I envy my cat. Other than snuggling on a warm human, his greatest joy comes from chasing a scrap of paper tied to a piece of string. His curiosity, no doubt from a primitive instinct to hunt, gives him hours of tireless entertainment. Who would have thought a makeshift toy could bring such fun?
Our sophisticated brains also have the ability to watch a scrap of paper transform, or for clouds to morph into a graphic novel. However in our over-stimulated lives, we filter so much of the information we receive through our senses or avoid exploring ideas on subjects we know little or nothing about.
But if we bought a sense of novelty to what we experience, could it make us feel happier?
Psychologist Todd Kashdan has been exploring the realm of emotions for decades. Through his studies he’s discovered that cultivating a sense of curiosity plays a vital role in generating positive feelings.
”Curiosity goes beyond the idea of embracing novelty, and is about accepting and relishing the unknown.”
Paul Kashdan, All in the Mind
While the science of curiosity is relatively new, its roots are ancient. “Beginners mind” is a central practice in Buddhism. It’s often defined as “having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and freedom from preconceptions when approaching anything.”
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
I first came across this concept 25 years ago, sticking my toe metaphorically in the waters of meditation and Buddhism for the first time. But my mind was too busy in the pursuit of expert knowledge at the time to give the concept the attention it deserved.
Though I’ve not abandoned specialised learning, in fact it’s a sense of curiosity that’s kept me so passionate about health and healing over these years, the joy of exploring the unknown, unsmelt, unseen and generally unexplored in my world can’t wait any longer.
Seeing the world through curious eyes tends to remove the ‘I’ from the experience. When walking down the same road every day or commuting to work, it’s so easy to switch off actively using our senses and retreat to into our minds. This is only shattered if encountering something out of the usual. Curiosity is a great tool to take us out of our ourselves and into the environment, to revel in our senses and see things anew. It helps us be truly present. Being in the moment another aspect of Buddhism and mindfulness that snuggly fit together.
Recently after a frustrating morning wrangling a computer malfunction, I had to drop my work for a prearranged lunch date. Heading off with my mind whirring, I began the familiar route to the café, wondering if curiosity could help me arrive to the meeting as a calm, engaged friend, rather than a stressed businessperson.
By asking myself ‘what can I see on this walk that I’ve never noticed before’ I immediately jumped from self-obsessed rumination into an engaged state of wonder. All around were birds chirping and flying, glorious scents emanating from magnificent trees, new street art and buildings casting abstract shadows. The same old walk was suddenly studded with new sensations. By the time I arrived ten minutes later my mood was lighter, happier and genuinely interested in connecting with others.
Scientific research demonstrates a strong correlation between curiosity and experiencing positive emotions, for some this includes happiness. For now I’m enjoying being a beginner in my exploration of curiosity, without limiting it to the pursuit of happiness.
Who knows where integrating more play and wonder into your day will lead you? But you’ll never know unless you give it a go.
Curious? Read more:
“Cultivating curiosity rather than questing after a state of hollow bliss is the key to wellbeing.”Radio National, All in the Mind episode on curiosity and interview with Todd Kashdan.
“If you’re curious about something, it acts as a positive counterweight to anxiety and fear”. Cultivating Curiosity, Psychology Today.
“Curiosity — a state of active interest or genuinely wanting to know more about something — creates an openness to unfamiliar experiences, laying the groundwork for greater opportunities to experience discovery, joy and delight”. The Power of Curiosity, Experience Life.