What is curiosity and why is it important?

10 November, 2021|Travel and well-being|
What is curiosity and why is it important? The Travel Psychologist

Curiosity is our tendency to enjoy and be interested in seeking out new information and experiences. It is thought of as a ‘trait’ characteristic, like other aspects of our personality, which means that our tendency towards being curious is part of who we are, rather than it being a temporary state or an emotion. However how much we act on our curiosity may change depending on what else is going on in our lives.

It is a characteristic that falls under the ‘openness to experience’ trait in personality theory, which you can read more about on my previous post here. In its simplest definition there are two aspects of curiosity; our desire to want to seek out new experiences (called exploration) and our tendency to become fully engaged in these experiences (known as absorption; Gallagher & Lopez, 2007). It is thought that both of these aspects of curiosity can have a positive impact on our well-being.

From a research perspective, published studies have backed up the link between curiosity and well-being. This includes a large, recent study conducted in the Netherlands over a ten-year period (Zainal & Newman, 2021). The findings showed that people with lower levels of curiosity tended to have more symptoms of anxiety and depression. Interestingly, it was found that over the study period, that for individuals whose levels of curiosity reduced, symptoms of anxiety and depression increased. This suggests that it is helpful for our well-being to foster our own curiosity throughout our lives. This may be because when we are less curious, we can become fixed in our thinking and less tolerant of alternative perspectives, which ultimately makes us poorer in our problem solving and relationships. Over time if we struggle to manage the challenges of everyday life, this can contribute to us feeling anxious or low in mood.

Another set of studies exploring curiosity found that when we are able to seek out new information for enjoyment, this can be particularly important for our well-being (Kashden et al., 2018). This is in contrast to when we are seeking information to solve specific problems or fill gaps in our knowledge. Essentially being curious is better for us when we learn for enjoyment rather than for a specific purpose!

Why is it difficult to stay curious?

So curiosity appears to be important for our well-being; but why might it be difficult to maintain or to foster? There doesn’t seem to be any clear research evidence of why this might be the case. However, my clinical perspective would be that most of traditional working life which involves a steady job and a predictable routine doesn’t often require high levels of curiosity. We often become very specialised in our job roles as we move up whatever career ladder we choose, and we may have a number of priorities to juggle. The time and energy we may need to stay curious often becomes a ‘nice to have’ rather than a necessity.

As well as being detrimental for our well-being, not maintaining our curiosity can be a problem in other ways. The book ‘The squiggly career’ explains how curiosity is key for spotting trends, opportunities and risks, and for managing complexity (Tupper and Ellis, 2020). This suggests that curiosity may be useful for our work life as well as our well-being!

Are there any downsides to curiosity?

Actually yes, there can be a number of downsides to being curious! Like anything in life, if we are well informed about the pitfalls then we can think carefully about what works for us and how to mitigate these. The balance of how much to foster our own curiosity alongside the other demands of our lives will of course be different for everyone.

Risk Taking

Taken to its extreme curiosity into things that can be harmful to us is obviously problematic. An aspect of curiosity known as ‘thrill seeking’ is related to a number of harmful behaviours including drug misuse, gambling, aggression and unsafe sexual practices (Kashden et al., 2018; Jovanović & Gavrilov‐Jerković, 2014). It is worth saying that for most people, the balance between our desire to seek information and experiences (in technical terms this is called our appetitive system) is well balanced with our desire to avoid harm to ourselves or others (our aversive system). As such, for most of us we will have some awareness of when curiosity crosses into risk taking.

In order to think about how we might recognise the signs of curiosity becoming unhealthy, I asked my good friend Dr Hannah Darrell-Berry, a Clinical Psychologist who works in secure forensic settings. Dr Darrell-Berry explained that signs to be concerned about would include “a level of curiosity that escalates over time and becomes obsessive, and means that other aspects of life are neglected”. Other important signs might also include “behaviour that leads to blurred boundaries and flouting laws and behaviour that is to the detriment of one’s safety”.  

