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Why Asking Questions and Embracing Uncertainty Is Good for You

Interview with Todd Kashdan, author of "Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life"

— Phillip and Karen Smith/Getty Images

En español | No cats died in the writing of this book.

Instead, Curious? offers a guide to breathing new oxygen into life with a strategy that seems impossibly simple. Be curious. Embrace uncertainty. And be mindful in your day-to-day life. Instead of seeking that singular, fleeting thing called happiness, open yourself up to novelty. By doing so, you’ll catch happiness, and a lot of other good things, along the way, says author Todd Kashdan, clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University. (Read an excerpt from Curious?)

He relates an example of an artist who stuck his finger into a swollen spot in his yard and out came a big stink from the ground—an apt analogy for what Kashdan advocates. Stick a finger into new places, regardless of what might come out. Of course, such curiosity isn’t always a doorway to pleasurable outcome. As Kashdan points out, there’s no warm, fuzzy feeling as you wonder about the rattling noise in your car or the new mole growing on your face. But being open to ambiguity builds knowledge, assists us in resolving conflicts and helps keep the brain in tiptop shape.

Kashdan practices what he preaches, fighting passivity and seeking novelty in the everyday. He spoke to the AARP Bulletin about how big an impact this little-studied desire can have in our lives.

Q. How do you push yourself to find the fresh and new?

A. Like dieting or exercise, it’s a lifetime endeavor. Except in cases where survival or the possibility of passing on genes is at stake, your brain wants to put forth as little effort as possible. We’re saving up for that life-threatening situation. Just like we have to make time to exercise to build up our bodies, we need to make the effort to retrain our brains to be curious and thoughtful.

Q. But it’s hard work, agreed?

A. It’s hard in the beginning because you are changing your mindset. Instead of relying on what we already know, we are looking for the new, and we’re trying to grow by focusing on what we don’t know. Ask yourself: What in this situation can add something new to my thinking? But after the initial work of training yourself to think differently, you start to get more dividends and rewards than the effort you have to put in.

Q. So it becomes natural?

A. It’ll seem so. It feels effortless because it’s energizing. It makes us feel creative, more committed. A challenge may provoke anxiety, but research shows clearly that the positive effects are more intense and last longer than the negative ones.

Q. What’s a good example?

A. Here’s a great one. When people are asked if they would want to meet the person who is donating a kidney to them, they invariably say yes. They would want to go on the news and shake the person’s hand, marvel together that part of one is inside the other and hug for the photo. But if the recipients never know who the donor is, they can’t habituate to the kindness of the act. And how do you get a handle on this newly benevolent, compassionate world where someone donated part of his or her body—and could care less about being appreciated for it? You never get over the positivity that comes from that; your thought process about humanity changes. And that’s a good thing.

Q. Not knowing the donor is better?

A. In the big picture, yes. Yet amazingly, we think and act exactly the opposite. We want to know who it is, get all the information, eliminating all the surprises and novelty of the experience—even though the research says anonymous donors have a more positive, bigger, longer-lasting impact on recipients.

Q. Some uncertainty keeps things fresh.

A. Right. Experiences that leave you wondering are dog-eared in your brain, bolded and italicized.

Q. Can we actually reshape the physiology of the brain as we train ourselves to be curious?

A. Neuroplasticity is the hottest area in science right now. As our experiences change, our brain changes as well. There’s been this assumption that at around age 30 or even earlier your personality has solidified, and that by 60 or 65 you’re that curmudgeon, that neighbor who got mad when you kicked the ball into his yard when you were a kid. It seemed inevitable: You’re going to be that guy.

Q. No?

A. Science is showing that’s not true. That curmudgeon probably had a lot of experiences that led to his being mean to kids. As we have new experiences, new neuropathways are created. Connective tissue between neurons develops. Of course, as we get older, we’re going to see a natural cognitive decline, some degeneration in brain cells. And as we get older, we tend to cling even more to what we know. We create a very small but cohesive world for ourselves based on comfortable habits and routines.

Q. But a curmudgeon is also still changing, even if he or she doesn’t think so.

A. Exactly. It’s easy to overlook that you’re also still growing, reading new books, forming new opinions, along with the people around you. This slight shift in thinking—toward seeking out what you don’t know, purposefully looking for novelty—will actually increase your neural connections and can reduce the speed of cognitive decline. Research is showing it’s vital to be exposed to novelty—it’s not enough just to be active and spend time with people; there has to be some element of newness and uncertainty.

Q. Give an example how to shift your mindset.

A. Look for people who aren’t like you, who have values and ideas that aren’t like yours. In one of my classes I had students write down their political values, then purposefully watch a TV station they’d never go to because it doesn’t reflect those values. I told them to watch it with the attitude not that you have to accept and agree but to see what you can learn from the other side. What’s valuable about a different perspective? It’s annoying, anxiety-provoking, hard to do and, in the moment, not pleasurable. But when you reflect on it later, you might think there were some nuggets of information there that added to your understanding. That complexity is a beautiful thing.

Q. Are there ways to enhance curiosity in people who have dementia?

A. There’s promising research showing it can have some level of stabilizing function even in a diseased brain. An early marker of Alzheimer’s is the inability to attend to novelty and to manage novelty; with any change in their routine, people get distressed. Slight exposure to little tiny changes can help preserve some of that brain function. As a caregiver, it’s important not to try to inoculate someone from negative emotions, because the process of learning, of figuring something out, is what’s important.

Q. But wouldn’t you want to make everything easier for someone who is struggling?

A. It’s hard to step back, no doubt. You want to protect, to soothe; you don’t want them to experience any pain. But sometimes these little moments of pain, whether psychological or physical, help us grow and handle challenges.

Q. Where would we be today if our ancestors hadn’t been curious?

A. Biological evolution is slow and arduous, but cultural evolution—there’s no debate about how fast that works. Look at how quickly cellphones and other gadgets have infiltrated our world. When we’re curious, we explore new things, whether an idea, a value, a plan. We wonder, are my goals aligned with what I care about most? If we could figure this out, we could have a more stable platform for having pleasure and meaning in our daily lives. Realize that you can actually intentionally pursue ways to grow, opportunities to feed your relationships so they grow and thrive.

Q. How can you feed a relationship?

A. Ask yourself, what’s new about this person that I have missed or ignored? If you box people in and stop looking for information, the relationship suffers. In healthy relationships people don’t assume they already know everything about a partner. It’s one of those small maxims, a mindset shift that’s very helpful. If you’re not curious in your relationships, they will die.

Q. How much does meeting people online hurt us socially, culturally, when we can’t see body language and other subtle cues?

A. I see social networking tools as good for sustaining real world relationships. But as soon as they replace those relationships, they’re very problematic. Part of what makes a social interaction stick is the enthusiasm, the shared laughter and intimacy. There’s a hormonal experience that binds us to a group. All of those things are minimized when we don’t get the nonverbal cues, the physical touch. Of course, especially as we get older and people get farther away, networks, the technology, these are a great way to lubricate a relationship until the next time you meet. But it shouldn’t replace the real thing.

Q. Should you always look for novelty that is positive?

A. Not always. But we forget to focus on things that go right in people’s lives. It’s not enough just to wait for someone to have difficulties so you can be supportive. It’s about being there for them when things go well—which I see as an even greater predictor of trust and love and commitment than being a shoulder for the bad times.

Jennifer S. Holland is senior staff writer at National Geographic magazine specializing in biological sciences and natural history.

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