What do you want most in life? For the vast majority of us, the answer is “to be happy.” In a 2007 survey of more than 10,000 people from 48 countries published in Perspectives on Psychological Sciences, happiness was viewed as more important than success, intelligence, knowledge, maturity, wisdom, relationships, wealth and meaning in life.
Happiness is a good thing. Yet, both in my professional research and in my personal experience, I’ve observed that when we focus solely on what we think will make us happy, we can lose track of what actually does.
In 2007 the Princeton economist Alan Krueger, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and their colleagues published a paper called “Are We Having More Fun Yet?” They posed this question: Have the social progress, economic prosperity and technological advancements of the past 50 years changed the quality of our lives? Have these new opportunities allowed us to spend more time doing what we care about most, thus increasing our satisfaction and meaning in life?
For most of us, the answer is no. The majority of Americans spend less than 20 percent of each day doing what could be termed very engaging, enjoyable and meaningful activities (such as talking with close friends, bonding with loved ones, creating, playing, or pursuing a spiritual practice). Instead, most of our time and energy are spent either engaged in unsatisfying work activities and chores (commuting, standing in line at the post office, fixing broken appliances), or decompressing in ways that bring neither joy nor challenge (watching TV, snacking or just “doing nothing”).
It doesn’t have to be this way, though — if we’re willing to shake up our pursuit of happiness by introducing some elements of surprise.
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. With practice, we can harness the power of curiosity to transform everyday tasks into interesting and enjoyable experiences. We can also use curiosity to intentionally create wonder, intrigue and play out of almost any situation or interaction we encounter.
It all starts with wanting to know more.
The Power of Curiosity
Curiosity, at its core, is all about noticing and being drawn to things we find interesting. It’s about recognizing and seizing the pleasures that novel experiences offer us, and finding novelty and meaning even in experiences that are familiar.
When we are curious, we see things differently; we use our powers of observation more fully. We sense what is happening in the present moment, taking note of what is, regardless of what it looked like before or what we might have expected it to be.
We feel alive and engaged, more capable of embracing opportunities, making connections, and experiencing moments of insight and meaning — all of which provide the foundation for a rich, aware and satisfying life experience.
Here are five of the important ways that curiosity enhances our well-being and the quality of our lives:
In a 1996 study published in Psychology and Aging, more than 1,000 older adults aged 60 to 86 were carefully observed over a five-year period, and researchers found that those who were rated as being more curious at the beginning of the study were more likely to be alive at its conclusion, even after taking into account age, whether they smoked, the presence of cancer or cardiovascular disease, and so on.
It is possible that declining curiosity is an initial sign of neurological illness and declining health. Nonetheless, there are promising signs that enhancing curiosity reduces the risk for these diseases and may even reverse some of the natural degeneration that occurs in older adults.
In his book, The Power of Premonitions, Larry Dossey, MD, cites studies that have shown women “who regularly engage in mini-mysteries … taking on novel experiences that get them out of familiar routines (better) preserve their mental faculties later in life.” In short, a regular dose of the unexpected helps keep your brain healthy.
A 2005 report in the journal Health Psychology described a two-year study involving more than 1,000 patients that found higher levels of curiosity were also associated with a decreased likelihood of developing hypertension and diabetes. While correlation does not imply causation, these relationships suggest that curiosity may have a variety of positive connections with health that deserve further study.
Studies have shown that curiosity positively correlates with intelligence. In one study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2002, researchers correctly predicted that high novelty-seeking (or highly curious) toddlers would have higher IQs as older children than toddlers with lower levels of curiosity. Researchers measured the degree of novelty-seeking behavior in 1,795 3-year-olds and then measured their cognitive ability at age 11. As predicted, the 11-year-olds who had been highly curious 3-year-olds later scored 12 points higher on total IQ compared with low stimulation seekers. They also had superior scholastic and reading ability.
Other studies have shown that high levels of curiosity in adults are connected to greater analytic ability, problem-solving skills and overall intelligence. All of which suggests that cultivating more curiosity in your daily life is likely to make you smarter.
3. Social Relationships
It is far easier to form and maintain satisfying, significant relationships when you demonstrate an attitude of openness and genuine interest. One of the top reasons why couples seek counseling or therapy is because they’ve become bored with each other. This often sparks resentment, hostility, communication breakdowns and a lack of interest in spending time together (only adding to the initial problem). Curious people report more satisfying relationships and marriages. Happy couples describe their partners as interested and responsive.
