Exploring Positive Psychology & Curiosity (James McIntyre-Ure)
This guest entry is from James McIntyre-Ure, a student on our Level 5 Diploma in Positive Psychology Practice & Coaching. James is a senior educator and has been exploring curiosity as a character strength in one of his first assignments. This entry summarises just a few of his many findings.
Why Curiosity Won’t Kill the Cat
Contrary to the famous expression, curiosity actually benefits us in many ways. As a curious person myself, I was not only drawn to this area naturally, but have discovered its extensive potential since recently embarking on a diploma in Positive Psychology. Briefly, it acts as a gatewayto perspective and creativity, which provides people with endless possibilities in work and around friends, so read on if you’re curious.
What does it mean to be ‘curious’?
Curiosity is having the desire to explore uncertain or complex situations; giving us the chance to expand our comfort zones, stretch our skills and think in new ways. It also means being open to new ideas and knowledge, making us better informed and able to make sense of the world. It was formerly known as ‘wisdom’, and dates back to Greek Philosophy.
We’re all born with curiosity, but very few of us keep a beginner’s mindset from adolescence onwards. Why do we lose it? Perhaps from too much conditioning? Being told what to think, that asking questions is impolite or not to challenge authority (in some cultures); or even being told we don’t need to do things that make us feel uncomfortable.
We must not forget, ‘[t]he exploration of difficult, challenging, and complex situations is a paradoxical route to greater meaning in life, and curiosity serves as one of the motivational engines.’(Kashdan & Steger, 2007: 170)
When we remain curious, we are like an open book with blank pages. In its absence we are essentially a closed book, one that’s already been written and made up its mind (perhaps a sign of ignorance or arrogance?).
Meaningful & Effective Work
One area in which we could benefit from curiosity is in work, considering we spend a third of our lives there. In a recent study, 200 employees were sent a text message at the beginning of a workday, prompting their curiosity. In a follow up survey, they claimed to be more motivated, did more purposeful tasks, better anticipated and solved problems (Gino, 2020). Other studies have confirmed this and noted reduced group conflict and defensive reactions (Kashdan & Silva, 2009).
When we start to ask questions, we gain a sense of clarity; a better understanding of what’s worked, is working or may work. More importantly, we can discover what hasn’t worked or isn’t working. How can we being to figure out appropriate solutions, if we haven’t asked about the problem in detail?
When we are curious, interactions become more meaningful and it strengthens social bonds. We can skip the small talk (which is great for people with social anxiety) and get to the heart of matters; helping those around us in more meaningful ways. Would we prefer this in the long run? I know I would!
Undoubtedly, we make conversations last longer with questions. We can discover what makes people tick, what gives them satisfaction or even what annoys them (in a playful way). Think about how you became friends with the people around you. Perhaps it was a pet peeve you both shared, or a favourite novel? We don’t get any of this information without asking. Instead, we make assumptions from our pre-written books.
Exchanging thoughts and perspectives can develop one’s ability to solve difficult life problems. As we know, there isn’t a book which solves all of life’s problems, so who do you turn to for help? How useful would it be if your friend didn’t ask any questions? Asking questions shows empathy in its most natural form. It shows we’re listening to the needs and desires of others. We all desire a sense of belonging and being asked about how we feel is a simple way to do this. In its absence, we feel less worthy, invisible, or even rejected.
Another way of improving social relationships is by using Active Constructive Response (ACR). ACR is actively engaging when hearing someone’s good news and responding in a way which is constructive as opposed to critical. This approach has proven to be effective and is curiosity driven too, because the constructive element involves a question. How did you respond the last time someone told you good news? Can you remember what you thought and felt? What did you say or perhaps not say?
Dealing with Anxiety
The proverb ‘curiosity killed the cat’ originated from ‘care killed’ the cat in 1598. The more we know about something, the greater the potential and likelihood of something going wrong (at least in our minds). Contrary to popular belief, curiosity can help people deal with anxiety, as opposed to provoke it. In fact, it has been proved to reduce tension, anxiety and stress (Kashdan & Silva, 2009). This is because exploring alternative perspectives to a situation enables us to interrupt or break negative rumination cycles. The next time you find yourself constantly worrying about something, try asking yourself ‘is there a more useful way to think about this?’ Then keep asking follow up questions, with the audacity of an 8 year old kid. If you’re like me, you’ll end up laughing during this exercise because you’ll realise that you’re overreacting.
