The Delight of Curiosity

“Curiosity is the essence of human existence. “Who are we? Where are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?” I don’t know. I don’t have any answers to those questions. I don’t know what’s over there and around that corner. But I want to find out.”

—Eugene Cernan – American astronaut

Curiosity is a fascinating, even magical behavior that’s relevant to each and every one of us. It defines our natural inquisitiveness as humans, without curiosity we wouldn’t have moved beyond being cave dwellers. Exploiting our curiosity has enabled us to reach the advanced scientific and technological world of the twenty-first century.

We most commonly associate curiosity with children and their raw, hungry desire to understand the world around them and their place in it. While research suggests that as we age our inquisitiveness tends to fade, curiosity is just as relevant in adulthood, not only helping you discover more about who you are, but providing a basis on which to build better relationships, unlock creativity and innovation, grow your intellect, and boost your general health and well-being.

In his book Curious, Ian Leslie describes the process of curiosity in childhood. This is a useful framework from which to see the how to approach your own self-awareness and exploration. In a sense, it’s very like that of a detective. Whether it’s Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Morse, or Maigret, there are connections and parallels between their work and effectively exploring your own story: their resolute approach and insistent need never to take anything at face value. These masters of curiosity see things from every angle until they find the clues that unlock the mystery.

Leslie describes the three steps of curiosity as follows.

1 KNOWING WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW

You approach a situation accepting your own inexperience. You’re not presuming you know the answer, but rather asking questions with an open mind and really considering the answers. This is known as empathic curiosity: an interest in the thoughts and feelings of other people, and remaining ready to encounter the unexpected.

When I’m profiling clients as a psychologist I meet everyone from a position of naivety: no expectations and no presumptions. This way I can really connect with them, putting my own presuppositions aside in order to understand their personal experiences and how those have affected who they are.

It’s good you to use this approach when working on your self-awareness. Rather than answering questions with your habitual response, think about what you really think, feel, and want. Don’t assume you know the answers until you’ve looked at things from every angle, dig beneath the surface, and ask yourself why you feel the way you do about certain things, how the beliefs you have formed came about, what led you to take certain decisions. Doing this will provide far richer insights to work with in working out who you are and what you want from life.

2 IMAGINING DIFFERENT, COMPETING POSSIBILITIES

You hold more than one possibility in mind at any given time and explore which one is right. For example, when meeting someone shy, consider “Is this person shy when they meet new people?” or “Are they quiet in this situation because they’re nervous?” This element of curiosity is essential when it comes to the line of questioning we psychologists take in profiles, drawing inferences about a client’s mental state, judgments, and actions while recognizing that nothing is a foregone conclusion. Any thought or idea needs to be explored and tested.

When you’re reflecting on your own journey, try to remember that the first decision you come to about yourself may not be the right one. It’s essential always to consider more than one inference and thoroughly explore it before jumping to a conclusion. Try to suspend judgment until you have explored all the options. It may help you find out something about yourself you’d never considered before.

3 UNDERSTAND THAT YOU CAN LEARN FROM OTHER PEOPLE

Keep an open mind to others’ thoughts, attitudes, and experiences. In social situations, we have a natural tendency to show other people what we know about a familiar subject, rather than listening to what they can tell us. Yet pausing to learn about them and asking questions inevitably provide information that we can reapply to ourselves. For example, you may find a different way of seeing things, a means of overcoming an issue that you hadn’t thought of, an opportunity that you didn’t know about.

 

 

Extract adapted from my book Defining You which is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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Photograph courtesy of Liz Waight – http://www.elizabethwaight.com

Comparison is the Thief of Joy

On Saturday I had the pleasure of speaking at Red Smart Women’s Week. Having done my talk I took the opportunity to go along to a session on ‘feeling good about your use of social media’, hosted by Brigid Moss. Her guests were Katherine Ormerod and Lucy Sheridan who both have first-hand experience as social media influencers.

