I noticed something distressing as my plane took off from JFK last week. It was the first gorgeously sunny day in over a week, there was an amazing view of Manhattan / Brooklyn / New Jersey as we climbed skyward, and everybody had their window shades closed!!
Have we become so blasé that soaring over one of the most astonishing cities in the world doesn't even warrant a glance?! Are the games we play on our smartphones (in airplane mode, for heaven's sake) that important or captivating that we can't spare some attention for a breathtaking aerial view? Can't 22 Jump Street on your personal entertainment screen wait till we've reached altitude?
(Not gonna lie -- I did in fact watch that… later. There's something about a packed coach flight when you're wedged in the middle seat… with your love wedged in the middle seat behind you… that calls for such mind-pablum as a workable anesthetic!)
I digress. Here's what distresses me, and it was illustrated so vividly in those moments flying over New York: curiosity appears endangered these days. With all information Googleable* and at our fingertips (literally, given that our phones rarely leave our hands), our "curiosity muscle" seems to be atrophying due to lack of use.
And that isn't good -- for us or for our kids! One of our greatest collective goals as parents is for our children to be happy, but it's not always very clear how to achieve this. Well, many experts now believe that curiosity is a key pathway to finding meaning and purpose in life, which are the secret doorways to happiness.
Brianna Wiest's definition of happiness is the best I've ever seen: "the desire to continue to experience." When we're engaged and engrossed in something -- a task, a conversation, an exploration -- by virtue of curiosity, we amp up our happiness.
[*One might argue that keying a question into a browser is itself an act of curiosity, but it is less active, more removed. The kind of curiosity that nourishes is more active, direct and unmediated: person-to-person, person-to-circumstance, person-to-view-from-airplane.]
3 Reasons & Ways to Make Curiosity Your New Year's Resolution
Elevate Your Mood With Curiosity
A person's overall mood tone has a "set point" where it tends to hover. Yes, mood can fluctuate up or down depending on circumstances (a new love affair and you're soaring, a job lay-off and you're depressed), but it ultimately returns to its normal set point.
If you are a naturally buoyant person, your set point may be fine and dandy as is. But what if (like me, if I'm being completely honest) you can tend more toward melancholy, discouragement or irritability as your "normal"? The challenges of parenting can really push those set-point buttons like nothing else, so wouldn't you like to dial it up more toward sunny?
Psychologist Todd Kashdan wrote an entire book on the benefits of curiosity, and he says that becoming more curious can permanently raise your emotional set-point.
How: I'm not suggesting you go climb Everest or become the nosy investigative reporter of your neighborhood. There is a form of curiosity called wonder (which I define as "curious simplicity") that you can engage at any moment without anything looking different to the casual observer.
When you bring what they call "beginner's mind" to even the most mundane activity, you enrich and enliven your rapport with it and therefore your own mind and spirit. You can choose one activity for the day and say, "Today I'm going to see it anew, as if I've never done / seen it before." Make it playful, a game with yourself. See if you can drop your preconceptions, assumptions or certainties about even the most familiar task. Opening a refrigerator, taking a shower, trimming your child's fingernails can take on new aspects of engagement and delight when you approach it in this way -- which is actually mindfulness practice.
Gradually expand this posture to more of your daily activities, and after a couple months of flexing your curiosity muscle, notice whether your happiness set point has shifted!
Improve Your Parenting with Curiosity
Even the most repetitive daily parenting tasks can bring more delight when you meet them in that fresh place of beginner's mind. (And believe me, I realize this isn't possible all the time! Dr. Kashdan suggests "being curious" for just 5 minutes a day to start out.)
The field of attachment neurobiology has revealed that as parents, the mapping of our social-emotional brain (including our happiness set-point) gets downloaded to our babies in the course of our hundreds or thousands of daily interactions with them. Buoying yourself via curiosity is a fantastic investment in your children's lifelong wellbeing!
