The bright yellow book by Todd Kashdan peeks out at you and asks simply and provocatively, “Curious?” On the book’s spine, author Kashdan boldly volunteers that the reader might discover “the missing ingredient to a fulfilling life” inside. In fact, the book is testament to its subject matter – it excites and fuels curiosity which in turn creates new energy, inspires exploration and discovery, and facilitates the search and identification of meaning and purpose.
BOOK REVIEW: Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life by Todd Kashdan, Ph.D. (William Morrow, 2009)
How Do I Read Thee? Let me Explore the Ways
How does a curious person read a book on curiosity? A curious person may get a bird’s eye view – nine chapters and 336 pages. Or a curious person may spend more time at the beginning with the benefits and features of curiosity. A curious person may get caught up in the artful storytelling of how curiosity can augment the happiness model of a life worth living. Or a curious person may revel in skepticism in looking at the unattractive face of curiosity. Or a curious person may meander, and Kashdan gives the reader plenty of opportunity to do so. As an Associate Professor of Psychology at George Mason University, Kashdan writes as if teaching an open-ended class. He generously encourages readers and practitioners to explore curiosity in themselves and others by digging deeper into the appendices, exercises, and tools, as well as the References enhanced by Notes and additional reading so that the reader’s interest will not be frustrated by some ambiguity. This scientist certainly knows his audience – the curious explorers who would ask questions even as they are reading.
Highlights of Curious?
The top three do-not-miss aspects of Curious? are the writing, the anxiety chapter, and the strengths exposition.
First, Kashdan writes in an easy conversational manner as if having a cocktail or coffee tēte-ă- tēte with the reader. While conveying the main takeaways about curiosity – embrace uncertainty, attract love and abundance, and master your life – Kashdan combines a comforting psychotherapist’s casual voice with compelling positive psychology facts and examples. Some of the positive psychology concepts woven into the fabric of curiosity’s multicolor coat include mindfulness, active-constructive responding, and strengths.
The second do-not-miss aspect, and the chapter that’s worth buying the book for, is Chapter 7: The Anxious Mind and the Curious Spirit. This chapter is effective through the metaphor of the twin control dials labeled Curiosity-Explore and Anxiety, borrowing from Stephen Hayes’ Two Systems (curiosity and anxiety) in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Anxiety destroys our capacity to tolerate ambiguity and complexity (Lerner) and our obsession with managing Anxiety preoccupies our mind, leaning space for little else. We try in vain to control the unyielding Anxiety settings and the more we try, the worse it gets. When Anxiety is at a maximum 10 and Explore is at 0, our openness to accepting our experience or considering novelty is zilch. The trick is to focus on the less obtrusive Explore dial which incidentally is more responsive to manipulation. Kashdan swears on it that when we turn Explore up high, Anxiety stops being stubbornly high even though it may fluctuate over time and situation. Mindfulness is the key here. Paying attention to what matters and the rewards makes Anxiety bearable. Optimal anxiety is when our coping potential matches the novelty or challenge of a particular experience, and we accept our anxious feelings (you also learn how to survive in quick sand!). Our coping competence gains strength from every challenging encounter and so too our confidence. The rewards of psychological flexibility and tolerance for distress trumps the psychological costs ranging from regret and deferred dreams to hopelessness and lackluster living when we fail to look Anxiety in the face. Readers will find strategies to harness the spirit of curiosity to lift the anxious mind – mindset shift, defusion of negative thoughts, or choosing a life of meaning and purpose.
Third, Kashdan’s book expands on his contribution to Character Strengths and Virtues, the chapter about the strength of curiosity, in the same way that a parable illuminates a moral lesson. Enlightening anecdotes, self-assessment exercises, and research-based evidence convincingly flesh out the notion of curiosity as “mechanism of action” of novelty-seeking and openness to experience – cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally. Besides being a positive antidote to anxiety, curiosity opens up possibilities and ways for us to be at our best and to use our strengths – those phasic strengths which only manifest themselves in relevant settings, e.g. bravery, or the more trait-like tonic strengths, e.g. love of learning, appreciation of beauty and excellence, open-mindedness and so on. I enjoyed the important 42-page vividly grim reminder that curiosity, like any strength that is over-used or taken to the extreme, becomes an aberration and liability to self and others.
Why Care about Curiosity?
In his thought-provoking closing chapter, Kashdan dwells on the immense difference that meaning and purpose make in our lives: “Meaning is about gaining insight into what to do and what not to do when we’re faced with life decisions, big and small … [forming a] secure bedrock foundation [for working] towards a future that is most in sync with our deepest values and interests” (p.238). The author declares that curiosity, which we need to intentionally wield, is the “ultimate tool” that will help us “knit together” the future we desire. Purpose is a special type of meaning – a philosophy of life – a compass that sets the direction for our life’s journey, developed in any of three ways – we learn from others, we respond to life-altering events, or we proactively seek, or any combination of the three. “A fulfilling life is made up of fulfilling moments,” and having a purpose is one of the paths to a ‘more open, more exciting, more expansive, and longer lasting” life.
Curious about Curious?
In what I can only describe as a great compliment to the book, it took me a long time to read Curious? To pursue a thought or revelation that Kashdan’s writing invoked, I searched for books and articles to supplement my understanding. The book is testament to its subject matter – it excites and fuels curiosity. For instance, the chapters on creating lasting interests and passions and building rewarding relationships sent me on an “Oh, wow I can use this” frenzy, and had me sketching out ideas to use with clients. Similarly, I pulled Savoring off my shelf to compare notes with Kashdan’s observations about curiosity and anticipatory excitement. I referenced Flow in graphing out a quick plot of anxiety on scales of skills and challenges. Reading Curious? became a personal life review exercise. Curious? reset the configuration of positive elements for a life worth living with the introduction of a new perspective – my signature strength of curiosity in a starring role!
Kashdan, T. (2009). Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. New York: William Morrow.
Bryant, F. & Veroff, J. (2007) Savoring: A new model of positive experience.. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Csiksentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.. New York: Harper Perennial.
Hayes, S.C. & Smith, S.X. (2005). Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life: The New Acceptance & Commitment Therapy. USA: New Harbinger Publications.
Hayes, S. & Strosahl, K. (2004). A Practical Guide to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Springer Edition.
Lerner, H.G. (2004). The Dance of Fear: Rising Above Anxiety, Fear, and Shame to Be Your Best and Bravest Self. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.