“It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before. This character of startling unexpectedness is inherent in all beginnings and in all origins.” – Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
What motivates us to expand and explore? Why is it that, no matter how much we know, we can still be constantly motivated to discover more? How can curiosity be a valuable part of ourselves and serve us in how we develop meaning?
Ever wonder how many curious people are curious about curiosity itself?
What comes to mind if you imagine archetypes or symbols of curiosity? Perhaps a small child, a young scholar, a determined journalist, or a perpetual traveler. Typical examples of curiosity focus around rigorous inquiry, exploration, and discovery, and there are also rich opportunities for curiosity in every part of our everyday lives: conversation, politics, reading, and romantic relationships.
No matter your goals—whether they are independent or interpersonal, focused or broad—the method by which you contend with them will substantially affect the outcome. Curiosity can be an essential part of those goals by knowledge seeking and perspective-taking. It can even be a goal in and of itself. Curiosity may be understood in different ways by different people. Curiosity is sometimes used to also describe tolerance, humility, optimism, open-mindedness, and non-rigidity. These are deeply important aspects of living as a person, and many of them are written about in other parts of the A Meaning of Life website.
In an attempt to narrow our focus, we will here focus on curiosity as it relates to wonder, knowledge-seeking, investigating, and exploring. As we look forward, we can start with this definition of curiosity:
How curious are you? Very? Kinda? Not sure?
You can measure your curiosity (along with 50+ other factors of well-being) using the extensive Assessment Center web app.
Go check it out!
Examples of Curiosity
In 1940 France, Marcel Ravidat’s dog Robot fell in a hole. After Marcel rescued his dog, he noticed that the hole went even deeper. Marcel then returned the next day and descended a 15-meter shaft, finding a network of 17,000-year-old beautiful paintings, now known as the Lascaux Cave Paintings
When Carlos Jared was doing fieldwork in Brazil, he picked up a frog to examine it – and discovered that frogs can be venomous. Greening’s Frog has poison on bony spines on its lower jaw. Ouch.Being willing to touch something unfamiliar and potentially scary can sometimes lead to learning something new!
X-rays were discovered in 1895 when Wilhelm Roentgen was testing how cathode rays passed through the glass. He noticed some interesting lighting effects and eventually tested the effect on his wife’s hand. His discovery of how x-rays worked quickly led to significant advances in how doctors are able to see broken bones.
Journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein became intrigued when they noticed that one of the robbers caught in the Democratic party’s offices was on President Nixon’s re-election committee. Noticing this eventually lead to the Watergate Scandal. If they hadn’t connected that information and noticed that they were confused, they wouldn’t have discovered so much more.
In 2011, 10-year-old Kathryn Gray noticed small differences in images that she and her father took of stars. After following up on what she noticed, the discovery was confirmed as a supernova by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada – an incredibly rare astronomic event.
When middle school student Simon Kashchock-Marenda was testing how fruit flies reacted to artificial sweeteners, he found that they all died after eating a certain sweetener. This led scientists to explore if this could be used as a human-safe insecticide.
Not only wondering about how something works but also taking actions to understand it, can be a powerful act of curiosity.
What might I gain?
There are various benefits of curiosity – we’ll explore those benefits on this page and the subsequent pages in the curiosity section – take a look at the collected benefits to the right, and look out for them as we move forward and into different topics.
First, let’s look into some examples of curiosity, then some emotional and material benefits, and how curiosity can affect various parts of life.
Curiosity Can Help You Feel Better
Having curiosity in various parts of your life can provide emotional benefits within your life. Seeking to know more, being interested in possibilities, and being comfortable with inconvenient truths can be different expressions of curiosity – let’s see how they can provide reassurance, give a sense of preparedness, and how knowing the worst can help you be at your best. Consider the emotional benefits that curiosity can provide:
Depicting future situations as desirable. Having curiosity can help you know more, which can lead to more confidence and competence.
Although Mark has a good-paying job, he comes from an impoverished background and is nervous about money. He avoids checking his bank account, though when he does he can feel more confident in his situation and make better decisions. By having a desire to learn and know (part of curiosity), he can feel more reassured.
Alice has been drifting apart from her college roommate, and they used to be such good friends. Setting up a gathering and reaffirming their friendship may be an opportunity. By meeting with her friend and feeling a sense of reconnection, she won’t have as much of a desire to worry.
Reducing ‘fear of fear’ or ‘fear of helplessness’. Curiosity can lead to being prepared because you know what to prepare for.
The holiday season is a struggle for Mark, and especially with gift-giving. So, in the months leading up to December, he makes a conscious effort to pay attention to the hobbies and interests of his family, with the aim of being a great gift-giver. Through knowing more about his family’s interests, Mark can feel more confident that his family see his gifts as thoughtful.
Alice heard on the radio that floods are going to become more frequent in her area in the future. She isn’t sure if this is true, but she certainly worries about it. So she looks into some basic flood-prevention measures for her home and makes an evacuation plan for her family. Because she felt curious about what she can do for her family, she is able to eventually create something (a plan) that will alleviate her worry.
Knowing ‘The Worst’
Reducing the range of uncertainty. If you know just how bad things can be, then you can worry about that rather than something that is even worse.
