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Curiosity, an Engine of Well-being: An Interview with Todd Kashdan, Part I

By on April 15, 2009 – 10:00 am  25 Comments

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning (Theano Coaching LLC). She teaches positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. She recently published a book,Smarts and Stamina, on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits. Her blog is Positive Psychology Reflections. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.



curious Todd Kashdan is a professor of psychology at George Mason University and author of the book to be released on April 21, Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life.

Kathryn Britton: What prompted you to write your new book on curiosity?

Todd Kashdan: I wanted to write about curiosity because it has been neglected, even though there are few things in our arsenal that are so consistently and highly related to every facet of well-being — to needs for belonging, for meaning, for confidence, for autonomy, for spirituality, for achievement, for creativity. The only books out there are getting dusty on academic library shelves. I think scientists should write books themselves to get the science out to the masses.

Kathryn: What inspiration kept you going while you were writing it?

Todd KashdanTodd: I have always been an anxiety researcher, especially social anxiety – people that have profound levels of shyness and fear about being evaluated. Then I started seeing people who had energizing and profoundly meaningful social interactions. I started asking them about their motivations and feelings in the midst of social interaction. What kept arising was “I felt interested” or “I was curious.” I realized that curiosity is the counter-motivation to anxiety.

When people are dealing with new people, and new challenges, they’re faced with a conflict, “Do I escape the situation so I can’t fail and look like a fool? Or do I approach and act on my curiosity, and potentially expand my skills, learn more about my strengths, and find out what rewards are available?” I realized that this conflict between anxiety and curiosity is a fundamental part of everyday lives. Then I realized I would have to study curiosity if I really wanted to understand anxiety.

Curiosity and anxiety work in tandem. It’s not as if when you’re curious there’s no anxiety, or when you’re anxious there’s no curiosity. They work in all sorts of different combinations.

Kathryn: That reminds me of Jon Haidt moving from studying disgust to studying elevation.

Todd: I was just about to make exactly the same parallel.

Curiosity vs. Anxiety

Kathryn: What difference has it made it your own life to shift from studying anxiety alone to studying anxiety coupled with curiosity?

Todd: It has made me realize that the fundamental objective of my life is not to be happy or have a high frequency of positive emotions, but to have a rich, meaningful existence. That’s what I want to inspire in other people as well. In such an existence, people are going to have an abundance of both positive and negative experiences. If you don’t make mistakes and have negative emotions and moments of intense anxiety, it means you’re not taking risks. Bee Exploring FlowerWhen you live trying to avoid threats, you can’t possibly be creative, and you can’t discover your strengths and figure out how to use them in your daily life.

So, for me it’s a shift from looking for the positive to looking to live a life that matters. It’s about experimenting, exploring, and discovering. And the cool thing about writing this book and doing ten years of research on curiosity is that I am very aware of deciding between the familiar and the new. I can pick my favorite entre at a restaurant, or I can go with the chef’s specialty, which is exotic and interesting, but I may hate. High risk, high reward is a nice way to live life.

Kathryn: So you’re suggesting a shift away from ‘Let’s be positive’ to ‘Let’s accept anxiety as a necessary part of a life that involves taking the risks.’

Todd: Yes, and sometimes we feel anxious because something matters to us. This book argues that we should be doing things that are aligned with what we’re most passionate about. Following curiosity helps us explore and identify the things that are important to us.

Curiosity is important for other aspects of well-being. Think about gratitude. It is one of the most profound predictors of having happiness in life. But how can I be grateful without asking “Who in my social environment is helping me that I may not be acknowledging?” So curiosity is the engine that allows me to be grateful.

And what about finding strengths and using them in new ways? That implies questions like “What am I about? When am I at my best? When am I at my most energized?” Self-exploration is about being curious…curiosity directed inward.

Why Should We Care about Curiosity?

Kathryn: So curiosity is one of the driving engines of positive psychology?

