The Benefits of Curiosity

It’s easy to stop being curious as we get older. We know things, we’ve seen things, we’ve lived life so there’s no longer the need of a child to ask questions and explore the unknown. 

While research suggests that as we age our inquisitiveness tends to fade, it also shows that curiosity is just as relevant in adulthood. Curiosity not only helps us discover more about who we are but provides a basis on which to build better relationships, unlock creativity and innovation, grow our intellect, boost our general health and well-being and even slow down the aging process. A study carried out by scientists Swan andCarmelli following over 1,000 older men and women found that those who were more curious were actually more likely to survive the five-year study than those who were not. Curiosity literally kept them alive longer 

In his book Curious, Ian Leslie describes the process of curiosity in childhood which is useful to apply to any of us at any age. Leslie describes the three steps of curiosity as below, providing a useful framework from which to boost your own inquisitiveness. 

1 KNOWING WHAT WE DON’T KNOW 

Approaching a situation accepting our own inexperience. Not presuming we 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, remaining ready to encounter the unexpected. 

We can all use this approach every day of our lives. Rather than answering questions with our habitual response, thinking about what we really think, feel, and want. Not assuming we know the answers until we’ve looked at things from every angle, digging beneath the surface, and asking ourselves why we feel the way we do about certain things, how the beliefs we have formed came about, what led us to take certain decisions. 

2 IMAGINING DIFFERENT, COMPETING POSSIBILITIES 

This about holding more than one possibility in mind at any given time and exploring 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?” Approach situations with the premise that any thought or idea needs to be explored and tested. Trying to suspend judgment until all of the options have been explored.  

3 UNDERSTANDING THAT WE CAN LEARN FROM OTHER PEOPLE 

This may seem obvious but it’s something we can come to with a closed mind as we get older. Keeping an open mind to others’ thoughts, attitudes, and experiences is incredibly powerful. 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 provides 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. 

How curious are you? Could you be more curious? Do you do these three things? It’s worth trying, even just for a day because being curious really does lead to a healthier, happier and longer life. 

  1. G.E. Swan & D. Carmelli (1996) Curiosity and mortality in aging adults: A 5-year follow-up of the Western Collaborative Group Study, Psychology and Aging 11(3): 449–53. 
  2. Fiona Murden (2018) Defining You, how to profile yourself and unlock your full potential, Hodder & Stoughton 

First published on The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide

Photo: Pexels.com

Why Curiosity Didn’t Kill the Cat…

The late Stephen Hawking advised “It’s a crazy world out there. Be curious, I know I will forever be.” Throughout his life he not only exercised an insatiable curiosity about physics and some of the biggest questions facing mankind, but he also urged people to open their own eyes to every possibility.

Hawking’s encouraged curiosity, inspiring people to take leaps forward in their own understanding. He championed and role-modelled this behaviour, making extraordinary use of his brain to remain intrigued by every corner of the universe. Despite being trapped in an immobile body his brain was constantly exploring. It may even have been what kept him alive for the five decades beyond the doctors gave him. Although that may sound implausible, one study which looked at more than 2000 people over a 5-year period showed that older adults who were more curious actually lived longer (even after taking other risk factors into account).

“Look up at the stars, not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder what makes the universe exist. Be curious.” S. Hawking

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. And with that understanding of the brain and behaviour we’ve found other benefits that curiosity itself brings. These include factors essential to happiness and success:

HAPPINESS & WELL-BEING

A paper by Matthew Gallagher in the Journal of Positive Psychology showed that the “exploration” component of curiosity is positively associated with well-being. Further to this, a German study found that curiosity has a more positive impact on well-being and happiness than gratitude, hope, or even humor.

CONNECTION

When we show genuine interest in others, a curiosity and openness about who they are, wanting to know them and not to judge them, it builds trust and allows a deeper connection to form, ultimately fuelling positive and fulfilling relationships.

INNOVATION AND CREATIVITY

Todd Kashdan, Professor of Psychology at George Mason University has carried out extensive research on curiosity and says: “When curiosity is supported in the workplace, employees feel energized, engaged and committed, and this helps drive innovation.”

INTELLECT

Sophie von Stumm from the University of Edinburgh worked with colleagues to look at curiosity within an academic setting. She found that intellectual curiosity influenced academic performance to the same extent as IQ. Research published in the neuroscientific journal Neuron showed how our brain learns better and retains more information when we are curious about a subject. And Einstein, another giant of intellect said “I am neither clever nor especially gifted. I am only very, very curious”

We all started life curious about the world. Some people manage to hone and develop that curiosity, Stephen Hawking being case in point, but most of us become too busy ‘doing things’ to fully engage our curiosity, meaning that this valuable skill dwindles gradually as we age. But the good news is that it’s never too late to improve.

