurities, and lacking in timidity and anxiety compared with less curious people.
Curious people ask questions and take an interest in learning about partners, and they intentionally try to keep interactions interesting and playful. This approach supports the development of good relationships.
The Gallup organization recently reported the results of a survey conducted with more than 130,000 people from some 130 nations, a sample designed to represent 96 percent of the world’s population. The poll identified two factors that had the strongest influence on how much enjoyment a person experienced in a given day: “being able to count on someone for help” and “learned something yesterday.”
What this poll confirms is that developing good relationships with other people (see above) and growing as a person are foundational components of a “happy” life. Both factors are supported by curiosity.
In fact, in one of the largest undertakings in the field of psychology, two pioneers in the field of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, PhD, and Chris Peterson, PhD, devised a scientific classification of the basic human strengths. This system was the end result of reading the works of ancient philosophers, religious texts and contemporary literature, then identifying patterns, and finally subjecting these ideas to rigorous scientific tests. Their research eventually recognized 24 basic strengths. And, of those 24 strengths that human beings can possess, curiosity was one of the five most highly associated with overall life fulfillment and happiness.
There are other important relationships between curiosity and happiness. In his book Stumbling on Happiness (Knopf, 2006), Harvard University psychology professor Daniel Gilbert, PhD, shows that, while we think we know what will make us happy in the future, we are actually less likely to find joy as a result of a planned pursuit than by simply stumbling upon it. It follows that by cultivating curiosity and remaining open to new experiences, we increase our likelihood of encountering those surprising and satisfying activities.
If we are going to find a meaningful purpose or calling in life, chances are good we will find it in something that unleashes our natural curiosity and fascination. Indeed, curiosity is the entry point to many of life’s greatest sources of meaning and satisfaction: our interests, hobbies and passions.
While being passionate about something naturally renders you curious to know as much as you can about it, it also works the other way around: The more curiosity you can muster for something, the more likely you are to notice and learn about it, and thus the more interesting and meaningful it will become for you over time.
This is true of people, books, sports, skills and conversations. Often, the more curiosity and energy we invest in exploring and understanding them, the more compelling they become.
This has important implications for how much meaning and passion we experience in life: The greater the range and depth of our curiosity, the more opportunities we have to experience things that inspire and excite us, from minute details to momentous occasions.