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Is Curiosity the Real Key to a Fulfilling Life?

It very well could be

Close up of a cat peeking out from the top of a box

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When people think of curiosity, what often comes to mind is that old proverb relating to curious cats and their demise. Or maybe you think of your nosy boss (neighbor, child or mom), who's always curious about what's going on in your life. If you're a science buff, you might think of the car-sized rover that's been roaming the surface of Mars since its 2012 landing, in the hope of solving the mysteries of the planet.

For as long as I can remember, I've been curious about everything. I was always on some adventure and spent endless hours exploring the woods across the street or the field adjacent to our house. A tree with good climbing branches led to a vista I had yet to explore. A small path, to a stream I hadn't discovered.

I attribute my lifelong curiosity to my dad. He was a nature lover and would take us on Sunday hikes, pointing out plants we'd look up in our little wildflower book when we got home, curious to know everything about the flora we just saw. Because of him, when there's a side road that looks interesting, I'll take it. A beach at low tide produces endless curiosity about what treasures lay waiting. The sound of a bird squawking in a tree pulls my eyes in its direction to see which particular feathered creature is making that noise.

Many of us think being happy is what we want most in life. Both of my parents drilled that notion into me by repeating it over and over, “I just want you to be happy.” But psychologist Todd Kashdan, who literally wrote the book on curiosity (Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life), believes it's the “central ingredient to creating a fulfilling life.” He says, “That's because curiosity — a state of active interest or genuinely wanting to know more about something — creates an openness to unfamiliar experiences, laying the groundwork for greater opportunities to experience discovery, joy and delight."

Have you ever watched the snow fall and took the time to really look at the intricacies of the flakes as they drift to the ground? Or tasted something at a party you especially liked and made a point of finding out what went into that yummy dish? Or maybe you've wondered as you're wiping off a neglected table, where exactly does all that dust come from?

A study done by a group of psychologists in the U.K. with two age groups, younger adults (ages 18-26) and older adults (ages 65-89) found that learning facts we are curious about makes us more likely to remember them. The study concluded that older adults especially benefited from the memory-enhancing effects of curiosity. The journal Psychology and Aging conducted a study of over 1,000 adults between the ages of 60 and 86. Those who were observed and rated as being more curious at the beginning of the study, were more likely to be alive at its conclusion.

For me, my curious nature led to a healing of sorts between my ex-husband and myself.

On the day of our divorce, after leaving the courthouse, curiosity led me to look into his car, parked near a pub we frequented when we were married. Curiosity also led me to peek in the pub where he sat forlornly, then pulled me in to see how he was doing, where a simple hug seemed to heal the years of angst we'd been through leading to that day.

An unexpected blessing during a challenging time.

So, embrace your curiosity. Let it lead to where it wants to take you. You never know what the outcome might be. And most likely, it will pleasantly surprise you and bring you a moment of happiness you didn't even know you needed at the time. Because, in the end, being curious is a force that drives us to learn or feel new things, a gift that follows us through our lives, recreating the joy we had as children.

That is, if we let it.