On Curiosity

As you are reading this blog you are very likely the kind of person who wants to get the most out of your life. To optimize your physical and mental health, to extend your realm of pleasure and productivity, and to come to understand the whole human experience to its utmost limits.

You probably are already concerned about eating well, strengthening your body, thinking positive thoughts, avoiding negativity, interacting consciously, kindly and lovingly with others, and spending your energies in the best way possible.

Have you ever wondered how your capacity for curiosity affects your ability to achieve these wonderful goals? Curiosity, best described as the willingness to pursue wondrous fascination with all aspects of experience, is highly underused in this era of information overload.

Curiosity may be one of the least explored human abilities despite our living in a world of ever-increasing change. We have as a planet seen billions of our fellow world-citizens begin to make triumphant forward steps out of desperate poverty and oppression while at the same time, in the highly-developed world, there is a marked trend towards dogmatic belief in utterly irrational concepts that deny the primacy of human rationality as the pinnacle of possibility.

There are at least three strong reasons to develop your ‘curiosity muscles’. Both quality of life and length of life are affected by curiosity. For example, those who have the habit of reading long complex works of fiction requiring a sustained interest in plot details and characters developing over time have significantly longer and better quality life-span compared to readers of less complex works or addicted television watchers spending comparable amounts of seated time. This is attributed to the increased mental activity required when exercising curiosity through reading actively rather than being a passive receiver of short-term plots and storylines. There is a discernible difference in obesity as well.

Curiosity is important for a second reason, the struggle against routine and depressive monotony. Many of the patients interviewed in therapy complain of the sameness of their daily lives. Those who have a hobby of some kind experience less depression. Those who make an effort to take up a new interest, be it a new job, social cause, hobby, friendship or course of study – especially one done simply for the joy of learning – report a lessening of depressive symptoms. Depressive personalities are generally less likely to believe that trying something new can help them. This suggests that this profound absence of curiosity leads to an inability to believe in the possibility of new potentials.

Facticity is the third major reason that curiosity is important for a fruitful life. Facticity refers of the things that belong to us without the possibility of choice.

Most of us are so sure that we are the captains of our ship and masters of our fates, that we are the ultimately responsible choosers of our destiny. This is very far from being the objective truth. Think for a minute about this: did you elect your parents, your siblings, the place and time of your birth, your physical form, size, sex, eye and hair color and so on and on? Did you consciously select your mode of belief, your politics, and your taste in music, sexual orientation, foodstuffs, favourite subjects, talents and so forth?

While it has been trendy to believe “The Secret”’s promise that we are what we wish for, the chances of becoming a jockey (weighing in at 45 kilos max) are slim indeed when one’s family reliably produces generations of giants.

These self-evident realities being true, our freedom really consists in the realm of conscious choosing. Here we are talking of rational mental processes, not fantasy. Once again curiosity is the vital force. It inspires innovation, seeking, the march of rational science, and is the enemy of lazy belief and status quo thinking. All who wish to improve their existence must in the end concentrate their efforts on what is possible to know, what is possible to alter, and what is not.

This is another way of extolling consciousness above dull acquiescence, of a larger vocabulary of mind and spirit oven the stunted thoughts that derive from slumping back into the day-to-day banalities that only strengthen sheepish crowd behaviour.

To provide a prescription for how to be more curious seems pointless. Let a thousand flowers of spontaneous interest and experimentation blossom in your imagination! For example, you may perhaps think you are not a singer, but it would be worth it to test that theory by joining a choir or taking voice lessons, actively challenging your preconceptions of who and what you are. Surprise yourself.

Let your inner guide be your recognition that at best we can only know that we know little about all of our possibilities.  At the least, bear always in mind that society is based on the notion that the average person, not the rare genius, is its true citizen.

Photo:  Stephen van Beek, BA (Hons.), MA (Tripos), Dip.CTP, Member CAPTStephen van Beek is an analytically-trained psychotherapist in private practice and the creator of the Therapy Toronto Network. For more information visit www.therapytoronto.ca/stephen_van_beek.phtml.