Some people have argued that being curious causes motivational avoidance; whereby we withdraw ourselves from the inevitable uncertainty that accompanies it. However, as evidence remains inconclusive, it may be more helpful to use our aversive nature as a motivational force. For more information check out the second wave in positive psychology on tending to negative emotions. Considering that our lives are full of uncertainty, there’s no point in trying to hide from it.
Other aversive feelings include conceptual conflicts, which is when the receipt of new information clashes with our pre-existing knowledge. No hair does not grow back thicker when you shave it and no you do not need to try this at home with your cat. This naturally causes us discomfort (cognitive dissonance). Because our brains like to preserve energy, they look for shortcuts which limit the process of noticing and dealing with new information. This explains why we quickly make up our minds or have reoccurring thoughts that do us more harm than good.
It’s important to take into account how our brain processes new information. According to (Murayama et al., 2019), the learning process is more of a reward-based system where the acquisition of knowledge stimulates a desire for further knowledge. You read that right, it makes us want to learn more (like a healthy craving); which heightens our potential in so many ways. Further, it raises our awareness of knowledge gaps which are a potential cause of avoidance motivation.
If you’re still not convinced, there is an increasing amount of research connecting curiosity to greater well-being (Littman-Ovadia & Lavy, 2012; Park et al., 2004; Peterson et al., 2007).
How to apply it:
At this point, you may be wondering what are some useful questions to help you cultivate your curiosity? So, I’ve listed some below to get you on your way. Such questions trigger creativity by entertaining different perspectives and pushing us to explore different options. We can all get stuck in our own heads at times, when instead we should be taking our brain for a walk.
Questions for Work
- What task am I curious about today?
- Why does this task interest me?
- What could I learn from doing this task?
- What impact will completing this task have?
Questions for Social Contexts
- How do I feel about…?
- How did… make me feel?
- Have I experienced… before?
- What would I like to do or not do?
Hopefully, with a curious enough mind, you’ve got this far. If you’re striving for more meaningfulness, better social interactions and less anxiety; it’s worth approaching life with a little more curiosity.
If you’ve done the VIA Strengths survey and curiosity isn’t in your top 5, you’ll be glad to know that it is malleable. The more you use it, the more easily it can be activated. Since actively incorporating curiosity into my own life, it’s given me more purpose in the things I do and allowed me to come up with more realistic solutions to everyday problems. Like anything though, it is best used in moderation, as we don’t want to come across as nosy (overuse) or arrogant (underuse). At times I’ve found it hard to reign in my own curiosity, but it’s better to ask a stupid question, than not know and make a stupid mistake. Few of us die from being curious, and imagine what a cat would be like stripped of its curiosity?
James McIntyre-Ure is a senior educator and wellbeing specialist. He is keen to help individuals flourish by creatively cultivating their strengths and passions. Currently studying a Diploma in Positive Psychology, with ambitions to undertake a MAPP and become a coach for young adults.
Gino, F. (2020). The Business Case for Curiosity. [online] Harvard Business Review. Available at: https://hbr.org/2018/09/the-business-case-for-curiosity [Accessed 16 November 2020].
Kashdan, T. & Silva, P. (2009). Curiosity and Interest: The Benefits of Thriving on Novelty and Challenge, In S. J. Lopez., & C. R. Synder. (2nd ed) Handbook of Positive Psychology: (pp. 367-375). Publisher: Oxford University Press.
Littman-Ovadia, H., & Lavy, S. (2012). Character Strengths in Israel: Hebrew adaptation of the VIA inventory of strengths. European Journal of Psychology Assessment, 28, 41–50.
Murayama, K., Fitzgibbon, L., & Sakaki, M. (2019). Process account of curiosity & interest. Educational Psychology Review, 31, 875–895.
Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Strengths of character and well-being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23, 603-619.
Peterson, C., Ruch, W., Beermann, U., Park, N., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2007). Strengths of character orientations to happiness and life satisfaction. Journal of Positive Psychology, 2, 149–156.