Todd: In my book, I call curiosity the engine of growth. You can’t find your passions or purpose in life without trial and error experimentation. Curiosity is a mechanism that helps you create and discover meaning in your life. And in the process of all this you catch glimpses of happiness as it ebbs and flows over the course of your lifetime.

I worry about the literal obsession with happiness being the fundamental objective of life. A fulfilling life is about a matrix of elements. What ingredients are related to the most elements? What ingredients are related to the elements that I’m trying to change in my life, or in my client’s life, or in this organization? Can we give names to the ingredients so that people can talk with great precision about things that lead to positive outcomes?

When we focus just on happiness, it’s so broad and nebulous that we can’t get our hands around it. We need to be more specific about the elements that are already there and the ones we haven’t built into life yet. Some people have an energizing, enthusiastic work climate, but they’re ignoring spirituality, or other people’s needs for love, or profound sources of meaning in life. If we focus on these other elements, would we get even more than an energetic, highly enthusiastic workplace? I don’t know – these are questions that we haven’t explored yet.

Kathryn: Could you describe the matrix to me? I’m an ex-engineer, so when you say matrix I’ve got to picture it.

Todd: If we created a profile of where people fall on all these different dimensions of well-being… You have well-being and you can break that down into the Diener approach of frequency of positive emotions, frequency of negative emotions, and overall satisfaction. But then you get maturity and wisdom. How well does someone deal with stressful emotions? How about achievement and creativity? These are all dimensions of well-being. If every person has a profile, then we can explore his or her well-being in greater precision. Someone might say, “Now that you mention it, those are areas I haven’t thought about much that might be important for me to work on.” But when we focus at a broad level on happiness or having a fulfilling life, we potentially miss the picture that each person has his or her own individualized profile for how life is going.

Kathryn: I can hear a lot of curiosity when you talk about individuals and how they differ.

Joy of ExplorationTodd: Yes, and exploration and experimenting is part of everything that we are doing with positive psychology interventions. What I wanted to do with this book was just take this seemingly simple emotional experience and give it back to people so that they can use it intentionally instead of passively letting curiosity arise when novel, captivating things happen. Curiosity is strength people can wield. I can decide to go and seek new things. I can decide to look at a person from new perspectives. I can ask somebody about what they were like before I met them. I can ask my romantic partner what she does when I’m not there. Looking at the work on capitalization and how people respond when things go right, it’s all about being interested and intrigued by good things that happen, even when you have no involvement.

To be continued in part 2…

Kashdan, T. (2009). Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. New York: William Morrow.

Images:
Bees on flower from Survivephotography’s photostream
Joy of Exploration from docentjoyce’s photostream

25 Comments »

  • Doug Hensch says:

    Kathryn – Great interview. I’ll be buying the book shortly!! Thanks.

    doug

  • WJ says:

    Kathryn, I guess I’m curious about 3 things
    1. Can you be too curious?
    2. What does curiosity predict beyond the big 5 personality trait of openness?
    3. How does curiosity relate to mindfulness?

  • Wayne,

    Perhaps Todd can weigh in on the first two questions. He answered #3 in Part 2 of the interview. He must have had you in mind. :-}

    Kathryn

  • Todd Kashdan says:

    Doug, muchas gracias for getting the book! Please email me to let me know what you think.

    Wayne, great questions, each of which is addressed at length in the book. An entire chapter is devoted to the “dark side of curiosity”. So the quick answer is definitely, curiosity can be excessive, uncontrollable, or aimed toward perversions that get in the way of personal and societal well-being. I talk about obsessions, sexual and morbid curiosity, gossip, and a host of other goodies. I think its incredibly important for people studying strengths and working with them in applied settings with clients to understand that there are always tipping points. This book adopts this perspective throughout…

