Curiosity Is the Secret to a Happy Life
Originally published on Elemental by Markham Heid on February 13, 2020
Engaging with the unfamiliar can keep mind and body fit. So how to pump up one’s levels of curiosity?
Anyone who has spent time around kids knows that their young minds are powered by curiosity. The average child probably asks more questions in 10 minutes than the average adult does in 10 days. Kids are curiosity personified.
But as people age, their reservoirs of curiosity tend to dry up. Studies have found that, on average, a person’s openness to new experiences and new sensations declines steadily with age. At the same time, apathy increases. While plenty of older adults buck these trends, there’s some truth to the cliché of the narrow-minded, novelty-averse fogey who rigidly adheres to his time-worn routines and opinions.
For years, mental health researchers have noted this age-related dip in curiosity. They’ve also noticed that high levels of curiosity often correlate with many different measures of mental health and vigor. One 2018 paper from the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews found evidence that maintaining curiosity in old age is protective against cognitive and physical decline. Compared to the incurious, older adults who score high in curiosity tend to perform better on tests of memory and general cognitive functioning. The authors of that study point out that curiosity activates brain areas that are involved in other high-level cognitive processes, and over time this increased activation could help explain some of curiosity’s brain benefits.
And in people both young and old, research has found that high and consistent levels of curiosity correlate with mental well-being and life satisfaction. Curious people also seem protected from depression.
The more that experts examine curiosity, the more they find evidence to suggest that it’s the secret sauce in a happy, fulfilling life. “If you take the fundamental things that people tend to want out of life — strong social relationships and happiness and accomplishing things — all of these are highly linked to curiosity,” says Todd Kashdan, a professor of psychology at George Mason University and author of Curious?
What exactly does it mean to be curious?
“If you go by the typical dictionary definition, curiosity is simply a desire to seek out new knowledge or experiences,” Kashdan says. While this definition is a useful starting point, he says curiosity also involves a willingness to engage with complex, unfamiliar, and challenging concepts or endeavors.
Kashdan has helped develop two widely used scientific models for measuring curiosity. The newer of these models breaks curiosity down into five different categories or “dimensions.” He terms the first of these “joyous exploration,” and it hews closely to the dictionary definition of curiosity. The second and third dimensions have to do with a person’s level of focus and commitment when confronted with the uncertainties that newness breeds. “When you explore new terrain” — whether it’s an exercise class you’ve never attended or a dinner date with a new friend — “you’ll probably be exposed to feelings of stress and anxiety,” he says. While these states tend to be thought of as negative, he says curious people are not easily deterred by them. In other words, they display resilience or “grit” (to use the buzzword du jour) when exploring new concepts or scenarios.
The more that experts examine curiosity, the more they find evidence to suggest that it’s the secret sauce in a happy, fulfilling life.
“The fourth dimension is thrill-seeking, which is a willingness to take financial or social or personal risks in pursuit of new experiences,” he explains. He says thrill-seeking could take the form of extreme sports, experimenting with psychedelics, or starting a new business venture. The fifth and final dimension is “social curiosity,” he says, which is taking an interest in other people’s views and opinions.
People who score high on some or all of these five measures of curiosity almost transcend questions of happiness or fulfillment. “When you lose yourself in the exploration of things that are new and that you find interesting, you’re not stopping to ask yourself if you’re happy or depressed,” Kashdan says.
That said, there’s some evidence that the relationship between curiosity and happiness is bidirectional, meaning one fuels the other. A 2019 study in the Journal of Personality found that on days when people experience positive emotions like happiness, they also tend to display more curiosity than on days when they aren’t happy. These sorts of findings have led some researchers to hypothesize that positive emotions may exist in part to help encourage curiosity and the fruitful exploration it encourages.
“There’s the ‘broaden and build’ theory that says positive emotions have a lot of function, and one of them is to get us to engage in things we wouldn’t normally do,” says David Lydon-Staley, first author of that study and a postdoctoral researcher in the department of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania. Curiosity can lead to new relationships, new skills, or new areas of knowledge that enrich a person’s life at many levels, he explains.
But is it possible to pump up one’s levels of curiosity?
Lydon-Staley’s research found that exercise seems to promote curiosity — perhaps by improving a person’s mood. (The mood-elevating effects of exercise are well established.)
Kashdan says having strong personal relationships also seems to feed curiosity. “Having secure attachments is like having a home base in a game of tag,” he says. “They allow people the freedom to be less inhibited and to explore.”
But by far the best way to feed curiosity is to engage with new people, new places, and new points of view. Kashdan says an aversion to the unfamiliar — or what he calls “premature closure” — stifles curiosity. But novelty, even if uncomfortable or scary at first, acts like curiosity fertilizer. “The more you interact with new experiences or information, the more you realize you don’t know, which makes further exploration more attractive,” he says. At the same time, engaging with something new tends to drain it of its power to cause anxiety. “The highest level of anxiety you feel is always during the anticipation of something new,” he says. “Stick it out, and you see that the anxiety is manageable and can even be enjoyable.”
There may be safety and security in the familiar. But there’s evidence that curiosity and the novel experiences that nourish it may pave the way toward a more meaningful and fulfilling life.