Curiosity's Curious Connection to Happiness
This past weekend, on what might have been the perfect autumn afternoon in Calgary, my daughters and I explored the Calgary Zoo. It had been years since my last visit, but to walk through the thoughtfully designed enclosures, and to view the natural wonder of everything from a butterfly wing’s flutter to a grizzly bear’s clawed tussle with a barrel containing various enticing food sources, triggered palpable synapses in my brain. It was a good day curiosity. A good day for the soul. Which I feel are more connected than we might realize. And to that end, I see a connection between curiosity and happiness.
Einstein famously quipped, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” (Einstein, 2011) But perhaps his more insightful, if not lesser known musing on the subject was as follows:
“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when one contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvellous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries to comprehend only a little of this mystery every day.” (Einstein, 2011)
Would Einstein, or any other scientist, discoverer, explorer, inventor, author, researcher, musician, painter, dancer, sculptor have achieved any goal without curiosity? Are you able to solve any problem without becoming curious enough about it to investigate causes and solutions? And without solutions to problems, can you be happy?
I’ve spent a lot of time reading, and analyzing Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book, “Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention” over the past week. He may be better known for his bestseller, "Flow", in which he connects a certain state of consciousness - where we do something we enjoy and are skilled at so well that we don't even think about it - with achieving happiness. (2008)
My motives are two-fold. I’m doing course development research, so one could say it’s part of my job, but moreover, I have a genuine passion and interest in the realm of creativity. However, if you’ve read my book or various past blog posts, or seen my Linkedin header you’ll know that there’s one thing I feel must pre-exist for creativity to have a chance. Curiosity.
Despite being published eight years ago, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s book has become my new go-to for all things curious and creative. As I’ve been reading it I’ve felt a tremendous sense of validation of my contention that curiosity is the secret key. What’s more, where my book extols the under-appreciated virtues of curiosity, laments its deterioration in life, then proceeds to provide dozens of activities to rekindle it, similarly Csikszentmihalyi diligently writes of its vital role for living fuller, AND he too dutifully adds his own set of instructions.
“So the first step toward a more creative life is the cultivation of curiosity and interest, that is the allocation of attention to things for their own sake. On this score, children tend to have the advantage over adults; their curiosity is like a constant beam that highlights and invests with interest anything within range.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2013)
How does Csikszentmihalyi suggest we rekindle curiosity? Again, at the risk of sounding braggadocios, I have to say reading his antidote for an ailing sense of curiosity, quite frankly gave me goosebumps due to its similarity to what I suggest in my book, “The Daily Undoing: Being Better at Being Human”. Now this might come across as the height of pomposity, that I could be comparing my work to the depth and enormity of Csikszentmihalyi’s landmark research, which manifested into his book. However, let me assure you, my feeling is one of relief, of feeling legitimized, rather than putting myself on the same pedestal as someone whose dedication to this field is clearly deeper than my own.
Turns out we both like the use of, and recommend inserting heaping helpings of different into life. The element of surprise, specifically, is something that both myself and the Hungarian scholar suggest as a pilot light igniter of curiosity. Csikszentmihalyi writes, “Try to be surprised by something every day…Life is nothing but a stream of experiences – the more widely and deeply you swim in it, the richer your life will be.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2013) This reminded me of the George Perec essay I often use in my Innovation and Design course at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, where the French author celebrates observances of the mundane, and elevates them to richly sensory experiences. (Perec, 1974)
I’ll leave you with a page from my book, featuring one of 45 different curiosity activities I bring forward. Hopefully you’ll see the parallel track of my thinking with that of the much higher esteemed thinkers in this area. But beyond my rather transparent need for self-validation, I share my thoughts alongside those of others with the simple wish for you to feel better by being better at being human – which comes a whole lot easier when we engage our curiosity.
Best wishes at being better.
We bereave the death of curiosity as we grow older, wondering where it went, and how we can get it back. The good news is, it’s not dead. But it may be asleep.
Make a plan to leave your home, and your phone, for a device-free walk, run or bike-ride. While on your outing, experience the gifts of all of your senses. When you get home write out on this page how you felt and what you might do differently next time.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2013). Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention. Harper.
Einstein, A. (2011). The Ultimate Quotable Einstein. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Perec, G. (1974). An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. Paris: Wakefield Press.