Alice’s family has a history of breast cancer, and, although she isn’t sure, she thinks she has symptoms. Going to a doctor may have her learning ‘bad news’, but it will also let her know how serious her condition is instead of worrying about all possibilities. Sometimes being curious means being ok with potentially finding something uncomfortable, including the worst case scenario.
Mark recently looked into the termite situation under the deck of his house. It was much worse than he thought, requiring extensive repairs, but it also won’t require a whole new deck either, which is what he was concerned about. Being genuinely interested in the state of his deck, even it was terrible, helped him know how to accomplish his goal: having a sturdy and safe part of his house.
Why Seek Curiosity?
The benefits of curiosity may not be obvious. However, curiosity has been considered a key component of discovery, relating to others, and knowledge gathering1– it is even valuable in and of itself.2
“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day.”
– Albert Einstein
Curiosity Lights the Room
Curiosity cultivates knowledge. Knowledge may be general, or it may be specific with the purpose of discovering. That knowledge may then be expressed or utilized in all manner of situations, practical or social.
Curiosity fuels inquiry into a particular topic, such as when a museum-goer spends hours in a single exhibit reading every word or when an investigative reporter cultivates sources for a story. The knowledge that will be gained from these activities may be unknown at the outset, and the focus of exploration is contained to a particular topic.
Curiosity promotes broad exploration of everything and reflects a desire to know more about many different aspects of the world. Common examples of this are a person who reads the newspaper every day or a partygoer who can often be found talking with various people about the complexities and interests within the other person’s profession. Who knows when a scrap of knowledge may be interesting in a bit of conversation, or when understanding of a topic may illuminate a personal or business decision?
Curiosity facilitates social knowledge through conversation and can come through genuinely wondering about the humans around you, what their challenges and successes have been, and how they have been shaped into who they have become. And being curious about another person is great for relationships. (more on that later!)
As our understanding of what is possible grows, we can end up connecting pieces from different domains. This can lead to unanticipated benefits. Consider ‘NASA spinoff technologies.’ Once meant for space exploration, these discoveries have been repurposed to something else entirely. Inventions include freeze-drying, artificial limbs, and firefighting equipment.
There is so much in the world to be curious about! Find a friend, partner, or child, sit or lie on the floor and play the ‘I wonder…’ game. Each person says a sentence that starts with ‘I wonder’, followed by something about their own life, the world, or the universe.
The Myth of Adult Curiosity
A common story around curiosity is thus:
We are born curious, and as children we use this curiosity to explore the world around us. As we grow older, as we think we know more and become jaded and confused by ideology, our curiosity, along with our innocence, dissolves. As adults, we may only yearn for and imitate the curiosity of our childhood.
This is an interesting perspective that certainly celebrates the wonder that children can have about the world – however, is it correct? Researchers Jamie Jirout and David Klahr investigated this question:
“There is little solid evidence about the developmental trajectory of curiosity, or what the impact of formal schooling might be on it. In fact, we present some preliminary data below suggesting that curiosity may be unaffected by age or schooling.”3
Jirout and Klahr note that there is little evidence our capacity for curiosity declines as we age – we may merely become more familiar with our environment. Like lower-hanging fruit, certain novelties have already been explored, and we may simply need to learn to change our perspective or learn how to climb to reach fruit upon the higher branches. Whether you are a child or an adult, whether you have a penchant for exploration or are looking to rekindle a remembered joy, the door has always been open.
Moving forward, see your work in curiosity not as a Rise from a Fall, but rather as an avocation or carefully crafted skill.
In order to cultivate curiosity as a skill, the proceeding pages offer strategies for practicing curiosity, habits that may be stifling our curiosity, and chosen environments that offer more or fewer opportunities to explore curiously and ignite interest.
“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity” -Dorothy Parker
The path toward creating more curiosity within oneself can be as long as you like – look onward to learn more about curiosity!
- Cultivation – What aspects within ourselves can we foster to increase our sense of curiosity?
- Curiosity Stoppers – We may already have habits and ways of being that prevent curiosity from happening in the first place. How can you be aware of what prevents your curiosity from blossoming, and what ways of thinking are already stopping you from being curious?
- Certainty and Mystery – A longer explanation of certainty and mystery, two concepts that may prevent us from being curious, and how to turn them into uncertainty and wonder. What will you find that you are certain or mysterious about?
- The Curiosity Environment – The kind of situations, media, and people we choose to engage with will offer us different opportunities to be curious. How will your chosen environment affect how you wonder about the world?
- Personal Curiosity – How do we interact with others in a way that creates opportunities for openness and change?
- Resources – Interested in reading, listening, or engaging more with curiosity topics? Find a long list of resources here!
- Practice and Exercises – A gathering of practices and exercises that are in other pages.
- Gallagher, Matthew W.; Lopez, Shane J. (2007). Curiosity and well-being. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2(4), 236–248. doi:10.1080/17439760701552345
- İnan İlhan. (2012). The Philosophy of Curiosity. Routledge.
- Loewenstein, G. (1994). The Psychology of Curiosity: A review and reinterpretation. Psychological Bulletin, 116(1), 75–98. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.116.1.75