Being curious can bring a part of you—the excited, anything-is-possible part—back to life. Todd Kashdan, Ph.D., professor of psychology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and the author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life and The Upside of Your Dark Side, calls curiosity the “engine of growth.” After all, curiosity leads to exploration. And exploration leads to discovery. Where would we be if we weren’t curious?
But the quality—celebrated in youth—is largely overlooked during adulthood, as being or appearing authoritative gains importance. “Our culture has an unhealthy obsession with certainty,” Kashdan says. Feeling certain about things and believing that others are certain, too, offers comfort and security, he explains. But the confidence of certainty comes with a price: the loss of spontaneity, energy, surprise and new experiences—in short, boredom. And we’ve all come to equate this boring security with adulthood. But it doesn’t have to be that way, Kashdan says. “Curiosity is the antidote.” Curious? You should be! Read on to find out how to let go of certainty and embrace the unknown.
1. Act on your curiosity.
Feeling curious is a nice feeling on its own. Brain-mapping studies have shown that the emotion lights up a feel-good portion of the brain. We feel excited about the unknown and energized by the idea of something new. (If it didn’t feel good in a primitive physiological way, our species probably would never have survived.) But scratching that itch, so to speak, is what really makes a difference in the quality of your life, Kashdan says. So if you’re curious about surfing, take a lesson. Whether you enjoy it or whether you are good at catching waves is irrelevant. But the more you act on your curiosity, the more you learn. And in one survey of over 130,000 people, the strongest predictor for how much enjoyment a person experienced on any given day was whether he or she had learned something new the day before.
2. Don’t be embarrassed to ask.
If you have a child, you’ve probably learned this lesson already. While we adults are accustomed to not “bothering” or questioning strangers (and risk looking stupid!), kids let their curiosity lead the way. “Why are you digging that hole?” “What do you see in your binoculars?” “What game are you playing?” “How did you get your kite to fly so high?” When you are with your kids, you’re the lucky recipient of the fruits of their curiosity: You may get to see a bird feed her babies, play freeze-tag with strangers or learn a kite-flying trick (never run when trying to launch a kite; hold the kite above you until the wind catches it). But whether or not you have kids, you can still enjoy the serendipitous experiences that happen when you’re not too embarrassed to be inquisitive.
Not curiously, several studies have borne this theory out: The more social interactions we have during the day—and not just with friends and family, but with what researchers call “weak-tie” relations, the baristas, neighbors, bus drivers and cashiers of our lives—the happier, more positive we feel about the day.
3. Don’t think before you talk.
During conversation, try this experiment: Base everything you say on the last sentence spoken by the other person. It may seem like that’s the way any normal back-and-forth conversation should go, but the truth is, says Kashdan, most of us don’t really listen. While the other person speaks, we usually think about what we will say, what story or joke or platitude we will tell. But when we respond to the specifics of what we hear, rather than what we expect to hear, conversations can go in really interesting, unexpected directions.
4. Get to know your spouse.
You’ve been married for 20 years and think you know each other inside out? “We only think we know people,” says Kashdan. But human beings are so ridiculously complex and ever-changing, he says, that there is always more you can learn. Be curious about your partner. Does he still like the same song that was his favorite when you met? What is her biggest fear? Learning new things about each other is easier when you embark on new adventures together: Try surfing together! Have a two-person book club. Explore a new neighborhood. Go to parties and mingle with different people so you can come back and gossip together.
5. Choose curiosity over comfort.
One big advantage of being a grown-up is that, by now, you know what you like and what you don’t. You may have long ago realized that you are not a beach person, for example. Or that you hate mystery novels. This is a good thing. And you can live a very enjoyable life going on the same type of vacation every year and reading the same type of novels. But study after study has shown that enjoyment is different from fulfillment. And it’s the fulfilling part that has been shown to be a more important factor in overall life satisfaction. So while you may love the linguine con le vongole at your local trattoria, try the osso buco every once in a while. Instead of vegging out in front of the TV with a glass of wine tonight, as is your routine, go for an evening stroll instead. You don’t have to sacrifice your daily pleasures as long as you routinely try finding new ones, too.
6. Imagine you are in an art gallery.
When you visit an art museum, you don’t expect to like everything you see, but you typically keep an open mind and an appraising eye on all the work. You may not want to put a particular piece of art over your home mantel, but you allow for the idea that it might make you think, and you open yourself up to the possibility of being moved. Kashdan recommends we adapt the art-gallery attitude to everything in our lives. We don’t have to like everyone and enjoy every experience, but we should be open to finding out about them.