Kashdan has found that there are two key elements to curiosity:

  • Being motivated to discover new knowledge and experiences.
  • Having an inclination to embrace novel and unpredictable situations.

How do you use this? Well as a starting point it’s here are 10 things worth trying: 

  1. Following Your Fascination – a stepping stone to developing curiosity is looking about and investigating the things that peak your interest.
  2. Reading – anything and everything you can get your hands on.
  3. Learning from Others – listen to people with experience, people you know and even those you don’t know by watching YouTube, Tedtalks, documentaries and reading autobiographies. The more you listen and learn, the more you will want to learn.
  4. Learning New Things – it sounds obvious but do you do it? Look into what courses you could take whether it’s an hour at your local college or a PhD it doesn’t matter. Try out what works and what doesn’t for you and once you see what does, throw yourself into it to learn and explore in more depth.
  5. Asking Questions – and listening to the answers (before shutting down, thinking about something else or deciding you’re not interested). Other people’s views are always noteworthy, especially when they are different from you own. Try to be open minded, explore and be prepared to shift your perspective (that doesn’t mean you have to, just be open to it)
  6. Observing and Watching– see what’s going on around you, what’s new, what’s changed, look at things as a young child does, even the same landscape is constantly in flux, notice those changes. Be a detective, look under every stone, work out the connections, relentlessly explore.
  7. Trying New Things and going to new places – jump in feet first even if it feels a little scary, it’s only by experiencing difference that we can really stretch our minds.
  8. Pursuing Personal Development – learn more about you, raise your self-awareness, understand where and how you fit in the world, what are your strengths, what you find meaning in.
  9. Speaking to Strangers– not ‘strange’ people but people you don’t know. We learn a lot more from people who are not like us and that tends to be people we don’t know.
  10. Pushing Yourself Beyond Your Comfort Zone – go on, jump in and try something new. As renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow said “In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or back into safety” Which will you choose?

Extracts taken and adapted from Defining You.

Defining You: Discover telling insights into your behaviour, motives and results to unlock your full potential by Fiona Murden will be out in April 2018 (UK) and July 2018 (USA, Canada, Australia and rest of the world). To pre-order a copy go to amazon.co.uk, Waterstonesamazon.com, amazon.au . It will also be available in WHSmith’s UK from mid April 2018.

Defining You gives unique access to an online psychometric test providing a full personalised professional report.

 

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References:

M.W. Gallagher & S.J. Lopez (2009) Positive expectancies and mental health: Identifying the unique contributions of hope and optimism, Journal of Positive Psychology 4(6): 548–56.

Gander, R.T. Proyer, W. Ruch, & T. Wyss (2012) The good character at work: An initial study on the contribution of character strengths in identifying healthy and unhealthy work-related behavior and experience patterns, International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health 85(8): 895–904.

J. Gruber, M. J. B. D. Gelman, & C. Ranganath C (2014) States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit, Neuron, Oct 02, 2014

T, Kashdan (2009) Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. Harper Perennial

von Stumm, B. Hell, & T. Chamorro-Premuzic (2011) The hungry mind: Intellectual curiosity Is the third pillar of academic performance, Perspectives on Psychological Science 6(6): 574–88.

E. Swan, & D. Carmelli (1996). Curiosity and mortality in aging adults: A 5-year follow-up of the Western Collaborative Group Study. Psychology and Aging, 11(3), 449-453.

 

Image Source: http://maybusch.com/make-better-first-impression/detective-magnifying-glass/

 

Mindfulness – Mindful What?

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Mindfulness has become a ‘buzz word’ advocated by the likes of Davina McCall, Jerry Seinfeld and Oprah Winfrey, through to companies such as Google, eBay, Twitter and even The Bank of England. Whilst some argue that it’s a fad, it’s actually been around since the 1970’s and is based on Buddhist meditations practiced for 2550 years.

But What Is It?

Mindfulness is a practice of turning our attention away from our thoughts and the ‘chatter in our head’, toward sensations. Concentrating on what we can hear, smell, see, taste and feel in the present moment. This puts us in the ‘here and now’ rather than fretting over the past (e.g. why did I eat that) or worrying about the future (e.g. will I ever lose weight).

