There will be no jokes about dead cats today. Just in case you were curious. But today I am going to write about one of the things that I believe is so integral to a life of fulfillment–CURIOSITY. And, as it turns out, I’m not the only one. In and among my recent musings and discussions with curious people about curiosity, I’ve discovered someone I want you to know about.
His name is Todd Kashdan, George Mason University psychologist and author of the 2009 book, Curious?, and, while he writes great articles all over the place, I discovered him on the Greater Good Science Center’s website. I’ve written about the Greater Good’s founder, Dacher Keltner, before because Keltner, in his book, Born To Be Good, looks at all parts of human behavior, including aspects like humor and teasing (two things I love) and how they contribute to a meaningful life. In fact, for all you TED fans out there, you might want to put Keltner’s site into your lineup of surf-stops, as it is full of interesting articles on all parts of the life meaningful.
But, back to Kashdan. And curiosity.
I read a short statement he wrote on Amazon, was immediately a fan, and promptly sent his book to my Kindle:
People regularly ignore curiosity because it appears, on the surface, to be a very obvious, simple, impotent emotion–something unusual appears or someone captivates us by a story, we feel curious, and direct our attention to explore further. But while this emotion seemed simplistic even to me, as I began my research, I soon discovered that curiosity is a deeper, more complex phenomenon that plays a critical role in what makes people’s lives most worth living. Curiosity is the spark plug that ignites other factors that contribute to happiness and meaning in life. You can’t work with strengths until you spot them and investigate them. You can’t be grateful without being curious about what benefits you received in your life.
I’m going to admit that, even in this statement, it’s a little hard to get your mind around exactly what Kashdan means. Curiosity, to me at least, seems kind of simple, right? You wonder about something–what’s that about, how did this come to be… what’s in that box?!? You seek out the answer and then, perhaps, share it with another person, call it curiosity. You might even say that this blog reflects a certain amount of curiosity and I would certainly be grateful for anyone who thought that. But what attracts me to Kashdan’s assessment of curiosity is better understood by his description of what happens to us when we lack it.
Curiosity is hard-wired in the brain, and its specific function is to urge us to explore, discover, and grow. It is the engine of our evolving self. Without curiosity, we are unable to sustain our attention, we avoid risks, we abort challenging tasks, we compromise our intellectual development, we fail to achieve competencies and strengths, we limit our ability to form relationships with other people, and essentially, stagnate.
Kashdan distinguishes the more superficial curiosity (what’s in that box) with the more personally fulfilling kind he is talking about. Superficial curiosity relates to things that are novel and, once experienced, can lose their ability to enchant, particularly with people who don’t possess the kind of curiosity that has a much higher function as the “engine of our evolving self.” He reminds readers, however, that “no two hugs are the same, no two pizzerias make pizza slices the same way, no two times we watch The Godfather are the same, and so it goes.” Woven into his analysis of what true curiosity is, is a large dose of present moment living, acknowledging the past as something that is finished and being constantly reinterpreted (and misinterpreted), and the future as something that has not happened yet, and something about which we are often wrong. He calls the present the “razor thin moment when we are truly free.”
The failure to embrace authentic curiosity, in Kashdan’s opinion, is heavily sustained by a nearly universal human belief that our sole purpose in life is to be happy. But, risk and challenge avoidance cannot do anything but become part and parcel of this delusion of happiness and, as a result, new experiences, new relationships, new opportunities, new discoveries and new ideas are pushed back. As someone who has worked extensively with depressed and suicidal individuals, Kashdan spent many years focusing on positive therapy with these people but saw little improvement in their overall feeling of well-being a year after treatment. By focusing primarily on happiness and how to attain it, he realized he had neglected to recognize an important part of the truly curious individual–the ability to really navigate through both good and bad, calm and anxious, joyous and sad. “If you search for a tensionless life, you will find little to be satisfying. Coping with negative experiences and being psychologically flexible are often springboards to peak experiences and personal growth.” The individual who can begin to embrace, in the words of the Dalai Lama, that “the very purpose of life is to seek happiness,” is the Curious Explorer.
I am only a little way into this book right now, but I like Kashdan’s approach to finding meaning in life without all the “positive thinking” psycho-jargon that is so in these days. I don’t believe we can relax, hypnotize or imagine ourselves into the best version of us and I don’t think that pretending to be curious will simply make it so. But, I can see that he offers up ways to examine our own behaviors and gives food for thought when it comes to approaching our own lives with a renewed sense of what is and isn’t meaningful. It looks, sounds and smells like a self-help book, to be sure, but, you know what? I’m curious.
TRY THIS WEEK: Wonder.