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.
Kathryn: Do you think that there’s a great deal of variability in curiosity from person to person?Todd: Absolutely. We all have different genetic predispositions to how sensitive we are to novelty and whether we get upset in unfamiliar and uncertain situations. There is also a major age effect. Children have boundless curiosity to explore everything. Then there’s something that occurs when we enter adulthood. We learn the rules, we want to develop some closure, we want to feel intelligent, we want to feel some level of certainty and structure in our lives. When we learn what the rules are at the workplace, which are different from those in a funeral parlor, which are different from those in an elevator, which are different from those at a cocktail party, what falls to the wayside is that desire to just seek out the newness – the lust for new things. We get caught up in the struggle to control uncertainty, which we can’t actually do.
Kathryn: What was the most surprising thing that you came across when you were working on the book?
Todd: I think the brain science research on Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. One of the first markers of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s at the neurological level is inability to manage and deal with novelty, an early sign of degeneration. It includes not only an unwillingness to go seek out the unfamiliar and a clinging to the familiar, but an actual aversion when they’re faced with something that they’ve never seen before. Dopamine is linked up with anticipating rewards, and so it’s closely linked to curiosity. Dopamine kicks in when we see that there’s something novel. Dopamine circuits are short-circuited in the early stages of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
Doing actively novel activities buffers the age-related cognitive decline and reduces the risk for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Thus curiosity and exploring new things appears to be a potential antidote to degenerative brain diseases.
Kathryn: You’ve explained how curiosity relates to strengths and gratitude. How does it relate to mindfulness?
Todd: I’ve noticed that there’s been a lot of discussion about mindfulness in PPND. I think curiosity is one of the two major dimensions of mindfulness. You can’t have mindfulness without being curious. Most people focus on the gentle guiding of attention towards the present moment – to focusing on a chosen target of your attention, and gently guiding attention from things that distract you.
The second part of mindfulness is about the quality of attention. I find “non-judgmental” a negative, off-putting term. The quality of attention is about having an open and receptive and curious attitude towards whatever is the target of your attention. And I think this gets lost in measures and definitions.
Kathryn: Are there different kinds of curiosity?
Todd: I had a study that I haven’t published yet. We asked over 500 people what are the things that make them most curious. The two most frequent categories were being curious about other people’s lives and trying to figure themselves out – introspection. We don’t talk enough about the value of introspection, being curious about the self. You can’t do goal-setting or strength-spotting without introspection. And you can’t get there without curiosity.
Kathryn: So do you have a research question that you’d really like to see somebody address?
Todd: That’s a really good question. There are people that are addressing this question, but I think it hasn’t fully been answered yet: How do you maintain passion, commitment and intimacy in long-term relationships?
My first mentor – Arthur Aron had a cool finding. First you have romantic couples do novel and exciting things together – not just something pleasant, it has to be new territory. And then you have them bring up unresolved conflicts. They were much more agreeable, open-minded and warm toward each other after sharing a novel and intriguing activity.
That hits the value of being curious, being intrigued with your partner. Lives are getting longer. If you get married or committed in a relationship at age 30, how do you keep a relationship for 70 years? Seven decades. That’s the research that I want to see done — really difficult, longitudinal research to get at how people behave in their everyday lives that can maintain that excitement and that intrigue, and thus keep that relationship alive and vital.
What do extremely happy, passionate couples look like? What can we learn from them? Who are the couples that can be our Martin Luther Kings and Mother Teresas of marriage? I want exemplars. I want to be able to whip out examples that show how these couples behave differently. How do they synchronize with each other? How open are they to letting each other evolve separately and together? What space do they provide for each other? These are difficult things to measure and operationalize, but too important not to study.
Kathryn: Before we finish, one more question: What comes next for you?
Todd: I want to write a book about the full spectrum of relationships. There’s a lot of territory that people haven’t covered before in the popular press. This includes our relationships with non-humans – whether its animals or objects or technology. There is 20 to 30 years of research in social psychology on relationships that has never been shown to the public.
For example, Susan Anderson at NYU does great research that really resonates with me. We meet a person that somehow reminds us of someone with whom we have a strong intimate relationship, and we end up superimposing the old intimacy on this new stranger who has entered our lives. This is a fascinating process, and there’s a lot of research on it.
Editor’s Note The two interviews of Todd Kashdan appear in the Curiosity chapter of the Positive Psychology News book, Character Strengths Matter.
Andersen, S.M., Reznik, I., & Glassman, N.S. (2005). The unconscious relational self. In R. Hassin, & J.S. Uleman, & J.A. Bargh (Eds.), The New Unconscious (Social Cognition and Social Neuroscience), (pp. 421-481). New York: Oxford University Press.
Aron, A., Paris, M., & Aron, E. N. (1995). Falling in love: Prospective studies of self-concept change. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 1102-1112. (Todd: I love this study of his.)
Kashdan, T. (2009). Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. New York: William Morrow.