- Curiosity appears to improve cognitive functioning, helping our mind work more logically and efficiently.
- Indirectly, curiosity contributes to confidence, self-esteem, a sense of pride, purpose, and life direction.
- Still, it can be problematic—as in the well-known expressions, “idle curiosity” and “morbid curiosity.”
- Exceptions do exist, but the interest in learning and trying out new things remains a constant for humans.
Why Curiosity Is So Good for You
The various advantages of our remaining intellectually curious as we age has by now been characterized by many scholars. And it might be worthwhile to outline these assets:
A number of studies connecting traits of curiosity to positive outcomes have accordingly labeled it “virtuous.” Not only has it been linked to personal integrity but it also appears to improve cognitive functioning in helping our mind work more logically and efficiently.
That’s why many authors have argued that curiosity makes us more intelligent—enhancing our critical thinking skills and making us more likely to question assumptions, challenge beliefs, assess evidence, and so make better, more informed decisions. In fact, Albert Einstein actually stated that “curiosity is more important than intelligence.”
Moreover, curiosity intensifies our imagination and sparks creativity, prompting us to think outside the box and generate new ideas. And in many ways it can improve our sense of well-being, facilitating a happier state than we might achieve otherwise.
Expanding on the link noted by researchers between curiosity and living a happy life, such well-being is described in terms of curiosity’s capacity to enable us daily to experience satisfaction, contentment, wonder, and joy. And it’s seen, too, as indirectly contributing to our building confidence and self-esteem—not to mention a sense of pride, accomplishment, purpose, and life direction.
Even beyond this, in distancing us from raw emotions, especially our avoidance-engendering fears, curiosity makes us more adaptable and resilient, thus enabling us to cope more rationally with stress and adversity. Plus, writers have frequently spoken of how curiosity can improve mental health by reducing the obsessively negative thoughts that redound in anxiety and depression.
Lastly, it assists us in making vital social connections. When we’re curious about others, we ask more questions and show more concern, which in turn leads us to go beyond small talk and establish more rewarding, lasting relationships. And this open-minded receptivity can avert distressing feelings of isolation, loneliness, and boredom.
But to Be Fair, Curiosity Can Sometimes Be Disadvantageous
To briefly highlight curiosity’s detriments:
If we overdo it and are curious about too many things (many of them trivial), it can distract us from the matter at hand, which in turn can lead to our making mistakes and degrading our judgment.
With all the information out there today, particularly online, we can get overloaded with facts and figures that wind up interfering with our productivity and performance.
It can put us in peril when super-inflated curiosity induces us to take imprudent risks (say, through experimenting with drugs), as well as engaging in multiple hazardous behaviors.
If it’s indiscriminately focused on others, it could lead us to become tactless, meddlesome, and offensive, disturbing people by violating their personal boundaries and right to privacy.
It’s hardly coincidental, then, that two well-known negative expressions in our lexicon include “idle curiosity” and “morbid curiosity.”
Curiosity Can Thrive as We Age
To begin with a caveat, curiosity is influenced by personality traits, and although far from common, some traits can eventuate in our curiosity and openness to experience declining over time. Our personal circumstances and cultural heritage plays a significant role here as well.
All the same, simply in the process of living, we’ll learn things that we hadn’t before realized. And similar to success breeding more success, our growing knowledge and experience tend to make us more (not less) curious.
Virtually all of us are endowed with a sense of adventure. And so we’re attracted to, and motivated to engage in, what’s novel or new. That’s how, ongoingly, we’re able to take in what previously we weren’t conscious of.
As a result, we start to recognize what may still remain outside our awareness, which can incite us to continue our pursuit of knowledge and understanding on an ever-deepening level.
Furthermore, as we’re driven to indefinitely expand our knowledge, we become interested in related questions not previously considered. And that prompts us to seek out fresh experiences to obtain information that now draws our curiosity. Needless to say, this well-nigh perpetual venture serves to enrich our lives and make them more meaningful.
It’s something like the difference between having a general interest in cats and then actually owning one, which makes us eager to learn more about how they think and feel, and why they behave in ways that (in human terms), don’t initially make much sense to us.
Finally, longevity experts are more and more advising our aging population to take up new hobbies and follow new interests—like learning a foreign language, yoga, dancing, or playing a musical instrument—to compensate for inevitable declines in brain functioning and stimulate, or revitalize, our intellect.
Even after retiring, “lifelong learning” is increasingly being recommended by scientists to ward off dementia, or moderate it, since as we grow older we become increasingly susceptible to that malady.
In sum, research—while it’s been somewhat controversial on the subject—generally indicates that the majority of us don’t experience substantially less curiosity as we age. Quite the opposite. Throughout adulthood, our curiosity remains relatively stable, and in some cases even accelerates.
True, it may be much more focused than a baby’s or toddler’s, whose almost unbounded curiosity—compelling them to ask their caretakers endless (often exhausting) questions—has an arbitrariness or randomness absent for adults.
But unless an older person’s existence has settled into a passive, mind-numbing routine, the abiding interest in learning new things remains for us mortals more or less a constant.
Baumgarten, E. (2001, Fall). Curiosity as a moral virtue. International Journal of Applied Philosophy, 15(2), 169-184. https://www-personal.umd.umich.edu/~elias/curiosity.pdf
Chu, L. & Fung, H. H. (2021). Age differences in state curiosity: Examining the role of personal relevance. Gerontology, 68(3), 321-329. htttps://doi.org/10.1159/000516296
Chu, L., Tsai, J. L., & Fung. (2020, Apr 27). Association between age and intellectual curiosity: The mediating roles of future time perspective and importance of curiosity, European Journal of Ageing, 18(1), 45-53. doi: 10.1007/s10433-020-00567-6
Kashdan, T. B., Rose, P., & Fincham, F. D. (2004). Curiosity and exploration: Facilitating positive subjective experiences and personal growth opportunities, Journal of Personality Assessment, 82(3), 291-305. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327752jpa8203_05
Manson, N. (2012, Apr). Epistemic restraint and the vice of curiosity. Philosophy, 87(2), 239-259. DOI:10.1017/S0031819112000046
Molokhia, D. (2018, May 24). The importance of being curious. https://www.harvardbusiness.org/the-importance-of-being-curious/
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. E. P. (Eds.). (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press
Sakaki, M., Yagi, A., & Muravama, K. (2018, May). Curiosity in old age: A possible key to achieving adaptive aging, 88, 106-116. DOI:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2018.03.007
Whitcomb, D. (2010, Nov). Curiosity was framed. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 81(3), 664-687. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1933-1592.2010.00394.x