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.
Cat and large bug from johnnyalive’s photostream,
Curious seagull from Sir Mervs’ photostream
2 couples hiking from Ancient Brit.’s photostream
Kathryn, I so enjoyed this interview with Todd Kashdan and am looking forward to reading Curious. One of my favorite quotes by Eleanor Roosevelt is:
“I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.”
As parents, teachers, coaches, and/or managers I believe we have a responsibility to cultivate curiousity — our own and in others.
Todd asks “What do extremely happy, passionate couples look like?” Having just celebrated our 25th anniversary I’d have to say curiosity is a key ingredient. It can be as easy as asking simple, yet powerful questions (e.g. – What’s your favorite day of the week & why?) and being genuinely interested in the response. When we think we know everything there is to know about our spouse that’s when we stop listening, stop being present, stop being curious and the passion dries up. Many of us can relate to the dinner party where the husband (or wife) begins to tell a story and you see the other spouse roll their eyes as if to say “here he/she goes again”. Imagine if we could listen to that same story as if it was being heard for the first time. Now that could be a great exercise to build curiosity in a marriage.
I like the quotation from Eleanor Roosevelt, one of my personal heroes.
We’ve been married more than 28 years, and yes, one does hear the same stories multiple times. Sometimes it makes me think of my daughter as a very little girl asking my husband to tell her a secret after her bedtime story. He started telling her little stories about his family — his grandfather whose first name was Romance, his father’s experiences when the coal mines were on strike, his father trading a coon dog for a car, his mother’s experiences working during WW II … Both my kids developed an insatiable appetite for “secrets” – so my husband started keeping a list of them. Maybe some day they’ll turn into a family book.
So I like your idea of an exercise. After all, nobody tells exactly the same story twice with the same emphasis or emotional content.
Thanks for adding to the discussion. Perhaps we don’t have 70 years of marriage yet, as Todd was speculating was possible. But we’re both working on it.
I’ve only been married for 11 or 12 years (oops). Again we’re back to the power of stories. I think it is always interesting (a benefit of having an inquisitive mind) to hear your significant other retell a story and to argue over the fine points. My wife’s brain is a steel trap. This sometimes works in my favor, except when I’m dead wrong on an issue. I’m like you Kathryn, a little more big picture and not so much crossing t’s and dotting i’s.
I like your stories Kathryn. They’re really vivid and heartwarming.
Thank you for sharing your wonderful interview with Todd Kashdan. I am looking forward to reading his book. Todd’s discussion of the many advantages of seeking novel experiences, from preserving brain functioning to better problem solving with partners after pursuing a novel and intriguing activity are so practically relevant to leading a fulfilling life. I agree with Todd that there are so many important related areas to study. Thanks again for both posts.
So is not having curiosity a “bad” thing? What is it about people who are not especially curious? I know this is a “positive” psychology website, but I’m a bit curious about how you view people who are incurious and what it is you think they’re lacking? My dad is the type of person who, while he’s sort of an interrogator when you talk with him and he asks lots of questions, he doesn’t REALLY listen to people and it seems like he seeks answers from people to fulfill some sort of obsessive need for clarity. Problem is, I think he passed it on to me and I struggle with a similar lack of attentiveness and curiosity when talking with people.
Margaret, thanks so much for picking up my book. Please email me after you read it and let me know what you think.
Adam, you raise an excellent question. Also, I relish the distinction you make between interrogation and curious exploration.
I promise that I am not trying to be diplomatic by saying that there is nothing wrong with not showing elevated curiosity. I do believe that you will be less likely to reach your growth potential and less likely to achieve much of what is valued in life in the absence of regular doses of curiosity. But there is no single path to a long, healthy, meaningful life. Without curiosity, many of the possible paths are reduced. It is harder to be flexible and take advantage of the rewards and opportunities that life has to offer without curiosity and exploratory behavior. However, some people will bump into rewards and opportunities without searching for them. Some people possess a configuration of personality traits where order and structure are valued above all else. For some people, being in control is what they devote their time and energy to and are relatively successful at what they do. And there are plenty of situations when similar people are attracted to similar people.
But in general, life is unpredictable and uncontrollable and working to minimize errors and chaos is far less satisfying than working to achieve rewards and growth. Enduring happiness and profound sources of meaning in life often arise from intense efforts and a life of experimentation and discoveries. Curiosity is a lubricant that makes social interactions more enjoyable and meaningful, tasks more easy to persist at, and meaning and purpose in life more readily accessible.
The beautiful thing that I discovered in writing this book is that people can change the intensity, frequency, durability, and readiness of their curiosity. Our personality is much more malleable than we have been led to believe by 20th century researchers.
If you do read my book, let me know your thoughts…and what, if anything, was helpful.
I am so sad to be a very latecomer to this conversation! So many interesting ideas in the interviews with Kathryn (thanks, Kathryn!) and I just read through the comments. Very fascinating.