Curious people are inclined to act in ways that allow relationships to develop more easily. In one of my studies, participants spent five minutes getting acquainted with a stranger of the opposite sex, and each person made judgments about his or her partner’s personality. We also interviewed their closest friends and parents to gain added insight into the qualities that curious people bring to relationships. Each of these groups — acquaintances of a mere five minutes, close friends and parents — characterized curious people as highly enthusiastic and energetic, talkative, interesting in what they say and do, displaying a wide range of interests, confident, humorous, less likely to express insecurities, and lacking in timidity and anxiety compared with less curious people.
Curious people ask questions and take an interest in learning about partners, and they intentionally try to keep interactions interesting engaging and playful. This approach supports the development of good relationships.
The Gallup organization recently reported the results of a survey conducted with more than 130,000 people from some 130 nations, a sample designed to represent 96 percent of the world’s population. The poll identified two factors that had the strongest influence on how much enjoyment a person experienced in a given day: “being able to count on someone for help” and “learned something yesterday.”
What this poll confirms is that developing good relationships with other people (see above) and growing as a person are foundational components of a “happy” life. Both factors are supported by curiosity.
In fact, in one of the largest undertakings in the field of psychology, two pioneers in the field of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, PhD, and Chris Peterson, PhD, devised a scientific classification of the basic human strengths. This system was the end result of reading the works of ancient philosophers, religious texts and contemporary literature, then identifying patterns, and finally subjecting these ideas to rigorous scientific tests. Their research eventually recognized 24 basic strengths. And, of those 24 strengths that human beings can possess, curiosity was one of the five most highly associated with overall life fulfillment and happiness.
There are other important relationships between curiosity and happiness. In his book Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard University psychology professor Daniel Gilbert, PhD, shows that, while we think we know what will make us happy in the future, we are actually less likely to find joy as a result of a planned pursuit than by simply stumbling upon it. It follows that by cultivating curiosity and remaining open to new experiences, we increase our likelihood of encountering those surprising and satisfying activities.
If we are going to find a meaningful purpose or calling in life, chances are good we will find it in something that unleashes our natural curiosity and fascination. Indeed, curiosity is the entry point to many of life’s greatest sources of meaning and satisfaction: our interests, hobbies and passions.
While being passionate about something naturally renders you curious to know as much as you can about it, it also works the other way around: The more curiosity you can muster for something, the more likely you are to notice and learn about it, and thus the more interesting and meaningful it will become for you over time.
This is true of people, books, sports, skills and conversations. Often, the more curiosity and energy we invest in exploring and understanding them, the more compelling they become.
This has important implications for how much meaning and passion we experience in life: The greater the range and depth of our curiosity, the more opportunities we have to experience things that inspire and excite us, from minute details to momentous occasions.
Tune in to Your Curiosity
One of the best ways to better appreciate the power of curiosity is to start exercising it more consciously in your daily experiences. By doing so, you can transform routine tasks, enlivening them with new energy. You will also likely begin to notice more situations that have the potential to engage you, giving your curiosity even more opportunities to flourish.
Here are four strategies to consider:
Knowledge opens our eyes to interesting gaps about what we don’t know. When a marine biologist goes snorkeling and is able to name specific fishes by the size, color, texture, and shape of eyes and fins, he or she is going to be acutely aware of the unusual features that the rest of us will miss — a pattern of orange stripes that are vertical when they are usually horizontal. The child who can name 45 states is much more interested in discovering the five he or she doesn’t know than the child with only three states in the brain bank. The person learning to play the piano will hear more nuances in a piano concerto than the person who doesn’t know treble clef from bass clef. If you want to be curious, start accumulating knowledge. (For some suggestions on how to do that, see “Awaken Your Inner Sherlock,” below.)
Thrive on uncertainty.
We rarely look forward to anxiety and tension, but research shows that these mixed emotions are often what lead to the most intense and longest-lasting positive experiences. People who take part in new and uncertain activities are happier and find more meaning in their lives than people who rely on the familiar.
Most of us mistakenly believe that certainty will make us happier than uncertainty. Imagine that you go to a football game knowing that your team will win. Most people would say that, yes, that would make them happy. Yet knowing the outcome in advance takes away the thrill of watching each play and the good tension that comes with not knowing what will happen next. We forget about the pleasures of surprise and uncertainty.
