Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.
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: 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. When 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.
Todd: 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.