I am one of the PPND authors who has recently been exploring the idea of mindfulness, and I agree that “nonjudgmental” does have kind of a negative feel to it. Curiosity and openness are probably much better descriptors to the stance of opening oneself up to all that is available in any given situation.
I love the idea of exploring how curiosity feeds into the health of long-term romantic relationships. I just finished reading Tal Ben-Shahar’s chapter in Happier about Happiness in Relationships, in which he points out that passion is cultivated between spouses when a shift occurs from wanting validation to the desire to know and be known. This involves the disclosure of our innermost selves which, conceivably, could happen over the course of a lifetime together. I see this as definitely related to curiosity – not the interrogation kind, but a gentle, energetic kind.
When I went through a divorce a few years ago, something shifted in me which allowed curiosity to emerge in full force. It’s too much to describe in this comment, but I think it was related to post traumatic growth and, while the divorce itself was hell, I love the curious approach to the world I’m left with. Now I actively incorporate curiosity into my life, both in ways that accentuate positive experiences and also in ways that bolster me against negative experiences. (I see this as an important part of resilience.) For example, I am in the process of going through a 360 degree feedback process for my grad program at Case Western Reserve University, and someone asked me how I am feeling about getting the results. I only had to think for a second before responding that, while I am not relishing reading about my areas of weakness, I will approach the results with curiosity and a question in my heart about what I can learn from them. With this attitude, it’s very hard to feel anxious.
I also use curiosity when I’m feeling lonely or sorry for myself. After allowing myself to experience whatever emotions I need to experience, I think to myself, “Okay, what is exciting in this world? What can I learn about?” Sometimes it’s self-exploration, sometimes it’s reading something interesting or going someplace new and meeting new people. Curiosity is a very good antidote to the blues.
Anyway, my anecdotal comments are intended to offer support and encouragement of your work on curiosity, Todd. Hopefully, they have served that purpose. Thanks for giving me something new to think about, and I will definitely be getting your book!
Oh, and I’m also really interested in the role of curiosity in education. I used to be a classroom teacher and I know well the value in tapping into intrinsic motivation. What has been your experience with education?
Thanks for the enriching comments. You are an excellent role model and I suspect your coaching practice will really launch (if it hasn’t already). I haven’t read Tal’s book but I couldn’t agree more with his sentiments. From my own research, review of others’ research, clinical work, and personal experiences, when you stop tapping into your romantic partner as a source of new knowledge and experiences, the relationship usually comes to a screeching halt. I spend a lot of time talking about how to reverse this slow systematic decline.
My big issue with mindfulness being defined as paying attention in a non-judgmental way is that we are learning that the absence of a negative is different than the presence of a positive. We learned this with emotions, the absence of the negative does not equate with having positive emotions. We learned this with motivation, the absence of avoidance does not equate with being approach-oriented. And so on. If we are going to cultivate positive experiences, strengths, and adaptive relationships, it has to start with teaching people the language to describe the positive aspects of their world. Thus, for me, curiosity is much more accurate to describe the state of attention that is being gently guided in a state of mindfulness.
Couldn’t agree more with you about curiosity and intrinsic motivation in the classroom. I’ve been teaching for over a decade and devise all my courses to maximize intrinsic motivation. For instance, I don’t give tests; I give multiple options for assignments so that students can find the right fit for their interests or experimentation outside of their comfort zone; I allow students to define how their grade will be determined according to experiential assignments, final papers, and engagement in class; I allow student participation on class listservs to be equivalent to participation in person as some people are more introverted learners who take longer to process and meditate over new information. All of these little things are designed to cultivate a culture of intrinsic motivation. More often that not, it works. As a classroom teacher, what sort of wisdom can you pass on to do a better job? what’s worked for you?
thanks for the dialogue
please keep in touch
Thanks for your response Todd. And I plan on getting your book posthaste. You said in your response that some people possess a configuration of personality traits where order and structure are valued above all else. Are order/structure really “valued” above all else or are they necessary? I mean, some people might rely on order/structure after unconsciously determining that they’re unable to effectively function without them (however fake or fleeting the satisfaction of control may be). It may just be a really helpful survival technique that some people must use because facing life full-on (in all its unpredictable glory) might be too overwhelming. How much can we really change these ingrained personality traits if we happen to have them?
(An addendum to my last comment.) I guess I was thinking that some people don’t have enough intelligence — or the right kind of intelligence — to be so open/flexible and manage life “as it comes”. I mean, some people’s brains (cognitive functioning?) might not be suited for so much exposure to unpredictability. Thus, they turn to order and structure and control because it’s all they have. I don’t mean to sound like a jerk by the way that I phrased this, I was just wondering.
No caveats necessary, I prefer it when people speak their mind. I agree with your more nuanced approach to order and structure as important values in life. Forget absolutes, we need to ebb and flow between being curious and seeking out knowledge and new experiences and other times when we need to synthesize and make sense of it all. Thus, as you say, creating order and structure is certainly part of the dynamic process.