Lucy’s focus is comparison, an area that fascinates me from a professional standpoint. We all compare ourselves to others, but social media allows this to get out of hand. Lucy candidly spoke about her trials with “Jealousy and envy of other people” which stemmed from social media. From the outside what you see is a funny, humble, engaging and authentic lady, but we all know what goes on inside and what we see from outside are two entirely different things. She went through a period where she really struggled and says she has to keep herself in check with social media even today.

So, what is the psychological root of this envy we all feel – envy which is exacerbated by social media? Evolutionary psychologists explain that feelings such as envy enabled our ancient ancestors to evaluate status within a group. Having higher status meant access to better resources (e.g. food, sexual partners, social alliances, safety) and therefore better chances of survival. The negative emotions felt when comparing someone similar but who had ‘more’ was a motivation to readdress the balance. For example, if person ‘a’ had more food than person ‘b’, the envy felt by person ‘b’ would motivate them to find more food, meaning an equal chance of survival.

Then and now, this comparison is most significant amongst peers. Research carried out by neuroscientists Ramachandran and Jalal show that if we compare ourselves to someone such as our neighbour who happens to have more money than us and someone like Mark Zuckerberg whose net worth is $62 billion, most of us feel more envious of our neighbour. Why? Because our brain has evolved to think that there’s ‘no point in being envious of’ Zuckerberg. He’s off the scale either in ability or luck so no amount effort will result in us becoming the richest person in the world.But if our neighbour is more wealthy than us, someone who has a similar background, social status, opportunities etc., we feel envy to motivate us to have the same. The problem is that today the envy is not fuelling a life and death situation so becomes a far less helpful emotion.

This unhelpful emotion becomes even worse when we add in social media. Online everyone ‘seems’ closer to us than in reality they are so suddenly everyone becomes a peer. As a result we compare ourselves to and become envious of far more people which starts the negative downward spiral faced by comparison on social media. This is made worse because we’re often trying to close the gap on something unattainable a) because the person we are comparing ourselves to is not from a similar background to us (e.g. Hollywood star who grew up with film star parents in LA) b) because most images on social media do not display reality (i.e. a snapshot of perfection rather than the struggle, pain, failure and every day ugliness that goes on behind the scene). The more primitive areas of our brain don’t know that we’re striving for something that we cannot achieve or something that’s unrealistic, which greatly amplifies the negative emotions felt and in turn produces powerful feelings of inadequacy.

So what can you do when you feel envy:

  • Try to notice the envy – what or who you are envious of, observing the emotion rather than engaging with it (more on this technique in my book and books by Russ Harris). Being self-aware can help you to stop and put it down when it becomes too much rather than getting sucked in.
  • Try to limit your social media usage. Sounds obvious but it’s really important. To quote Arianne Huffington “Technology is amazing, but it needs to be put in its place, and we need to set boundaries so that we have time to connect with ourselves and to build deep connections with others.” Lucy and Katherine have more tips on this (websites below).
  • On that point – connect with others in real life. Make the effort to call a friend or to speak to someone in person and really concentrate on what they say. It will move you away from feelings of envy as well as bringing you back into the real world and evoking far more powerful and helpful emotions relating to the more advanced areas of the brain.

 

Read Lucy and Katherine’s websites for more on having a healthy relationship with social media.

Lucy’s website:

http://www.proofcoaching.com

Katherine’s website:

http://www.workworkwork.co

Defining You which is currently 99p on Amazon UK. It’s also available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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References:

Harris, R. (2011). The happiness trap. ReadHowYouWant. com.

Ramachandran, V. S., & Jalal, B. (2017). The Evolutionary Psychology of Envy and Jealousy. Frontiers in Psychology8, 1619. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01619

Ekman P., Friesen W. V. (1971). Constants across cultures in the face and emotion. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 17 124–129

Ramachandran V. S. (1998). Why do gentlemen prefer blondes? Med. Hypotheses 48 19–20

Quote: Teddy Roosevelt

Picture: pexels.com

 

 

 

Are You A Normie?

