What do you want most in life? For the vast majority of us, the answer is “to be happy.” One of the most reliable and overlooked keys to happiness is cultivating and exercising our innate sense of curiosity. That’s because curiosity — a state of active interest or genuinely wanting to know more about something — creates an openness to unfamiliar experiences, laying the groundwork for greater opportunities to experience discovery, joy, and delight.
Curiosity is something that can be nurtured and developed. But our innate curiosity can easily become dulled by the tedium and familiarity of daily routine. Reawakening it starts with shifting how we pay attention — even in situations we’ve experienced a thousand times before.
Here are seven tips for shifting our attention and boosting curiosity:
- Play 20 questions. How often have you been at a cocktail party at which no one asks you a single question about yourself? Make it a goal to find out something new about the people you know. Host a party and make sure to ask each attendee a couple of questions about them (ones for which you don’t know the answer). Or call up friends or colleagues and ask them 20 questions about their lives, interests, families, or jobs.
- Practice beginner’s mind. Spend a day actively looking at your life through the eyes of someone who has never seen it before. For instance, go to the tourism bureau in your city, gather the maps and lists of attractions they give to newcomers, and take a tour. Or find a map and look up a street you’ve never seen before. Then go visit the street with a camera in hand and photograph something you find beautiful.
- Explore your passions. Be curious about yourself. What are your values and motivations? What makes you tick? Are there activities that make you feel fully engaged in life that you haven’t revisited since you were younger? What are they? Do one of them.
- Make new friends. Meeting new people can help us discover previously unrecognized aspects of ourselves and our loved ones. In his book Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life, Todd Kashdan, PhD, recounts an experience he had watching his wife interact with new friends. She told them stories he had never heard, and as a result he was able to see a part of her he hadn’t seen before.
- Try something iffy. Do you dislike broccoli (even though you haven’t tried it since you were 11)? Try it again — this time with a mind wiped clean of expectations. You don’t have to go into the experiment expecting to like broccoli at the end; your goal should simply be to discover three interesting, new-to-you things about eating broccoli. (“It was crunchier than I expected” or “When it is roasted, it is sweeter than when it’s raw.”) Repeat this experiment with any item on your “that’s not for me” list.
- Catalyze new thoughts. Invigorate your brain by going in search of new ideas and perspectives. Watch a lecture online. Pick up a magazine on a topic you don’t regularly read about. Choose a book from a section at the library you don’t normally visit. Listen to a different radio station. Read a biography of someone you’re not terribly familiar with. Subscribe to some interesting podcasts, or check out others’ recent discoveries on social media.
- Become a better listener. Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and author of The How of Happiness, suggests that next time you converse with someone, make it your goal to learn as much about that person and his or her perspectives as you can. Instead of trading quips and reactions, give the person you are talking to space and time to really flesh out his or her ideas. Then prompt him or her to talk more with brief follow-up questions like “And then what happened?” or “Why did you think that?” Consider every conversation an opportunity to discover something truly interesting and thought provoking.
This originally appeared in “The Power of Curiosity” in the March 2010 issue of Experience Life.