Now, there are some people that place order, structure, and tradition as their most endorsed value above all others. What the work of Schwartz and others shows is that this pattern of values is linked to less satisfaction and meaning in life compared with people with more growth-oriented values at the helm.
Finally, yep, we have no clue how much our personalities can change. All we know is that some change is possible. To me, the important story is we are better defined as clay than plaster and people can learn to become more tolerant of change, uncertainty, novelty, and distress.
damn good questions. Thanks for the mental fodder on a tiring Wednesday afternoon. Keep ’em coming. Hopefully we will meet at IPPA.
and thanks for buying the book!
Todd and Adam,
Based on your discussion of how much of personality is malleable, where do you weigh in on the 40% volitional (50% genetic, 10% environment) argument about changing happiness?
I’ve always thought of the counterargument in my head when hearing those numbers: those numbers are averages, and I think it’s not accurate and also day-to-day limiting that people read that and start to argue, “I can change a lot – 40% of my happiness, but not any more than that.” So not 41% or 42%?
I think we can affect a lot more than 40% of happiness. Would love to know your thoughts.
Senia, you’ve answered your own question – if its an average then some people will be higher and some people lower.
The interesting reserach comes from looking at the outliers – eg Seligman – why didn’t some dogs learn helplessness.
Senia, good question. i agree with Wayne. Behavioral genetics is not meant to be applied to specific people. Moreover, as Wayne says, remain skeptical of nice even numbers. The range varies from study to study and sample to sample. It hovers around 40% for environmental effects for personality traits. Then there is the big issue, how is happiness being defined? Very few studies do it the same way, so how on earth do you average across them? The Oxford Happiness Inventory measures kindness, humor, and a slew of other qualities that are not the definition of happiness. Positive affect is not happiness but most of the genetic studies relied on measures of trait positive affect. Its a nice round number and its great to get the information out but is is often misunderstood.
As one other point as to why we might be able to affect more than this so-called 40%, there are gene-environment interactions and gene-environment transactions. An example of a transaction is a strong, supportive family and peer group might be necessary to allow for the genetic disposition to be good at recognizing and managing emotions to prosper. An example of an interaction is that finding love might affect different people with different genetic predispositions differently. Put all this together, and that simplified pie chart might be too simple.
Based on the above, I am optimistic that we can change a great deal. But the data provide the knowledge….I just babble.
I think it would be pretty depressing if we knew exactly how malleable we are. Being self-aware and accepting of ourselves and reality is one thing, but having such specific parameters to work within seems too tidy and like it would be ultimately unproductive (though I guess it depends upon your personality and what puts you in the right frame of mind to seek out and accept change). However, I’m not an expert (or even close to it).
Todd, you said that there are times when we need to accept order/structure in order to synthesize and make sense of everything, but what accounts for some people being especially slow and deliberate in this process and unable to move on quickly? Also, I can’t help but think that if everyone followed your advice and became this wonderfully curious person whose values were growth-oriented, etc., wouldn’t this world be boring having a bunch of people who were all the same? I mean, if everyone was uber-curious this world would spin out of control and everyone would be jockeying for the same positions.
Adam, damn you ask good questions. There is some irony that having people that support our explorations and provide a safe haven for us to return to when we explore provides the security we need to act on our curiosity. A bit of a dynamic process or see-saw between safety and exploration. Very different than the static idea of pyramids (see Maslow).
I envision a very different future if everyone became curious and growth-oriented. Each person has their own preferences, interests, and values and thus, there is plenty of space for everyone to add to the collective pot of innovation, pleasure, and meaning. Also, connecting with my prior comment, we need each other as support systems for our explorations. Thus, I envision a social system where people’s complementary strengths and strivings are all being capitalized. To me, there’s nothing boring at all about watching people evolve.
As a parent, watching my kids explore and grow is the meaning of life.
As a professor, the moment when my students challenge me and find flaws in my thinking, is the day when I smile. They are surpassing my sharing of knowledge….awesome.
As a therapist, when clients start to assert themselves and suggesting new goals that clash with my ideas….again, awesome. This is a sign that they are ready to take on the challenges of the world with new resilience.
and so it goes. I don’t think this is being pollyanish, I think its taking what we know about curiosity and extrapolating to larger units: relationships, communities, and societies. Curious people are flexible and tolerant, at least in the moment of being curious. Build on this and only good things can happen.
ACK! Todd. Please don’t use ‘Pollyanna’ to represent unrealistic optimism. That really hits a nerve with me. She was an excellent exemplar of positive psychology — and probably curiosity. I know I can’t change the world that has picked up this word with this meaning, but I wish people would read the book first. Here’s a link to the whole book online. http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/Por2Pol.html Or even better, since you have daughters, buy it and read it out loud to them.
That’s awesome, I can feel your disgust. Never read the book but now that you and Senia both suggested it, I promise to read it and will never, ever engage in such blasphemy again.
As soon as I finish Genome by Matt Ridley, I’ll hit Pollyanna. Unless Eeyore shows up in Chapter 2 or there is a picture of a rhino pooping on a potty, my girls probably won’t be interested.