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The Author Speaks

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.

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