Step Outside Your Life: How Curiosity Is Good for You

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Why You Hold Back

Research by happiness expert Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, identifies curiosity as one of 24 key character strengths. Naturally curious people embrace even the seemingly mundane. They're the ones who chat up cab drivers and really listen to what they say; who actually read the plaques on the sides of buildings; who pull the car over to check out the scenic view.

Sadly, though, curiosity tends to decline as we grow older -- perhaps because we adults already know most of what we need to know for survival. Or perhaps because the brain itself changes: A recent National Institutes of Health study found that as people age their brains respond less strongly to dopamine, the naturally occurring chemical associated with motivation and reward. So certain experiences may no longer provide the payoff they once did.

In short, the passing years that got me to my 40s may also be responsible for the rut I find myself in. You start to think there's nothing new under the sun and the next thing you know, you've stopped paying attention to the sun.

Except, of course, that there's a ton of new stuff under the sun. Maybe the failure to be enthralled by it all has less to do with getting older than with having insufficient hours in a day. "Women today carry a heavy load of responsibilities," acknowledges Kathleen Hall, author of Alter Your Life: Overbooked? Overworked? Overwhelmed? Yet Hall believes that overextension is only one of the reasons we stop seeking out new information and experiences. In her view, women lose their spirit of inquiry and adventure because -- mea culpa -- they get so comfortable with routine. True, routines are efficient, and their very predictability provides security. But they also breed inertia, notes Hall. "Living out of habit means other options get closed off," she says. "And curiosity feeds on itself -- the more curious you are, the more curious you become. It's use it or lose it."

So if you aren't actively saying yes to at least some of the possibilities that come your way, you may not have what it takes to follow through when a tiny spark of curiosity does fire.

Determined to stem this tide of apathy, I bought another pomegranate. And -- whoa! -- it took me less than a minute online to find out how to cut it, score it, break it open, and scoop out the seeds. That's a lot less time than I typically spend flipping through the same old catalogs that come in the mail every day. Lack of time, I reluctantly concluded, is clearly not the real obstacle here.

Continued on page 3:  Curiosity Cured the Cat


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