By Elizabeth Svoboda, published on September 1, 2006 - last reviewed on October 9, 2014
Decades before Evan Schaeffer started practicing law, he developed an interest so all-consuming it verged on obsession: snakes. By the time he entered the fourth grade, he had so many reptile books that they took up an entire shelf, and he counted the gloves, golf putter and pillowcase he used for snake-hunting among his most prized possessions.
The snake fascination gradually faded, but Schaeffer's determination to learn as much as he could about everything that interested him remained. "I never have to try to have hobbies—they just seem to find me," he says. Outside of work, he plays the guitar, writes songs, is an amateur astronomer and photographer, and maintains a blog called Evan Schaeffer's Legal Underground. "I like that my mind gets to focus on things I've chosen on my own," he says. "It gives me a sense of freedom I wouldn't have otherwise."
Schaeffer is what psychologists call a "trait curious" person: someone with a tendency to delve deeply into subjects that grab his attention, learning more about himself and the world in the process. Curious people are used to being joshed for their obsessions—monikers like "band geek" and "bookworm" are a way of saying, "Just relax, already!" According to a new study by Todd Kashdan of George Mason University, however, the unusually curious often have the last laugh.
Kashdan asked students how much they agreed with statements such as, "When I am actively interested in something, it takes a great deal to interrupt me." People who exhibit high levels of curiosity, he found, experience higher levels of satisfaction with life than their more disengaged peers. While the less curious derive more pleasure from hedonistic behaviors such as sex and drinking, curious people report finding a greater sense of meaning in life, which is a better predictor of sustainable, lasting happiness.
What accounts for the link between curiosity and well-being? Kashdan speculates that while dabbling in new activities or subject areas may be uncomfortable at first, curious people are likely to be rewarded for their efforts over the long run. These rewards can be social, like enjoying weekly lunches with friends you met in a beginning windsurfing class. Most of the time, though, the pleasure is intrinsic to the activity itself, as when you master the unicycle or a Mozart piano sonata. Because the sheer high of such an accomplishment is its own reward, the curious tend to be highly self-motivated.
"There's this paradoxical route to well-being," Kashdan says. "Maybe the real way to make yourself happy is by doing something that challenges you, makes you stretch." Self-reported curiosity, he adds, tends to build over time, which suggests that the knowledge and experience curious people gain give them satisfaction, motivating them to learn even more.
Curiosity can be a double-edged sword, though. The same adventurous impulses that drive curious people to books and hobbies may also lead them to partake in dangerous activities such as skydiving or experimenting with psychotropic drugs. Still, according to Paul Silvia, a social psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, the enrichment that curious people experience generally outweighs the negative effects of the risks they take. "I doubt curiosity kills too many cats," he says.
From this perspective, the Evan Schaeffers of the world have got it made. But what about those of us who think of ourselves as standoffish by nature—who shrink back at the thought of taking up scuba-diving or even a new route to work? A strong sense of curiosity is a stable trait that you either have or don't, but even if you don't think of yourself as naturally curious, Kashdan says, it's helpful to remember that curiosity can be cultivated. You can learn to work with what you have.
Just about everyone is interested in something, but in many cases social pressures stifle these curious instincts, making us forget we ever had them. "Lots of people played an instrument when they were younger, and they say, 'I don't do it anymore because I work now,'" Kashdan says. "But really there's no definition of what an adult's supposed to be, and for some people, that's earthshaking to hear."
Surmounting your fear of failure will also help you realize your full curiosity-potential. Silvia recommends enlisting a friend to join you in pursuing a new interest that seems intimidating, like kickboxing or watercolors. "Make a pact that you're going to do this together and not judge each other," he says.
Still, occasional slipups are an inevitable part of learning and discovery. "In curious people, there's internal growth that takes place regardless of the outcome," Kashdan says. "Let's say you've never tried barracuda before, but you decide to order it at a restaurant. If you like it, that's great, but even if you don't, you have a story you can use to connect with people: 'Have you ever tried barracuda? It's disgusting!' Either way, you've expanded yourself a bit."
In Schaeffer's case, following his inquisitive mind led to new opportunities he'd never even considered. "A publisher got into contact with me through my blog and asked if I'd like to write a book about trial law," he says. "I'd always had a side career in writing, but I never expected it to turn into something like this." The lives of curious people may not always go according to plan, but their willingness to take a chance on improvisation pays big in dividends.
If you've got an inquiring mind, it's possible to turn even mundane events, like waiting in line at the DMV, into something meaningful. Look for details others might miss, and seek to learn more about them. For instance, try turning to another customer in line and saying, "I noticed the Purple Heart pinned to your jacket. What war did you serve in?"
"If you're curious about something, it acts as a positive counterweight to anxiety and fear," Silvia says. Exercising your curiosity won't wipe out doubt, but it may help you focus on the likely positive consequences of a new venture (learning to execute a perfect swan dive) rather than the negative ones (doing a belly flop and surfacing to the sound of laughter).
A key component of curiosity is what Boston College psychologist Ellen Winner calls a "rage to master"—whether that involves accumulating rejection slips from The New Yorker or spending hours in the basement learning banjo fingerings. An intense focus on specific interests or goals invites the state of mental immersion called "flow," which in turn elicits feelings of accomplishment and well-being.