As your child grows older and engages in inevitable instances of "bad behavior," curiosity can be the secret to maintaining your calm authority as well as your strong connection with your child. Rather than jumping to any conclusions about your child's motives (let's say she drew a red crayon line across the family room wall), you approach the situation with as few preconceptions as you can manage.
Dan Hughes, a family therapist specializing in children with extreme behaviors, wrote Attachment-Focused Parenting: Effective Strategies to Care for Children. He emphasizes the key role of a parent's attitude of curiosity (along with playfulness, acceptance and empathy, in his PACE model). As a parent, Dr. Hughes suggests that you want to make sense of even the most seemingly irrational, maddening behavior, and help your child make sense of it… without judgment.
How: Helpful curiosity-rich phrases include:
- "Help me understand…"
- "How about if you tell me what was happening / what you felt, just before you [insert undesired behavior here]?"
- "Hmm, this didn't go very well, so let's put our heads together and see if we can figure out a better way for next time."
These need to be said with true curiosity, so you'll want to be working that muscle up to the task!
You may discover that your child was imagining herself as a ship's captain, and she needed a horizon to steer toward… and thus the red crayon line. Together you can brainstorm more appropriate (and less permanent) ways of creating that important line, while cleaning the wall.
Imagine how much more constructive that whole process would be, rather than had she gone to time-out, had her crayon privileges revoked, etc. In the curiosity example, she has several skill sets nurtured (self-reflection, accountability, resourcefulness), while in the punishment example she ends up feeling "misread" and misunderstood, which leads to resentment.
Preserving trust and connection between you and your child, while also respecting behavioral boundaries, is the artful balance you're aiming for. Curiosity really helps this come about.
Caveat: As you engage curiosity about your child's behavior one thing to avoid is the direct interrogation approach. In fact, one of the ways adults shame children (often unintentionally, but with equally negative developmental consequences) is to quiz them: "Why did you [hit your sister / put syrup on the dog / lie to Mommy]?" A child usually does not consciously know why she did something "naughty," so this puts her on the spot, which alone can elicit a shame response. Then another layer of shame is added, because of your unmet expectation that she should be able to answer you.
Sometimes just sitting together with your child in silence, holding an attitude of curiosity, can be enough for him to start "debriefing" to you. When your child knows you are on his side (even when there will be consequences for the behavior), these disciplinary moments become opportunities for deepening your connection rather than eroding it through knee-jerk punishment.
Enrich Your Brain's Wellbeing with Curiosity
The concern of age-related cognitive issues may seem a long way off, but if you cultivate the practice of curiosity when you're young, it will be second-nature when you're older. And research on degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer's suggests that staying young at heart keeps you young in mind.
Part of the curious, young-at-heart posture includes a willingness to explore uncharted territory and brave the uncertainty, confusion or even fear that comes with the "not knowing." Making a practice of suspending your instinctive, survival-based tendency to categorize, label and prejudge not only ups your mood, it actually protects brain health over the long haul!
Older adults who are curious and adventurous, points out Dr. Kashdan, "don't show the same decline in white matter in their brains as people who develop the same routines and habits over the course of time. ...novelty, exercise, omega-3 fatty acids and a healthy social network -- you put those four together and you're talking about a really simple strategy to reduce the risk of degenerative brain diseases."
I myself will do well to keep this in mind, at a stage in my life (kids grown & flown) when I gravitate toward comfortable habits and routines. In addition to cultivating more wonder for my regular daily experiences, I may try to instill some new social venture into the mix, and do it with curiosity in mind.
I'd love to hear if this is a resolution that resonates for you -- and if so, what areas of your life are ripe for a curiosity practice, and for bringing more wonder into the mix?
For more on this:
The Power of Curiosity
Can Being Curious Make You Happier?
Does Curiosity Trump Happiness in the Wellbeing Stakes?
New York aerial image: wka via Flickr / Creative Commons