Last weekend I read an interesting interview with author Angela Nagle about the escalating social and political divide arising online. Nagle’s book is called ‘Kill All Normies’ . That’s us – people like you and me. People who have everyday tastes, opinions, political views, refer to everyday news sources and live in the real world. In other words socially well-adjusted individuals. It’s us that the far-right and other extreme subcultures who congregate online call ‘normies’ – we are the ones who they believe it’s “impossible to explain things to” because “we are ignorant and unenlightened.” Normal in the real world is not normal online.

Nagle’s comments that “Ruthless competitive individualism is being applied to the romantic and private realm and it’s deeply anti-social” really resonated with me – I wrote something similar from the perspective of a newly published author recently. Previously I had little need to engage online, simply to connect with friends or browse websites. Since becoming published I’ve been thrown into this surreal world. It’s the artificial nature that I perhaps unsurprisingly struggle with most. My career of choice as a psychologist is after all to connect with people at depth, one-to-one.

Worryingly when it comes to the online world research shows that people ‘perceive individuals with a large number of subscribers as more attractive and trustworthy.’ That’s all it takes. Yet online followers are picked up by superficial and often meaningless content such as ‘nice, high quality pictures’ (Djafarova and Rushworth, 2017)I watch my own (meagre) followership jump up and down on Instagram depending on how ‘pretty’ the picture I post is. Is a pretty picture enough to show how trustworthy I am? Surely trust is something that has to be earnt over time, through a deep human connection with another person, by reading nuances, words, behaviours, attitudes. Even in the instant when we trust someone on first meeting our brain is still referring to a profound human instinct and picking up on a myriad of subtle cues. The irony of this hurts. That thousands of followers somehow equate to thousands of friends or real-life credibility. Nagle quotes an extreme example of this world where “young men raised on very grim pornography” believe that they are “Marquis de Sade in the virtual world but in the real world have less human contact, fewer prospects and less stake in their community and society than ever before.”

Is it any wonder that community is disappearing and instead we are left with a world of individuals trying to shout louder than the next person? We are each disappearing off into our own version of the world online. We all want to be happier yet this culture is causing us to disappear into make-believe, to shut out the people around us in the hope of reaching out to an artificial reality. Alongside this our collective mental health is rapidly declining.

We all have a cause that we believe in and above all we all believe in the human race, so surely, we should be working together to make the world better – to improve our own lives and the lives of other people. But although on the one hand individualism is being pushed, there are fabulous bodies springing up all around the (real) world looking to counter this and create a more human approach. Take for example ‘The Female Quotient’ a pro parity body who are ‘tapping into the power of collaboration to activate solutions for change’ without I must add excluding men (who are in this case ‘normies’). We need to put our energy behind these collaborations, have our unique voices heard as one of many rather than in isolation in an attempt to push back against a world that no one ever intentionally created. The online world after all grew by accidental means. No one sat down and crafted a vehicle that would help or destroy humanity (and although in some ways it has aided society, we know that in countless ways it has not). Online culture unfortunately plays to many of our primitive fear related instincts for survival, rather than our more advanced meaning driven brain. At its extreme this is enabling viscous sub-cultures to take hold and young people’s happiness to be eroded.

So, I will end by saying that it’s up to us ‘normies’ to re-introduce rational, advanced brain thinking, to back the more humane uses of the online world. It’s our responsibility to stand up for reality, connection, trust and community, to make a positive difference as humans, together in the real world. So put your phone down, close your laptop and go speak to someone – face-to-face.

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References:

https://www.economist.com/open-future/2018/08/03/how-the-grotesque-online-culture-wars-fuel-populism

Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan And Tumblr To Trump And The Alt-Right (7 Jun 2017) by Angela Nagle

https://www.thefemalequotient.com

https://www.technologyreview.com/s/530566/the-impact-of-the-internet-on-society-a-global-perspective/

Djafarova, E and Rushworth, C (2017) Exploring the credibility of online celebrities’ Instagram profiles in influencing the purchase decisions of young female users. Computers in Human Behavior, 68. pp. 1-7

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels