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It’s an odd saying and turns out that it’s been misquoted though the centuries. Originally it was "care” killed the cat — the meaning of care centuries ago was "sorrow or worry”. Now that I understand. The change to curiosity is unfortunate and today it’s more likely to mean being overly interested in other people’s affairs or asking unwanted questions. The sort of behaviour that will have you labelled as a stirrer or just plain nosey.
Recent neuroscience suggests that the cat wasn’t killed, it was likely happier, healthier and had a better memory! So much for the demise of Kitty.
So, what is curiosity? It’s simply defined as a strong desire to know about something. Curiosity seems to be a natural trait, we often see it in children. That makes sense, there’s an awful lot to learn as a youngster. I can still recall my patient mum, after one question too many, replying "just because!”. She wasn’t and won’t be the only parent/guardian to do that.
The urge to seek new information and explore different possibilities is a fairly basic human instinct. Curiosity has been the driver for much of the human race’s development, discoveries and no doubt even the accidental and unintended breakthroughs. Curiosity has a lot to do with our continued survival as we look to how we can do things differently in the coming years. It also has a lot to do with a positive and resilient mind, body and spirit.
So how can curiosity benefit us in today’s world?
Curiosity can help mitigate the effects of anxiety. So much of what we fear is wrapped up in not knowing, in the thoughts that build in our minds before we even have information or facts about a situation. Try to be curious about the situation ... "what do I feel about this?"... "have I faced this before, what worked for me, what didn’t?" ... "what can I practically do right now?" ... "from whom or where can I get help?". Being curious can get you information that helps reduce the unknowns and lessen the fear. It helps you to take control of the situation.
Curiosity can also strengthen relationships. Curious people are often good listeners and make great conversationalists because they demonstrate an interest in others and can discuss their own interests. Both of those things can make your social life richer. Providing of course there is a balance between talking and listening, not many people enjoy being lectured at or facing 20 rapid-fire questions at a social gathering.
Curiosity can help protect your brain from the effects of ageing. Just as continuing to do crosswords and solve puzzles has a protective effect against dementia, so does seeking out new information, learning new skills and having new experiences. These all help to keep the brain stimulated and reinforce the pathways associated with memory and recall.
Curiosity correlates with being happier as opposed to getting what you think you want or need in life. Dr Todd Kashdan, director of the Well-Being Lab at George Mason University has studied curiosity extensively and has written a book called Curious? Discover the missing ingredient of a fulfilling life. He asserts that being curious helps us to be willing to leave the familiar and routine and to embrace uncertainty. It helps us to learn to be more flexible and resilient. His findings suggest that in learning and growing, the accompanying sense of achievement boosts our satisfaction and happiness levels on a long-term basis.
As much as it is a natural trait in children it’s often something that many of us use less in adult life or use it solely for education/career purposes.
Can we become more curious? Yes, we certainly can.
You can start by asking more questions: "what if I did ...?", "how does that work?", "why do I believe xyz?", and so on.
Suspend judgement about people and situations. Inquire about both. Try to see something through someone else’s eyes or experience. Remember, your way is not the only way, your beliefs are not the only beliefs.
Challenge your own beliefs, thoughts and habits. Why do you think that? Is there another way of doing something?
What are you fascinated by? Go and read about it, listen to podcasts, join a group.
Create curiosity by taking action. We tend to stick to the things we like, so make a conscious choice to watch programmes, movies, documentaries you wouldn’t normally watch, read books and articles you wouldn’t normally read and listen to podcasts and music you wouldn’t normally listen to.
Spend time with children, they are naturally curious and explore everything with a passion. It’s how they make sense of their world. Watch how they constantly ask questions — then emulate their curiosity. The aim is to redevelop the natural curiosity trait we all have but that education and life may have removed or limited.
Einstein has been quoted as saying "I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious”. If it’s good enough for Einstein then it’s good enough for me.
Jan Aitken is a Dunedin-based life coach.
For more go to www.fitforlifecoaches.co.nz.