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Can Being Curious Make You Happier?

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In my last post, I explored the "Top Ten Positive Emotions" from the book, Positivity, by Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, and asked everyone to make Post-It notes to focus on one positive emotion each day. Thank you to all the readers who responded on and offline -- it was a hit! It seems everyone could use a little dose of awe, serenity, joy or interest these days.

I received a request to review a new book, published by Harper Collins called, Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life, by Todd Kashdan, PdD. An odd title, but it certainly caught my interest. Dr. Kashdan draws issue with the "happiness movement" as an end goal. Instead, he offers research that the active experience of being 'Curious' is a key thread to infusing life with meaning and purpose. It is a fantastic side entrée to our discussions, with some juicy tidbits to share.

Curious? Good!

Consider for a moment something that has piqued your curiosity recently. Was it a new book, a sexy stranger who started working in your office, or maybe daydreams of a career move? Being curious is an activator -- it awakens your mind and initiates a desire to learn more. It's downright tantalizing.

However, like the yin needs the yang, a constant companion to the state of curiosity is uncertainty. In order to be curious, part of the picture isn't clear, and this unknown becomes a stimulant. This is why new relationships are so intense, or why you can't put down a really great book until 3am, because you just HAD to know how it was going to end.

Here's a curious thought to ponder: would it be valuable to make "curiosity" a conscious practice towards achieving enduring states of happiness? Instead of a daily mantra of loving kindness, how about trying a daily mantra of curiosity?

Scientists agree that our overall mood in life is kind of like our weight. We may go up a few pounds over the holidays, and down a few pounds after the flu, but most people have a stable weight their body maintains, called a "set point." Our mood is the same way, with its own "set point" on the emotional spectrum. It temporarily rises and falls with the varying circumstances and events in our lives; such as great highs of a promotion, or great lows of a job loss. Eventually, our overarching mood drifts back to the same general place within a couple of months.

This set point is fine if you are generally happy or optimistic, but what if you aren't? What if you are on the crabby side of life? According to Kashdan, becoming more curious about your everyday life can help permanently elevate your set point up a few notches, with no side effects! In fact, Kashdan invites his readers to become "Curious Explorers" and re-learn the valuable skills seeking out and appreciating what is new.

"When we experience curiosity, we are willing to leave the familiar and routine and take risks, even if it makes us feel anxious and uncomfortable," said Kahsdan. "Curious explorers are comfortable with the risks of taking on new challenges. Instead of trying desperately to explain and control our world, as a curious explorer we embrace uncertainty, and see our lives as an enjoyable quest to discover, learn and grow."

I believe Dr. Fredrickson in her work on increasing Positivity, Dr. Kashdan's work in increasing Curiosity, as well as the other researchers on the cutting edge of the positive psychology movement, are a sign of the times. Our country is reeling from the effects of living in negativity, greed, fear and constriction. We know this does not work, and it is time to grow or die.

One of the great barriers that prevents us from delving into curiosity is fear. When faced with uncertainty or risk, it is much easier, and widely approved to stay confined in what is deemed to be safe. We don't leave dead end jobs to pursue our dreams without financial stability, we don't invest in learning to sky dive just for fun, and we don't even drive a new route to work. Why? Because we are afraid to let curiosity take the full reigns. After all curiosity killed the cat, right?

Yet curiosity can kick start many of life's greatest sources of meaning in life. Our nation has lived in a climate of fear, partly fueled by 24-7 news pounding our senses with every kidnapping, swine flu case, car accident or product recall. Sometimes we have to live with a little risk, fear or danger to become the individuals, the families and the nation we want to be.

We need bold. We need risk takers, and we need the value of vigorous curiosity to help us in working out conflicts. Instead of digging in with set opinions, the art of curiosity allows a chance to ask some open ended questions, in a mood of discovery, and allow both sides to find some common ground.

David Cooperrider is the master of this technique is his work called, "Appreciative Inquiry" as a means for groups to use positive questions as the entry point for finding consensus and solving problems. His methods have been used world wide, including the United Nations. Perhaps this method of curiosity and Appreciative Inquiry could be helpful in current issues like gay marriage in California, tip toeing around Middle East peace talks, or orchestrating the confirmation hearings of Judge Sotomayor.

Would you like be a "Curious Explorer" with me this week? Here's what Kashdan recommends us to do:

1. Try to notice little details of your daily routine that you never noticed before.
2. When talking to people, try to remain open to whatever transpires without judging or reacting.
3.Let novelty unfold and resist the temptation to control the flow.
4.Gently allow your attention to be guided by little sights, sounds or smells that come your way.

I like this idea. It is a sort of an active meditation, which requires an opening of the senses and a sharpening of the mind. I have five year old precocious twins, who often stump me with their endless curiosity. My son, an aspiring scientist, asked me the other day which direction the Earth rotated -- to the right or the left. Hmmmm, talk about Curiosity!

Which way does your curiosity rotate? Does it propel you forward to learn more, or spin you backwards under the covers? Come on out and play, let's see what happens. I always love your comments!

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

-- Mark Twain

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