    As for the link with openness, there is a strong relation but curiosity often predicts many outcomes beyond openness. To be brief, curiosity is a part of this nebulous concept in the Big Five called openness to experience. But its a sloppy concept because it fuses together dreaming, appreciation of art and music, imagination, intelligence, creativity, and curiosity. That’s a lot of baggage for one construct which explains why this factor often fails to explain much in Big Five studies. It also explains why the factor structure of this particular dimension often fails to replicate (you don’t see it because psychologists can’t publish these null findings). Interpreting the literature, its hard to make heads or tails of what the hell is openness to experience which is why I think its more fruitful to focus on the smaller pieces on their own. In this case, curiosity. If you include curiosity and intelligence under the same umbrella then you miss out on interesting people such as mentally retarded children with intense curiosity or hyper intelligent college students with extrinisic motives for their pursuits and minimal curiosity. Intelligence should not be part of a single construct with curiosity. They are related but very very distinct.

    As for mindfulness, curiosity is one of the critical ingredients of mindfulness. This is discussed at length in the book. It is not a correlate or a consequence, it is part of the definition of mindfulness. Mindful Awareness + Open and Curious Attitude = Mindfulness. Most of the existing scales of mindfulness measure awareness but ignore curiosity. I have some unpublished data that I am writing up to begin showing empirical support for this two-dimensional model of mindfulness.

    Hope you consider reading the book to read more about these interesting topics you raise. You will find links to science and researchers that often are neglected in discussions about positive psychology.

    cheers,
    Todd

  • WJ says:

    Todd, again just being curious.

    I have seen definitions of mindfulness = awareness + acceptance. Research suggests that it’s the acceptance dimension that is critical. How does this fit with curiosity?

    Out of interest do you think PP is curious enough?

  • WJ says:

    Todd,

    I agree what you are saying re-openness – I score average levels on openness but when you go down to a facet level I score highly on ideas, actions and values (probably curiosity). My observation is that the facet level of personality seems to correspond strongly with most of the VIA strengths.

    By the way what does curiosity predict beyond openness?

  • Todd Kashdan says:

    Wayne, more great questions. I am not convinced of a large extant literature suggesting that acceptance is more critical than awareness. The reason is that few studies measure both dimensions. The mindfulness literature is saturated with studies that ignore the attitude of being open and curious. The exception is work at the neurobiological level that does show the action is with brain substrates linked to eager anticipation and exploration (left PFC ; dopaminergic circuits). Not much at the psychological or subjective level.

    As for openness and the big five facets, I agree with you that this is potentially more fruitful to understand strengths. It’s always plain silly to determine if a lower order facet is related to outcomes after controlling for higher order facets. This is because you ate getting rid of real, meaningful explanatory power. It’s not a fair or useful test of construct specificity. That being said reviewers ask for it and curiosity still predicts measures of positive emotions , life satisfaction, meaning in life, and positive social interaction behaviors and relationship outcomes after controlling for openness.

  • WJ says:

    Todd, not surprising you haven’t seen the research on acceptance as most of it is European.

    There is also a growing body of research on ACT

    Check out Personality and Individual Differences
    Volume 46, Issue 2, January 2009, Pages 224-230 as an example.

    By the way I use HRV software in my coaching and have found that when people are curious about something they tend to have higher levels of HRV. Check ou my website for some research on HRV http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?cat=18

    Again an emperical observation from my coaching is that people who learn mindfulness tend to become more curious

  • Todd Kashdan says:

    Wayne, thanks for the PAID reference. Please send along any other references you find. Of note, I don’t look to see the country of origin of authors, I just look at the research and where its published. I don’t know of any journal that is more favorable to non-Europeans than Europeans. Good work will get published in good journals.

    I am pretty well-versed in the ACT literature. You can decide for yourself by reading the theoretical frameworks in my papers (some of my collaborators authored important ACT books: John Forsyth, Joseph Ciarrochi, etc.). Of note, there is no evidence that I know of from the ACT world showing that quality of attention is more important than the self-regulation of attention. In fact, you rarely see this breakdown when mindfulness is being discussed. The literature with the most attention to this distinction is motivational interviewing.