Our neo-cortex, which is the most advanced part of our brain, has given us incredible opportunities as a species e.g. the ability to speak, read, write, pass on knowledge, project into the future and have an awareness of ourselves. In the context of our modern world and coupled with the primitive survival driven parts of our brain, it can also cause us the odd problem.

Take for example, walking into a room full of people we don’t know. Our more primitive brain sees this as a threat (a throng of people we don’t know could kill us). It releases chemicals that put us on edge. Our more advanced brain responds with chatter such as:

“What’s wrong with me? Why am I so nervous, all I’m doing is walking into a room?”

“Maybe they won’t like me. What happens if no one talks to me? I’m going to look like a right idiot just standing there on my own.”

This is how many of us naturally respond, but in order to get the most out of our brain we need to be gentle with it not talk to ourselves like we’re idiots. Mindfulness helps us to treat our mind with care and teaches us to move our attention away from this unhelpful chatter. Consequently it’s incredibly helpful when it comes to our mental well-being and resilience to stress.

Is There Any Proof That It Actually Works?

Psychologists have been studying the impacts of mindfulness since the late 1970s with research showing the positive impacts on both physical and mental health.

When it comes to physical health studies have shown it’s positive effect on HIV pathogenesis, inflammatory disorders, drug abuse, chronic pain and immune system disorders.

And in terms of mental health, among other things it can reduce depression relapse, neuroticism, absent-mindedness, rumination and social anxiety. It also improves certain factors such as life satisfaction, conscientiousness, self-esteem, empathy, optimism, emotion regulation, attention and working memory.

More recently neuroscientific research has shown that individuals who are mindful are better able to regulate emotional responses ‘via prefrontal cortical inhibition of the amygdala’ or in other words through the advanced and rational brain managing impulses kicked out by the primitive brain.

But does it REALLY work?

I know from personal experience that it brings a greater sense of calm, reduces anxiety and stops a racing mind, and it’s not hard to see how it helps people to regulate their thoughts and emotional responses more effectively. But, it’s not a silver bullet. Why? Because:

  1. It takes a concerted effort: even with Headspace’s 10 minute a day approach it’s all too easy to deprioritize it in our daily to do list (I manage once a week if I’m lucky).
  1. It needs to be understood in the context of the brain. Knowledge of what’s normal and what’s not makes it immediately more impactful. This can’t be learnt from mindfulness alone.
  1. People need to know how to apply it to daily life experiences. Without this understanding, it will only counter stress during meditation.
  1. It’s been taken out of context. When practiced as spiritual meditation, mindfulness is put into the perspective of other life factors. For example showing compassion toward others, being a good member of a community, living an ethical life and searching for meaning. These are factors that produce a deeper level of satisfaction, playing to our advanced rather than primitive brain and are something that mindfulness in isolation lacks.

In spite of these potential limitations I still strongly advocate its use as a positive psychological tool. Mindfulness has taken something that was largely inaccessible to Western life and turned it into something that can be understood and applied by anyone. If nothing else it helps us to protect our brains from the fast-paced over stimulating modern world that we live in.

What about you – what are your thoughts on mindfulness? What have your experiences been? I’d love to hear.

 Links:

 https://www.headspace.com

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/jul/15/mindfulness-study-meditation-7000-teenagers-impact

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-matters-most/201306/top-10-things-most-people-don-t-know-about-mindfulness

References:

Bishop, SR, Lau, M, Shapiro, SL, Carlson, L, Anderson, ND, Carmody, J, Devins, G. (2004). Mindfulness: A proposed operational definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11, 230–241

Creswell JD (2016) Mindfulness Interventions. Annual Review of Psychology, 68

Creswell JD, Lindsay EK. (2014). How does mindfulness training affect health? A mindfulness stress buffering account. Current Directions in Psychological Science 23(6):401–7

Schonert-Reichl KA, Oberle E, Lawlor MS, Abbott D, Thomson K, et al. (2015). Enhancing cognitive and social–emotional development through a simple-to-administer mindfulness-based school program for elementary school children: A randomized controlled trial. Developmental Psychology 51(1):52–66

Shian-Ling Keng, Moria J. Smoski, Clive J. Robins (2011) Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies. Clinical Psychological Review August; 31(6): 1041–1056

Zenner C, Herrnleben-Kurz S, Walach H. 2013. Mindfulness-based interventions in schools-a systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology 5:603–603