Information overload

We live in an age of information overload and if we were to seek information about everything we would very quickly be overwhelmed! Millions of pounds are invested in trying to capture our attention and we can’t possibly take in all of this. In order to manage this we have to find a way to be intentional with how we use our time and with what information and experiences we seek.

The flipside of the potential for information overload is that in this information age it is possible to find new and interesting information that matches our own preferences at the touch of a button. Gone are the days of needing to visit the library or being confined to the subject matter in your encyclopaedia! This makes it much easier to curate new content and experiences which matches our own preferences. It does however require us thinking intentionally about how we can use our time and energy in a purposeful way.

Stress and the need for routine

Seeking out and putting ourselves in any situations that are new inevitably comes with a degree of stress (Kashdan et al., 2018). There are many reasons that in life many of us will settle into routines and this predictability and stability can be very beneficial for our well-being, our sense of self and our identity. Life would feel very chaotic if we spent all our time seeking out new information and experiences rather than applying and using our existing skills and knowledge! Again the important thing is finding out whatever balance is right for us and remembering that it is easy to neglect our own need for curiosity as our busy lives take over.

Is curiosity the enemy of traditional ways of living and working?

In many ways being curious can be seen as being incompatible with following the everyday routine. If we think back to the ‘openness to experience’ dimension of personality, those lower on this scale will tend to prefer routine and convention. There is of course nothing wrong with this, and I believe that as human beings we are all so different, and these differences can and do complement one another.

Someone who scores highly on the openness continuum and is highly curious for example, might not be a good fit for a job that involves doing the same work over and over. Likewise, if there are no members of a workplace, team, household or culture are naturally curious than there is unlikely to be any positive changes or innovation. Groups or organisations low on curiosity would also be likely to struggle to adjust to inevitable change that comes with life.

Therefore it is usually helpful to have a mix of people who differ in their characteristics. People who tend to be high in curiosity are usually ‘change-makers’ and can be valuable assets to any team, group or organisation if their skills and recognised and used effectively (Kelly & Medina, 2015).

How does all of this relate to travel?

It is intuitive that curiosity and the desire to travel and explore are closely linked. Anecdotally I’m sure that many of us know people who are very curious who are also well travelled and informed about the world, and understand different cultures and perspectives. Unfortunately, the scientific research to explore this link doesn’t yet exist, so its not possible to make evidence-based conclusions.

However, if there is one thing I’ve learned from writing this article it is that we should all be trying to be as curious as feels right for us. For some, me included, this will involve travel and seeking out new cultures and ways of seeing the world. For others this might involve reading a lot, listening to podcasts or having lots of interesting conversations with different people. None of these is better than any other, the onus is really on us to foster our own curiosity in the ways that best works for us!

If you liked this post check out What are the psychological benefits of travel?

References

Bergland, C. (2016) Curiosity: The Good, the Bad, and the Double-Edged Sword | Psychology Today 

Gallagher, M. W., & Lopez, S. J. (2007). Curiosity and well-being. The journal of positive psychology2(4), 236-248.

Jovanović, V., & Gavrilov‐Jerković, V. (2014). The good, the bad (and the ugly): The role of curiosity in subjective well‐being and risky behaviors among adolescents. Scandinavian journal of psychology55(1), 38-44.

Kashdan, T. B., Stiksma, M. C., Disabato, D. J., McKnight, P. E., Bekier, J., Kaji, J., & Lazarus, R. (2018). The five-dimensional curiosity scale: Capturing the bandwidth of curiosity and identifying four unique subgroups of curious people. Journal of Research in Personality73, 130-149.

Kelly, L. & Medina, C. (2015) Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within. O’Reilly Media.

Tupper, H. & Ellis, S. (2020) The Squiggly Career: Ditch the Ladder, Discover Opportunity, Design your Career. Penguin Business.

Zainal, N. H., & Newman, M. G. (2021). Curiosity Helps: Growth In Need for Cognition Bidirectionally Predicts Future Reduction In Anxiety and Depression Symptoms Across 10 Years. Journal of Affective Disorders.

If you liked this article check out What are the psychological benefits of travel?