    I am curious as to how you use HRV in your coaching? From my understanding, the latest evidence suggests that HRV is a physiological measure of self-regulatory capacity. Is using this information different than people using self-monitoring and biofeedback techniques? If so, how? I am naive and honestly interested.

    cheers,
    Todd

  • WJ says:

    Todd – email me at wayne(at)i.i(dot).com(dot)au if you’d like to know more. Probably not that releavnt to this forum.

    JC’s an ozzie isn’t he? – must be something about ozzies and acceptance.

    Enjoy

  • WJ says:

    Todd,

    found this definition of mindfulness that seems to accomodate both our perspectives –

    “a mental state of relaxed awareness of the present moment, marked by openness and curiosity toward your feelings rather than judgments of them”

  • Senia Maymin says:

    Cool definition, Wayne.

  • Todd Kashdan says:

    this is a really good definition. This is the one that is being put out by Joseph Ciarrochi and I for a paper on the longitudinal benefits of adolescent mindfulness that is under review at the Journal of Counseling Psychology:

    Mindfulness can be defined as focusing one’s attention on present moment experience with an attitude of openness and curiosity (Bishop et al., 2004; Kashdan, 2009).

  • WJ says:

    Todd,

    You might find this interesting. When I’m coaching my clients, and there HRV scores aren’t going as well as they should (indicating that their thoughts have a negative emotional tone), I often ask them to say to themselves one of the words “curious, interesting or accept” and then gently let the thought go. It seems to work. I think it would be an interesting study to explore the relationship between accepting, opennness and curiosity. Are they different dimensions? Does one mediate the others?

  • Todd Kashdan says:

    Very intriguing. I am slowly moving more into behavioral experiments and this is definitely an important idea. We need to start investigating how these different constructs operate together as opposed to the obsession of studying them separately.

    as another example, I’ve been pondering the idea that maybe cognitive restructuring (Beckian and Albert Ellis A-B-C approach; the similar thought discussed in Learned Optimism) and related exercises (see Adrian Wells’ ideas on meta-cognitions in anxiety and mood disorders) can be reconciled with mindfulness. This runs counter to what many scientists are stating in articles and books. After all, we ebb and flow out of states of mindfulness. Maybe the act of recognizing the potential costs and benefits of a situation and clarifying the silliness of a situation or our efficacy in similar situations facilitates a greater density of mindful states during the next activity. It’s a testable hypothesis that simply requires ecological momentary assessments. I’m hoping one of my students grabs this idea and runs with it….or this post will inspire someone else as I am at capacity right now.

    cheers,
    Todd

  • WJ says:

    Todd, I think the ABC model needs a re-think. Its all based on the premise that emotions arise from cognitions – but what if its emotions first?

    You might find this reserach interesting which suggests that CBT might reduce mindfulness.http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=394

    There is also this reserach that suggests than mindfulness decreases amygdala activity http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=87

    Wayne

  • Todd Kashdan says:

    very cool. can you give me the reference to the second study that mindful people defuse negative emotions when they label them.

  • Ulises Moreno says:

    Very interesting topic, {…edited…} as i have heard, the mind can only keep a thought at a specific time, then when a thought that seem to use the whole brain, is set aside with a different mindset like thinking in to searching for something new, this could be an exercise for the brain to undermine the anxiety.

  • Elbe says:

    @ Todd . Re, researching wether or not cognitive restructuring techniques can support the practice or emergence of mindfulness .
    I think that it is more likely to be the other way around -based on my own experience. That practicing mindfulness facilitates the ability to restructure cognition intentionally when required, due to having had the experience of being less personally/ subjectively attached to or consumed by ones mental/ emotional states and more aware of their transience.
    @ W J. Re which arises first cognition or emotion? I am not sure that they are so distinct from one another. But if anything, isn’t an emotional response already a cognition or mentally constructed interpretation of what the experience means to you. For example I might feel nervous about speaking to a lot of people at once before I have any observable thoughts about it, but Doesn’t that emotion mean that i have already decided something about that experience based on memory, or some interpretation about what that experience means or will entail ?
    . It seems to me that perhaps cognition and emotion are only facets of a single experience. Consciousness. **
    And, By practicing mindfulness you can Use your observer status to either catch and lever or turn around that response cognitively -thereby changing your emotional response ( if this has been through and effective) – or you can use it to stand back and watch your mind and emotions , thereby giving a more objective experience a chance to emerge , which is naturally emotionally calming and facillitates a rational and compassionate response . (to my understanding objective rationality is necessarily and by nature compassionate …… Happy to discuss .)

