THE BLOG
06/16/2009 02:00 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

What You Don't Know About Creating a Happy, Meaningful Life

Some people show a preference for seeking out new knowledge and experiences for their own sake. In fact, they often accept psychological, social, and even physical risks to obtain these experiences. Each of us feels this way sometimes but there are some people who show a preference to expand the boundaries of who they are, what they know, and what they do. We can call these people "curious explorers."

It requires a willingness to recognize that what we know is limited and that as soon as we think we understand something, we stop paying attention. It requires an ability to tolerate the pain, ambiguity, and confusion that arises anytime we leave our comfort zone. It requires a desire to continue growing and evolving as a person. We have to be vulnerable to explore new territory. After all, we are going to make mistakes, get hurt, and look foolish every once in awhile. Unfortunately, our society doesn't reward someone who is willing to be vulnerable. Instead our society rewards people that possess unwavering confidence, a sense of certainty, and a personality that can be easily labeled and understood. If you disagree, consider these scenarios.

Politicians who refuse to take an unambiguous stance on an issue. Genetically engineered foods, good or evil? Pick an ally, Israel or Palestine? Right now, decide the fate of women making difficult decisions around the globe, are you for or against abortion? When is the recession going to end? (and while you're at it, give us an exact date.) Anything less than certainty and everyone is aghast because leadership is about making decisions. The idea that context matters and both sides have a point is ludicrous. Keep it simple. Stick to soundbites.

College students who have yet to declare a major. This is what they often hear from parents, teachers, and peers: "what are you waiting for?" "what's wrong with you?" "you do know that you're falling behind everyone else?" and "why are you in college if you don't know what you want to do with your life?" Uncertainty is the mark of weakness. After all, what a silly notion to get an ample tasting of what different fields have to offer. What a silly notion to better understand what one is passionate about before committing to a single career for the next 60 years.

Thankfully, some curious people from the past felt compelled to share what they learned from their explorations. Sir Francis Bacon, the great British scientist, philosopher, lawyer, historian, and education reformer of the 1600's, was curiosity incarnate. Some of his most famous statements on the topic still resonate 400 years later.


On the ability to tolerate pain, novelty, and ambiguity:

If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.

As the births of living creatures at first are ill-shapen, so are all innovations, which are the births of time.

There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.

It is a miserable state of mind to have few things to desire and many things to fear.

A man must make his opportunity, as oft as find it.

Hope is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper.

He that will not apply new remedies must expect new evils; for time is the greatest innovator.

They are ill discoverers that think there is no land, when they can see nothing but sea.


On other people and how they help and hinder our ability to be open, curious, and flexible:

Men fear death as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear in children is increased with tales, so is the other.

Man seeketh in society comfort, use, and protection.

A sudden bold and unexpected question doth many times surprise a man and lay him open.

Besides being hard working and ambitious, Bacon possessed boundless curiosity. Consider a single day of his life. In 1626, he was heading home in a carriage on a snowy evening with one of the king's physicians. Horse carriage small-talk and gossip was interrupted by an idea that Bacon couldn't shake. Looking at the snow-covered ground, Bacon wondered if a dead body or "meat" could be preserved in the ice cold temperature. Bacon had to know the answer. Not content to wait until he returned home, he stopped the driver and jumped into the snow like a child let loose on a Toys R Us shopping spree. He bought a hen from a peasant woman, paid a little extra to have it killed, and stuffed the dead hen with snow. Bacon, in all his wacky glory, could barely contain his enthusiasm as he shivered in the bitter wind waiting to see if there was any merit to his idea. Only when he was thoroughly chilled and his experiment was over did he continue his journey to a friend's house. Once there, he started showing signs of serious illness. Although the historical record is unclear, he contracted either bronchitis or pneumonia before this little expedition. And later that night, he died. Think about it. The man died to satisfy his curiosity! And a pretty morbid moment of curiosity at that.

Here you have a moment that is both tragic and beautiful. A famous historical figure died the same way he lived. A man in love with discovering knowledge and creating meaning provides the world with a final factoid about how to preserve chicken and beef for later in the week. His story highlights the fact that curiosity is a powerful motivator for why we do the things we do. Understanding this motivation allows us to understand human nature.

There is not a shred of scientific evidence to suggest that being incurious and intolerant of uncertainty and change is the road to wellness. The unknown will always outweigh the known. Exploring new terrain can help us build pleasurable, engaging, and meaningful moments. These moments are the building blocks of a life well-lived.

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University He is the author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. Details about his book and research can be found at www.toddkashdan.com