“Curious” By Todd Kashdan: Importance of Developing This Trait

The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity. Ellen Parr

Todd Kashdan is the Director of the Laboratory for the Study of Social Anxiety, Character Strengths, and Related Phenomena at George Mason University, Virginia. In his 2009 Curious, the author places his focus less on the usual self-help orientation of striving for happiness and more on the importance of:

…meaning and purpose in life, wisdom, satisfying relationships, the ability to tolerate distress, spirituality, creativity, compassion, feeling a sense of competence and mastery, and so on. Sometimes trying to be happy actually gets in the way of making inroads toward these other elements. Effectively handling the pain and stress that life brings is an essential part of creating a rich, meaningful existence.

What is essential to creating a fulfilling life? In his words:

  • Being curious.
  • Being open to new experiences.
  • Being able to effectively manage ambiguity and uncertainty.
  • Being able to adapt to the demands required of different situations.
  • Discovering our strengths, deepest values, and what it is we are passionate about.
  • Strengthening connections to these values and commit to a life aligned with them.

The Guardian‘s Oliver Burkeman, for one, welcomes the wisdom of Kashdan’s views:

We all pay lip service to the value of curiosity, but it is usually only lip service, especially in the world of self-help. Because if curiosity means being open to the unfamiliar, and to whatever emotions may result, then arguably any strategy for achieving happiness – for guaranteeing happy feelings, rather than sad ones – is intrinsically incurious. And such strategies don’t work, Kashdan says, because we’re socially and genetically hard-wired to adapt to experiences, whether good or bad. Create a life that thrills you, and the thrill will fade as it becomes familiar. Work on developing curiosity, by contrast, and you’ll stand a better chance of resisting adaptation – because to become curious is, precisely, to train yourself to seek what’s unfamiliar.

I don’t know about you, but I had to read that paragraph more than once. The work, however—and my curiosity before that—did pay off.

Tom Jacobs reports (psmag.com) that Kashdan pushes for reaching beyond our usual “passive curiosity,” the kind we have when something different is basically handed to us to wonder about:

…(T)here’s novelty everywhere, and it’s very much worth seeking out. As evidence, Kashdan quotes a Gallup survey of 130,000 people from more than 130 nations. “The two factors that had the strongest influence on how much enjoyment a person experienced on a given day,” he notes, “were ‘being able to count on someone for help’ and ‘learned something yesterday.'”

Kashdan offers Jennifer S. Holland, AARP, an interesting and “curious” bit of research info about whether people benefited from knowing who donated a kidney to them. Most people, it’s been ascertained, say they would want to know.

But if the recipients never know who the donor is, they can’t habituate to the kindness of the act. And how do you get a handle on this newly benevolent, compassionate world where someone donated part of his or her body—and could care less about being appreciated for it? You never get over the positivity that comes from that; your thought process about humanity changes. And that’s a good thing.

In other words, not finding out your donor’s identity makes for a better experience. For real, says the research on this, “anonymous donors have a more positive, bigger, longer-lasting impact on recipients.”

Another aspect of Kashdan’s research has involved the link between curiosity and anxiety. Writer Sulynn explains in Positive Psychology News a metaphor he employs using the dual-control dials of Curiosity-Explore and Anxiety. Picture a 10 on Anxiety having to mean a 0 on Explore. More amenable to manipulation, though, is Explore, so that’s where to focus–on raising the number on that dial. More from Sulynn’s book review:

Optimal anxiety is when our coping potential matches the novelty or challenge of a particular experience, and we accept our anxious feelings (you also learn how to survive in quick sand!). Our coping competence gains strength from every challenging encounter and so too our confidence. The rewards of psychological flexibility and tolerance for distress trumps the psychological costs ranging from regret and deferred dreams to hopelessness and lackluster living when we fail to look Anxiety in the face. Readers will find strategies to harness the spirit of curiosity to lift the anxious mind – mindset shift, defusion of negative thoughts, or choosing a life of meaning and purpose.

According to Kari Henley, The Huffington Post, Kashdan provides the following suggestions to help us with the desired goal of becoming “Curious Explorers”:

1. Try to notice little details of your daily routine that you never noticed before.
2. When talking to people, try to remain open to whatever transpires without judging or reacting.
3. Let novelty unfold and resist the temptation to control the flow.
4. Gently allow your attention to be guided by little sights, sounds or smells that come your way.

Are you convinced yet that curiosity is super-important? After all, Curiosity killed the cat, say some. Then again, satisfaction brought it back, say others.

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