Why is the sky blue? Why can’t people fly? Why do I need to eat vegetables? Why can’t I play in the rain without a coat? Why? Why? Why? Asking why is the hallmark of childhood. Children are naturally curious, eager to learn everything they can about the world around them. Yet somewhere along the way, we seem to lose that burning passion and become more concerned with what we know than what we might learn. This is something of a tragedy, as, as we will see, curiosity is an incredibly beneficial trait.
According to the VIA Institute on Character, curious people “are always asking questions, and … find all subjects and topics fascinating.” They continue: “There are two key components to curious individuals: They are interested in exploring new ideas, activities and experiences, and they also have a strong desire to increase their own personal knowledge.” What distinguishes a curious person from someone who simply loves to learn (which is another of the character traits) is that the desire to learn for a curious person is driven by a desire to explore and discover more than to achieve mastery and expertise.
Curiosity has been shown to have many benefits. According to Authentic Happiness at the University of Pennsylvania, they include: benefits in our social and romantic lives, improved problem-solving (“curious brains are active brains, and active brains become smart brains”), and high academic and workplace performance. Expanding on this last point, a 2018 article in the Harvard Business Review noted that curiosity in the workplace: improves decision making, because curious people are less likely to look for information that confirms their presuppositions; increases innovation; facilitates positive change; and reduces interpersonal conflict, since curious people are more likely to take an interest in their colleagues’ ideas.
Basically, curiosity improves our wellbeing because it makes our minds active instead of passive, allows us to engage with new ideas, opens us up to new possibilities and positive change, improves our relationships, and brings excitement into our lives.
While curiosity is definitely an important value in contemporary story-telling, this is less the case with ancient myths and legends. I think it’s fair to say that historically, Western culture (and Christian culture within it) has tried to temper curiosity. It is, for example, Eve’s curiosity that the snake exploits in the Garden of Eden in order to bring chaos into God’s creation. The Greek myth of Pandora’s Box (fun fact, in case you’re curious: in Greek it’s actually a clay jar, not a box) similarly shows a young woman’s curiosity getting the best of her, unleashing all sorts of ills into the world. This mindset was pervasive in traditional Western culture; I remember when taking Latin struggling to translate the word novus (‘new’) because ‘new’ has positive connotations for us but negative connotations in ancient Rome. In a curious culture like ours, what is new is exciting and full of possibility; in a culture that doesn’t value curiosity as much, what is new is dangerous, uncertain, and untrustworthy. For the most part Christianity has inherited this cultural resistance to curiosity, focusing on its dangers more than its benefits. Indeed, a Google search for “Curiosity and Christianity” returned predominantly negative hits: posts and listicles warning Christians that curiosity will lead us from the safe and true path.
And yet, despite this, there are positive examples of curiosity in the Scriptures too. When Moses sees the burning bush at a distance, it is his curiosity that leads him to investigate it. And this curiosity is not only rewarded with an encounter with God, but changes the course of history. Similarly, in the New Testament, the shepherds respond to the angels’ proclamation with curiosity and go to find the infant Jesus. In the Gospel of John, when two of John the Baptist’s disciples ask Jesus where he is staying, curious to know more of him, he invites them to come and see. Similarly, when invited to “come and see” by Philip, Nathaniel encounters Jesus and has his life changed. We might also think of Zacchaeus, whose curiosity about Jesus was so great that he climbed a tree to see him over the crowds. Moreover, so many of Jesus’ memorable encounters begin with questions: “What must I do to be saved?” “Which commandment of the Law is the greatest?” “Who do people say that I am?”
So it is not curiosity that is the problem. But because curiosity has been so often maligned, I think it’s important this week to pay close attention to the pathologies of curiosity.
Much of Western history — and traditional cultures around the world — might be said to embody the opposite of curiosity: a fear of the unknown. In a way it makes sense; curiosity takes vulnerability and vulnerability requires a certain amount of security. If the survival of your community is on knife’s edge most years, or if the woods around your village are full of hungry carnivores, it makes sense that you’d be more concerned with what has worked in the past than finding creative solutions, and encourage staying close to home more than exploring. As psychologists like to remind us, we evolved to survive, not to thrive. I experienced this kind of fear of the unknown during my undergrad in how I related to non-Christian religions. I was interested in learning about them only to the extent that it helped me refute them. My learning was driven not by curiosity but by my unhealthy, clinging need to prop up my own faith. I was too afraid of what finding truth in another tradition might mean for my own to engage with them honestly. Similarly, it took a long time for me to start traveling because of my anxiety and fear of the unknown.
The lack of curiosity, for its part, is simply disinterest, a sort of being deadened to the world. One example in my own life is that for many many years, despite loving being in nature, I had no curiosity about trees. It just didn’t dawn on me to see how they were similar or different, or to learn to identify them. It was a whole world literally surrounding me that I wasn’t aware of, as though I were unaware of a symphony orchestra playing all around me. This is a low-stakes example but it makes me wonder: what else have I been missing simply because I didn’t think to look?
Lastly, as our ancient traditions of Eve and Pandora remind us, too much curiosity, or curiosity that lacks boundaries and good judgment can be dangerous. A child’s curiosity is cute when they’re asking why the sky is blue; it is less cute when they’re asking a woman carrying a few extra pounds if she’s pregnant. There’s a fine line between being curious and being nosy and intrusive, or between being curious and being reckless. In order to be healthy, curiosity needs to be balanced out by character traits, such as perspective, judgment, prudence, and self-regulation. (But, of course, it balances them out in return!)
What are some ways we can cultivate healthy curiosity in our lives? Here are a few suggestions:
- Pay attention to what is around you — especially when you’re bored.
- Ask questions! (My favorite curiosity question: “What else?” “What else can I enjoy about this?” “What else could I do while I’m out?” “What else can I try?”)
- Explore a curiosity based website, such as curiosity.com or mentalfloss.com, and see where it takes you.
- Read diversely: pick up a genre you don’t read often, or a book on a subject you know nothing about and see where it takes you.