Step Outside Your Life: How Curiosity Is Good for You
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Step Outside Your Life: How Curiosity Is Good for You

Cultivating curiosity and a healthy sense of wonder can point you in exciting new directions, wake up your spirit, and feed your soul.

Finding a Thirst for Knowledge

No one has ever accused me of being an adventurous person: I've never traveled abroad, rarely attempt physical activity more exciting than walking along a well-marked path, have no desire to dye my hair a crazy color or experiment with my eye makeup. But I've always loved to learn. As a young woman I was first in line for the newest foreign flick, was game for any and all political discussions, and adored poring over the Encyclopedia Britannica and soaking up everything it had to say about English monarchs or the Russian Revolution.

These days, as a harried working mother of three boys, I like to think I retain a healthy curiosity about the world. But if I were to be completely honest, I'd have to admit that I stick pretty closely to my routine. My days are notable only for their utter predictability: I get up, make breakfast, drive the kids to school, come home, do laundry, and work at my desk until it's nearly time to pick up the kids. When we get home again, I remove the clothes from the dryer and -- you guessed it -- fold them. Pretty exciting stuff, huh?

But every so often I try to introduce a little novelty into my life. Last year, for example, I saw a display of pomegranates in the supermarket. I had no idea exactly what they were -- fruits? vegetables? gigantic nuts? -- but I bought one anyway. "It's time," I lectured myself, "that you tasted a pomegranate."

At home, my children hovered as I unpacked the groceries. "What's this?" Henry asked, palming the pomegranate like a baseball.

"Can we eat it?" Joe asked.

But I didn't know whether to cut it or peel it, whether it was ripe yet or which parts were edible. "We'll eat it after I look it up online," I said. "Have an apple."

And so it went, for days. The kids would peer into the fruit basket and say, "Let's eat the pomegranate!" And I'd say, "I haven't had time to look it up." Finally it collapsed, rotten, and I threw it on the compost heap.

And that's when I had my moment of truth. As I stood there looking at the pomegranate, oozing its ruby juices, I wondered what had happened to that eager, knowledge-hungry girl. Was I really so busy and single-minded that I could no longer find time to indulge even a tiny moment of random curiosity? When had I stopped finding the world fresh, fascinating, and utterly delicious?

Curiosity is a natural impulse that manifests itself in two primary ways: the urge to understand something new and the urge to experience novelty. Kids generally exhibit both, because figuring out how the world works is their chief task as newcomers to the planet. That's why they're apt to wander off at the mall or conduct ad hoc experiments like sleeping with their heads at the foot of the bed to see if they'll wake up with a different perspective on life.

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.

Curiosity Cured the Cat

The benefits of having a lively, curious mind fully engaged by the world are both plentiful and diverse. Curious people tend to be more open-minded, more confident, better at problem solving, and more successful at their jobs. Perhaps the best bonus of all? They actually live longer, says Gary E. Swan, PhD, director of the Center for Health Sciences at SRI International, a Menlo Park, California, scientific research center. Even when such risk factors as cancer, cardiovascular disease, smoking, and high blood pressure are taken into account, the most curious adults -- measured on a psychological scale called the State-Trait Personality Inventory -- had lower mortality rates than their more stick-in-the-mud peers.

Almost as important as longevity itself is the enhanced quality of life that Dr. Swan's team found among curious elders: They were happier and less prone to depression and anxiety and scored higher on tests of cognitive ability.

"Human beings are social animals and our moods are contagious," explains Kay Redfield Jamison, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and author of Exuberance. "People who are interested in the world tend to be interesting to others. So someone who's curious and energetic draws people to her."

And if these measurable advantages aren't compelling enough, just think about how intrinsically satisfying it is to learn or experience something new. When she's planning a vacation, for example, Shellie Michael, a college professor in Nashville, likes to research her destination in depth. "I learn everything I can -- the history, the culture, the plants and animals there," she says. "It's great -- my vacation before the vacation."

My sister, Lori Renkl, felt the same unexpected boost when she signed up for a belly-dancing class. "I wanted a different kind of exercise," she recalls, "but by the time the first class came around, I wasn't in the mood. I forced myself to go anyway and it turned out to be so much fun! Within 15 minutes I felt 100 percent happier."

Okay, you're convinced: Curiosity didn't kill the cat -- it cured the cat. But that still doesn't solve the time dilemma. The trick, Hall believes, is to treat curiosity like any other item on your to-do list and schedule it in. After a while it becomes second nature to take the time to attend that lecture or visit that museum. And because pursuing these activities feels good, you're more apt to say yes the next time. And the time after that.

"It's like a seedling, with little leaves and roots starting to push out," says Hall. "Once you become more interested in things, wonder starts to emerge in your life, and you'll find that you are more creative and energetic. It's like coming to life again."

8 Ways to Get a New Perspective

  • Take a class in the arts. So you can't draw. That doesn't mean you can't paint -- or sculpt or throw a clay pot or write a poem or sew a colorful quilt.
  • Join a book group. Regular meetings will introduce you to books -- and opinions about them -- that you would never otherwise encounter.
  • Eat a new ethnic dish. How do you know you don't like gado gado if you've never tried it?
  • Attend a wine tasting. If you can't tell a zinfandel from a merlot, here's your chance to learn.
  • Join a star party. Local astronomy clubs often have an open night several times a year.
  • Rally for a cause. Even if you're not the activist type, the energy and enthusiasm at such events can be contagious.
  • Attend a lecture. Local bookstores, public libraries, and universities frequently sponsor free, informative, and highly entertaining talks by writers, scientists, and political leaders.

 

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, January 2009.

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