“Curiosity killed the cat,” as the proverb goes. We certainly can get into mischief when we get too nosy. However, there is a rejoinder to this proverb that states “but satisfaction brought it back.” Dr. Linus Pauling said, “Satisfaction of one’s curiosity is one of the greatest sources of happiness in life.”
The curiosity drive is not just bestowed on artists, scientists, and inventors. Our basic nature is to be curious. Spend time with a young child and you’ll be captivated by how curious she is about everything around her. We all start out this way, but much of our curiosity drive is conditioned out of us as we learn how to adapt to the world. But curiosity can help fuel our motivations and enrich our connection to others and to life itself, and so there are indeed good reasons to cultivate it.
Passion, purpose—or curiosity
We are often told to follow our passions. Doing so will help us achieve a fulfilling purpose-driven life that unfolds with relative ease, even when we are faced with adversity. For some people, their passions are quite obvious. However, in my experience, many people say they aren’t really passionate about anything. In the same vein, they struggle with loftier questions like “What is my purpose?”
Purpose and outcome drive us to carry out a project or task. Curiosity doesn’t rely on outcome. Watering plants is purpose and outcome driven, while curiosity drives you to plant seeds, trusting that some will sprout. Being purpose driven is about goal-setting and productivity—a major hallmark of our culture. Yet, too much goal-setting can inhibit creativity and rob us of the very joy and wonder that make life worth living. While you may believe you know your life purpose, keeping your curiosity active may enable you to discover fulfillment that you never dreamed of.
In her latest book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert, famed author of Eat, Pray, Love, advises readers to follow what they are curious about instead of seeking their passion: “Passion can seem intimidatingly out of reach at times—a distant tower of flame, accessible only to geniuses and to those specially touched by God. Curiosity is a much more mild, accessible, democratic, and welcoming entity.” Engaging your curiosity may eventually lead to uncovering passions and purpose, or it may it may be fulfilling enough on its own. Being a curious person, I felt driven to learn more about this subject.
Drive, emotion, muscle
Curiosity research is quite fascinating. We humans, as well as other species, have a primary need to connect with the world around us. It’s important not only for our survival and to help us navigate our daily lives but also for fulfilling an inner hunger for knowledge and a drive to solve mysteries. The brain’s chemistry actually changes when we become curious. When we are learning something new our brains are flooded with dopamine, the same pleasure hormone that’s activated when we eat sugar or have pleasurable sex.
Researchers also claim that curiosity is a deep-seated emotion that fuels our motivations—in both positive and negative ways. Curiosity helps sustain our interest and motivates us to inquire and explore. It can open us to new points of view and lead us in new directions such as finding a new career path. It can help us better connect with people and find recreational or cultural outlets that enrich our lives. Or, it can distract us and lead us astray.
Our minds crave distraction, and when our senses are deprived of stimulation, we crave any input that is available. The craving for connection and information can cause us to waste a lot of time, take us away from what’s important, and compromise our creativity. We can become curiosity junkies! But there are times when, we don’t need more information or stimulation; we need less. Distractions may actually represent a craving for some down time. Not just going off line, but recognizing our natural need to rest and clear the mind—walking in nature, meditating, or enjoying an interlude of doing nothing.
While doing research for articles like this, I sometimes feel like I’m going down rabbit holes, wasting time in the desire for more information. Then I run across a wonderful new idea or slant on the subject, and even new topics to write or blog about in the future. While curiosity can stimulate a wellspring of creativity, it is like a muscle: we must use it or we lose it. With this understanding, I now appease myself that I’m flexing my curiosity muscle.
We live in a culture that focuses on the desire for certainty and on fear of the unknown. We sometimes distrust people who are unlike us, those with different religious and cultural backgrounds. Yet, diversity and uncertainty constitute the fabric of nature and the flow of life. We don’t really know what will happen moment to moment. Having a curious nature keeps us primed for the unexpected and helps us adapt to whatever unfolds, including failure. Curiosity can help us learn how others think, providing the space to find common ground—even with those with differing views. It can help us be less judgmental and more accepting.
Scientists are confronted with uncertainty all the time. It’s the nature of their work. It’s vital that they be both skeptical and open. Every theory explored opens the door to another. They must accept that years of work can lead to a dead end. However, a thousand unsuccessful tries didn’t stop Thomas Edison from inventing the lightbulb!
Connection and relationships
In the hierarchy of needs, our need for connection and a sense of belonging comes right after the need for physical safety. Production of the powerful “feel good” hormone oxytocin, sometimes referred to as the “cuddle chemical,” increases when we have positive interactions with others. Facebook and other social media stimulate our curiosity and can help us feel connected—at least until our next hit! But these sources cannot provide the kind of deep physical and emotional connection we need.
“Choosing to be curious is also choosing to be vulnerable because it requires us to surrender to uncertainty,” writes Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work and author of Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution. When we deny or disengage from tough emotions—the opposite of being curious—they don’t go away. We must accept our vulnerability and reckon with, or own, our story; when we are open to seeing the truth in that story, we are better able to choose how the story ends.
To cultivate curiosity, we might take a lesson from a company like Google, which pays employees to spend 20 percent of their time on self-directed pursuits. We must learn to unplug from outside sources and create space for pursuing mindfulness and meditative practices. These can help us uncover our true connection with ourselves, allowing for deep stirrings of inspiration and fresh curiosity that can blossom into a joyful and fulfilling life.
Follow your curiosity. Allow it to blossom!