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Curious About Curiosity?
by Ben Dean, Ph.D.

Series Introduction

This newsletter is the second issue in a tour of 24 character strengths—strengths such as wisdom, honesty, spirituality, kindness, gratitude, curiosity, and creativity.

If you have not already done so, you can receive feedback about your highest strengths by taking the Strengths Survey

According to Dr. Martin Seligman, we can become lastingly happier by using our signature strengths more often and in new ways. Early support for this theory comes from a random-assignment study in which research participants were asked to use their signature strengths more often and in different ways. These participants were happier six months later, whereas individuals who received a “control” exercise stayed the same

The recently published handbook by Peterson and Seligman (2004), Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, summarizes all there is to know about each of the 24 strengths. So ideally, you and your clients can read the relevant chapters in the Handbook and use the knowledge contained within to inform your strengths work. Although we encourage you to use the strengths handbook, we recognize that the scope of this 700+ page book can be somewhat daunting to busy professionals and clients. If this is the case, you are in luck. What we will be doing over the next 24 newsletters is offering you the Readers Digest version of the Handbook. Each issue will be devoted to a different strength, and my focus will be on application. In each newsletter, we will present information that will make it easier for you and your clients to (1) own your strengths, (2) develop them further, and (3) use them in new ways.

This week’s featured strength is Curiosity.

Definition

· Curious people have an ongoing, intrinsic interest in both their inner experience and the world around them. Curious people tend to be attracted to new people, new things, and new experiences, and they are rarely bored.

· Everyone possesses curiosity to some degree. People differ according to the strength and breadth of their curiosity and their willingness to act on it. (How motivated are you by your curiosity? Are you curious in one domain or across many domains?)

Benefits of Curiosity

Curiosity benefits our social and romantic lives. Curious people are often considered good listeners and conversationalists. In the early stages of a relationship, we tend to talk about our interests or hobbies. One reason for this is that people tend to equate “having many interests” with “interesting,” and for good reason. Curious people tend to bring fun and novelty into relationships.

· Curiosity is associated with intelligence and problem-solving ability. Although researchers have not identified the precise pathway by which curiosity leads to cognitive growth, a likely explanation concerns the rich environment curious people create for themselves as they seek new experiences and explore new ideas. Put simply, curious brains are active brains, and active brains become smart brains.

· Curiosity is associated with high performance in both academic and work settings. There is evidence to suggest an upward spiraling relationship between curiosity and knowledge. The more we learn, the more we want to learn, and so on.

The Downside to Curiosity: When Curiosity Kills the Cat

· Curiosity in the absence of good judgment can lead to trouble. Do you recall Jessica Fletcher, the author/amateur sleuth from the television series Murder She Wrote? Without fail, toward the end of every episode, Jessica Fletcher’s curiosity led her to confront a dangerous criminal in a remote area. Unfortunately for us, the police don’t always rush in at the last minute in real life!

· When curiosity clashes with social norms, further trouble can ensue. Anyone with a small child needs no further elaboration on this point. Curiosity can motivate the youngster to ask questions such as, “Why don’t you have any children?” or “Is that man’s belly big because he’s pregnant?”

Building Curiosity

All things considered, the benefits of curiosity far outweigh the possible risks. Cultivating this strength can lead to both personal and professional rewards. So how might we go about developing this strength? One idea comes from the work by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, one of the founders of the field of positive psychology and a pioneering researcher in the area of flow.

According to Cskikszentmihalyi, there is a direct relationship between our attentional resources and our interest in the world: Nothing is interesting to us unless we focus our attention on it. Rocks are not interesting until we begin collecting them, people in the mall are not interesting until we become curious about their lives and where they are going, and vacuum cleaners are not interesting until we need to buy a new one. According to Csikszentmihalyi, we can develop our curiosity (and fight boredom) by making a conscious effort to direct our attention to something in particular in our environment.

A Curiosity Challenge I leave you with the following Curiosity Challenge. Test Csikszentmihalyi’s theory in your own lives this week. During those times when you are feeling bored or unstimulated (e.g., while waiting in line at the grocery store), focus your attention on something that ordinarily might not engage your interest. For example, if you are at the grocery store, really notice how various customers interact with the checkout clerk. Are they making eye contact or averting their gaze? Do they make small talk? Do they offer to bag their own groceries? Notice how much effort you need to expend to focus your attention. Is it worth it? Is there a trade off between being bored (but with no demands placed on your psychic energy) and being interested?

I hope you enjoyed this newsletter! See you in two weeks when we discuss the character strength of Open-Mindedness.

Recommended Readings

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Collins.

Lowenstein, G. (1994). The psychology of curiosity: A review and reinterpretation. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 75-98.

Peterson, C. and Seligman, M. E. P. (Eds.). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press

© 2004 Authentic Happiness Coaching. All rights reserved.