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Curiosity: a key ingredient to a fulfilling life

An interview with Todd Kashdan

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but what did in the inquisitive feline just may help you live longer--and have more fun doing it. Or so contends psychologist and George Mason University professor Todd Kashdan, author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life.

"Of course we all want to be happy in life," says Kashdan, who will be the keynote speaker at the LearningLife spring fest in April. "If you ask folks what the goal of life is, most of them will say 'happiness.' But really, that's only part of the equation. What we're searching for is meaning, fulfillment. Curiosity is a key ingredient to finding that fulfillment."

According to Kashdan, being curious is about finding the novel in the routine, the freshness in the familiar. "Curiosity drives us to explore," he says. "When we're curious, we are embracing a degree of uncertainty. We're not living our lives trying to solve a puzzle; we're on a quest to discover, to grow."

Kashdan cites research that shows when people are open to new experiences and are flexible in how they view the world, positive events linger longer, and individuals are able to extract more pleasure and meaning from their world.

"Living a life seeking thrills or excitement doesn't necessarily do it--thrills fade. But being able to live in the moment, being mindful of our surroundings, being engaged...that will keep the curious explorer going."

Finding the novel in the familiar and seeking new experiences doesn't mean you have to go to extraordinary lengths, however. As Kashdan says, slight mindset changes can have a profound effect on how we view the world. "Think about how a kid can play with a stick for hours on end. A stick. Somewhere along the line, we lose that capability to see all the possibilities, all the things going on right in front of us.

"As we get older, we let the desire to be in control, feel certain, control us. Our preconceptions and assumptions get in the way, and we spend way too much time on autopilot."

Kashdan recounts a study wherein participants were asked to do something they reported disliking and pay attention to three new facets they discovered while they did it. The results showed that the exercise actually changed how many participants view the activity.

Not only does this exercise help us find the novel in the familiar, but by sharing our experience with another person, the activity becomes more prominent in our mind--and helps strengthen our bond with that person.

"For years, the commonly accepted viewpoint was that if someone is with you through a tough time, or listens to you vent, it will deepen your bond. But in truth, research shows that when people share good times with someone--whether it's an activity or a class or a common interest, or simply having them listen (with interest) to us tell a story about something we've done or tried--they develop a strong bond. The good times you share, in fact, seem to help determine later on how willing people were to sacrifice for friends."
So being a curious explorer can help deepen our relationships. It can help us stay engaged in the world and find more meaning in our lives. But what about the physical health benefits?

Curiosity won't take you to the fountain of youth, Kashdan counsels, nor will you live forever. But recent studies show that curiosity CAN help us live better as we live longer. One five-year longitudinal study of 2,000 older adults aged 60 to 86, showed that those who were the most curious at the beginning of the study were more likely to be alive at the end--even after accounting for age, smoking, heart disease, cancer, and other mortality factors.

"When we take all of these little, daily microscopic changes--running our regular jogging route backwards, mixing up our breakfast cereals, taking a new class or workshop, chatting with someone about a new hobby--they add up," Kashdan says. By making these connections, we are finding and creating meaning in our lives."

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