A curious mindset inspires us to seek out new experiences, places and learn new things.

Curiosity and why it is the fuel for a full life

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Far from killing the cat, having a spirit of inquiry and seeking knowledge can help us lead engaging, meaningful lives

Curious people are more likely to be happy, have more meaningful relationships, and live longer, said a post on social media. Then, why did curiosity kill the poor cat, I wondered. Call it idle curiosity, but I looked it up and learnt that the saying was actually ‘Care killed the cat’, a version that may have appeared first in 1598 in Ben Jonson’s Every Man in his Humour. Shakespeare, who is believed to have acted in Jonson’s play, used the phrase in Much Ado About Nothing. ‘Care’ here meant ‘sorrow’ or ‘worry’. The metaphorical cat has survived many derivatives and continues to live in the phrase as we know it now.

So, are people making much ado about curiosity? It is an established fact that curiosity-driven research has brought about most of history’s grandest scientific discoveries and inventions. But does curiosity play a role in our wellness? The fact that we’re asked the strangest questions by people who are in their eighties and nineties may indicate so. I remember my then 90-year-old grandmother asking me if a much-advertised hair removal cream would work on her stubborn chin hair.

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“A curious mindset can serve as a springboard to a healthier lifestyle – it’s what inspires us to seek out new experiences, explore new places, and learn new things,” says Lauren Henkin, an award-winning artist, wellness expert and founder of the Maine-based company, The Humane Space. “Curiosity is correlated with higher levels of positive emotions, lower levels of anxiety and greater psychological well-being. Of the 24 character strengths measured by the Ohio, US-based Via Institute on Character, curiosity was one most strongly linked to life satisfaction, work satisfaction, living a pleasurable life, living an engaging life, and living a meaningful life.”

The Humane Space app, soon to be launched in India, provides a daily dose of awe-inspiring nuggets to its users. “I’ve learned that curiosity through lifelong learning is as important to my well-being as physical fitness, eating healthy or getting enough sleep. We have college students using our app to help them with burnout, senior citizens using it to stay cognitively engaged, adults using it to take a workday break that’s healthier than scrolling on social media, and cancer patients using it to relax during and in-between treatments,” says Henkin.

There are different types of curiosities. General or interest-curiosity arises from the belief that there is a lot we do not know. This thinking gives us endless opportunities to seek and partake from the exhaustive knowledge sources available to us. With no pressure to learn, it leads to psychological benefits, as well. Deprivation curiosity takes root in people who believe they only need to learn the bits that fill the gaps in their knowledge. This, often-arrogant, curiosity may lead to undue pressure to seek out incomplete knowledge.

Dr. Radhika Bapat is a Pune-based cross-cultural psychologist and entrepreneur who makes mindful gifts for pain relief and ‘psychological ouches’ and also runs a 4 am book club. Generally piqued about how she does it all, I asked her. Her response? “Curiosity!” 

“My parents always told us that what mattered more than marks was our curiosity about what we were being taught. This was by far their greatest gift to us. It helped us distinguish between ‘knowing’ which is merely amassing facts, and ‘thinking’, which is engaging in a deeper and more complex form of understanding,” Bapat says.

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The ability to think and stay curious, Bapat notes, comes with the superpower of being able to at once entertain two opposing views about something or someone. It broadens your mindset enough to say, “I can see your point of view and defend your right to say it without it emotionally perturbing me.” This has been articulated beautifully by Hannah Arendt in her book, The Life of the Mind, where she writes about how curiosity leads us to think deeply about things, which eventually leads us to a passive state of contemplation. 

“This same curiosity pursues reasons and meanings. Asking questions is core to our human civilization and in the end – to peace on earth,” says Bapat. This makes me wonder about when we will have world peace. Is it an idle question? This too is good, say scientists.

“There is a common misconception that when you are in the act of thinking or learning, the activity isn’t a success unless you’ve derived some measurable takeaway. In reality, expansive thinking, exploration and widening your perspective are beneficial activities in themselves, irrespective of the outcome,” asserts Henkin. However, a study by William M. Whitecross and Michael Smithson published by Elsevier recently, warns that not all curiosity may be safe. “For example, curiosity can tempt individuals to violate social norms such as privacy or even legal regulations such as state secrecy laws,” it says.

While excessive inquisitiveness may be problematic, Henkin sums it well when she says, “Cultivating curiosity is about honouring your natural thirst for knowledge and novelty. It promotes healthy ageing and also enriches your life.”

Mala Kumar is the author of Up the Mountains of India.

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