Remind yourself of the pleasures of surprise by thinking back to the last five positive events in your life that began with an uncertain, unknown outcome. Think of sporting events, first dates, job interviews and so on. You will likely be surprised to find how big a role surprise plays in your joyful experiences.
Reconnect with play.
We can add play and playfulness to almost any task, and the attitude of play naturally builds interest and curiosity. This dynamic was captured wonderfully in a National Public Radio story about an assembly-line worker in a potato chip factory whose job was to make sure that the chips rolling down the conveyor belt were uniform and aesthetically pleasing before being bagged.
This man found the job dreary. So he developed a game that made it more interesting: He searched for potato chips resembling famous people and kept a collection (imagine silhouettes of Elvis, Charles Manson, Marilyn Monroe and Jimi Hendrix). Because he was constantly scanning odd and bizarre shapes for celebrity resemblances, the day moved quickly. He also became incredibly efficient at catching misshapen chips.
Find the unfamiliar in the familiar.
One way to become more curious is to intentionally circumvent expectations, labels and assumptions about “seemingly” familiar activities and events. It’s easy to prejudge an activity because we think we have seen it before or avoid an activity entirely because we expect it to be boring or unpleasant.
The goal of discovering the unfamiliar in the familiar is to suspend judgments and attend to how things are, not how you expect them to be.
In a recent study, researchers asked people to do something they reported disliking and pay attention to three novel features when they did it. This small exercise altered the way they viewed and felt about the activity. For example, an 18-year-old male bodybuilder who scoffed at crocheting spent 90 minutes practicing the task. The three novel discoveries he reported were 1) how demanding the process of making small stitches could be (he hadn’t anticipated that this “easy” task would tire him); 2) that it could be meditative (“time flew by”); and 3) that the crochet stitches could be tight enough to create flip-flop sandals (which was the project he worked on).
When the study subjects were contacted weeks later, those individuals who were asked to search for the novel and unfamiliar in their laboratory task were more likely to have done the task on their own without being asked or prompted (though it is unknown if the bodybuilder continued crocheting). A window of opportunity and willingness opened for these participants that had been previously closed off by their preconceived ideas.
This same little experiment can be applied to any activity in your life. Consider the list of low-interest, but necessary, activities in your typical day. Choose one of these ho-hum activities and, as you do it, search for any three novel or unexpected things about it.
With tasks that are new to you or that you haven’t even considered (like the bodybuilder who tried crocheting), ask yourself if you can find one thing that is surprising to you as a newcomer to this particular activity.
Also keep in mind that, even though recurring situations may look identical on the surface, any event — especially one involving people — has some degree of novelty each time it occurs. Be on the lookout for even the tiniest thing that is different, special or notable, and chances are good that you’ll find something.
A Daily Dose of Discovery
Research suggests that experiencing novelty is an important factor in both health and happiness. Opportunities for novelty exist virtually everywhere, but to discover and make the most of them, we need to develop our “curiosity muscle” through more regular and intense use. Here are some easy ways to begin expanding your own curiosity capacity:
- When waking: Look with “fresh eyes.” Choose to see some things in your home, partner or family that you may have overlooked before.
- When talking: Strive to remain open to whatever transpires — without assuming, categorizing, judging or reacting. Ask more questions and listen with care.
- When driving: Instead of zoning out on a daily commute, make a point of actively anticipating what the drivers around you are likely to do next. Stay aware of what’s ahead and on the horizon.
- When working: Look for opportunities to challenge and apply yourself in ways that spark your interest and produce great results. Ask questions like: What’s interesting here? How can I make this more fun?
- When exercising: Instead of going through the motions, put your attention on the intricacies and sensations of your own movement and on whatever sights, sounds and smells are within range.
Start by devoting five minutes each day to your curiosity practice. After a week, add a little more time to your training — while cooking, eating, cleaning, bathing, paying bills, sitting on your porch and so on. (For more ways to incorporate curiosity into your day, see “Awaken Your Inner Sherlock” below.)
Awaken Your Inner Sherlock
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 some 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 themselves (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. (For more on discovering your values and passions, see “Embrace a Bold Vision”.)
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 RSS feeds, or check out others’ recent discoveries via Twitter, Facebook and other 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 article has been updated. It originally appeared in the May 2010 issue of Experience Life.