    **…. which , as I understand it, can be either subjective or objective, or preferably, both at the same time.

  • Dloc says:

    Duality surfaces again, cant have the good without the bad. In this case, can’t beat shyness unless you let it surge through you, and defy it anyway. We’ve all got the courage inside us to do great things, it’s just a matter of dredging it up. Great read, I’ll be sure to let this mull around in my head for awhile, thanks!

  • Why? says:

    Getting curious about curiosity? That’s fantastic!

  • Morninbrd says:

    So have you looked at teaching curiosity as a way to mitigate anxiety for those at risk for drug abuse or other negative behaviors? I run a non profit that teaches teens to follow their passions and would love to find out more about how implementing the idea about curiosity about life and the next step or next level of thier passion would impact these kids.

  • cro-mag Dan says:

    Hi, not even sure if anyone will read this. Might be old or might be my anxiety anticipating failure.

    Anyways, I just wanted to share a quick comment. I’m not nearly as intelligent, or have the vocabulary I’ve seen in post so the names explained.

    I’ve let myself become a victim of anxiety and unhapiness for the better part of a decade. Diploma, lower income, no wants, no dreams ect. I became a father almost 3 years ago. And I began thinking a lot on how good things were when I was a kid and wondering why we lose that really. “You grow up and get jobs and bills….its just life” those kinds of answers bother me. Too vague, and too definite. So I wanted to know why it happens not only for myself but, to keep my daughter from going down the sae lonley stressfull lifestyle.

    Everything I hear is “just be happy, live life, seize the day” but not once has anyone told me how or, where to begin. More importantly, what building blocks make up happiness and lower anxiety. Untill recently…

    I started on Superbetter, and for the first time in was seems like since childhood I was curious as to what simple little things we can do in our lives can pump up the building blocks to a healthy “kids mind” I started a little hesitant to take but forced myself to do something that made me curious and to pursue it 3 times a day.

    I’ve only been doing this and a few other small “brain games for about 6 weeks give or take. And sure enough I walked into one of my most anxious situatons today, grocery store, and felt curious instead of anxious. I didn’t scan every fruit, marvel at ceiling tiles and gasp at bad haircuts like I never seen them, but my brain was more focused on, wondering where that kid got that scrape on his arm, if it hurt now, what if a tokay gecko bite him, hmmmm I wonder how many people in SE mich own tokays.

    Not, do I have my wallet, do I have enough money in it. What if I overspend, what if I see someone from school nd I don’t look that well. I’m not saying that those didn’t pass through but they were not only less intense,but didn’t last as long. And to anyone with anxiety, the slightest bit helps.

    I’m sorry for this being so long, I just wanted to say thank you to Todd and kathryn. I never thought I would be haded in the right direction, but I am. And that alone make me a little happier.

    ps sorry I don’t have the money or your book. I feel like an outsider since I have only read articles and webpages. If and when I do I will.

  • Todd Kashdan says:

    Cro-mag Dan, its great to hear about the new direction your life is taking. Forget buying my book, I post all of my articles that you can download for free on my website- http://toddkashdan.com/articles.php

    If something isn’t there that you want, email me at tkashdan@gmu.edu.

    just the fact that you are experimenting with a new approach is great. Hope your quality of life continues to say at this new, better level.

    cheers,
    Todd

  • KP says:

    What if you aren’t curious about others? I truly don’t have interest in most people I meet.

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