Curiosity didn’t kill the cat, it gave the cat more life! Many of us have lost our sense of curiosity, and the benefits it brings, says George Mason University Psychology Professor Todd Kashdan, in his book, Curious? Curiosity is naturally hard-wired in young children’s minds, but many of us lose it over time, due to a “curiosity killed the cat” mindset and other social constraints. The compulsion to schedule every moment of our lives, reduce uncertainty to zero, and curb anxiety of the unknown, all work together to inhibit curiosity. Kashdan wants us to embrace open-mindedness and reap the rewards.
Curious people simply seem to be healthier! In a five year study, over 2000 adults between the ages of 60 and 86 were closely monitored. Those who were more curious in their approach to life were more likely to be alive at the conclusion of the study than were the less curious individuals. This difference between the curious and less-curious groups was clear, even after correcting for the common risk factors such as smoking, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
Curious people seem to grow smarter over time! In one study, 1,795 three year olds were IQ tested. Even after accounting for equal baseline IQs, highly curious children scored 12 IQ points higher at age 11 compared to less curious children. The highly curious children also had superior scholastic and reading ability. These results were replicated across independent samples and were found for all gender and ethnic groups. The study authors hypothesized that curious kids seek out experiences in a way that stimulates cognitive development.
Meaning and Purpose in Life
Curious people find more meaning in life. Kashdan’s own research demonstrates a link between curiosity and expressed life purpose. Several studies tracked people’s everyday activities in real time and to what degree they placed significance in those activities.
“Curiosity is the driving force behind finding and creating small and sustainable pockets of meaning. It could be spending time with a significant other or the experience that comes from complete immersion in a conversation, book, movie, game, or sport and then making sense of the event.”
Curious people report more satisfying relationships and marriages, as validated in a number of studies.
“Curious people ask questions and take an interest in learning about their partners… Less curious people rely on stereotypes to describe others and find new information that is inconsistent with these beliefs to be threatening…. Curious people are comfortable working through doubts and mixed emotions in their relationships.”
Curious people are happier. In a massive Gallup survey of 130,000 people worldwide, one of the top two factors influencing how much enjoyment a person experienced on a given day was being able to say I “learned something yesterday.” In another study of 839 students, Kashdan and colleagues found that of 24 key character strengths, only curiosity and zest were consistently part of the top 5 strengths correlated to attaining a pleasurable, engaging, and meaningful life.
Develop Your Curiosity: Take a Little Risk
Kashdan cautions that the five benefits above are correlations rather than proven to be casual. That being said, curiosity is a strength that can be exercised and developed. He suggests ways we can mix it up and develop our curiosity.
1. Choose an activity that is clearly unappealing to you, from attending opera to mountain climbing to reading mystery novels.
2. Take part in the activity, but instead of just doing it as is, search for three unique aspects to it.
3. Think about these 3 things, write them down and talk about them with someone else. This curious mindset will follow you and perhaps open up even more doors.
So the next time you’re feeling bored in a meeting, direct your attention to something you might not usually notice. What is the speaker’s cadence? Who seems to be talking the most and why? What is the speaker not saying? How might the slides and graphs look different next year? You might discover something new. At the very least, the meeting will probably pass more quickly!