Why Curious People are Happier & Healthier

I might only have been seven years’ old, but I had a plan.

The Great Escape

The first stage of my cunning plan was the hardest. I knew that every step along the dusty tongue and groove flooring of our dated townhouse would elicited creaky complaints. Every stair descended, every door swung open, would sigh and groan and lament its existence.  

It was as if the house could not bear the weight of its inhabitants.

Much of blue-collar Newcastle, with its steel mills and coal dust, felt like that in the 70s.

I didn’t tell my little brother about my escape plan. I knew he’d ask endless silly questions. Or fall over and cry at a crucial moment in the escape. He was always doing things like that. He was only six.

With Laundry Day in full swing and mum distracted, I grabbed Matty by the arm and shout-whispered to him to get his favourite bear and follow me.

I told him we were going to play the “Sneak Down the Hallway and Out the Back Door Without a Sound” game. Matty was in. He loved games.

The Escape Route

The downstairs hallway floors were worn so smooth we could run from the stairs near the front door to the lounge room then slide all the way past the kitchen to the back door without ever getting a single splinter. The coal-dust-coated floors made for excellent sliding.

I loved the dust, which the sunlight would discover, illuminating the black mist and sparking flights of wonder.

But my father would curse it. Morning and evening he would stab his broom against the dust, from one end of the hall to the other, sweeping against the implacable tide.

But this morning, we weren’t sliding down the hall. We were sneaking. And we snuck good.

We made it out the back door and through the rear fence without mum suspecting a thing. No dog barked, Matty didn’t twist an ankle at a crucial moment. The bear kept his mouth shut. We made it.

Generation X Curious Kids

And so it was, one fine summer’s day, two adventurers and a stuffed bear set off to explore the world.

Freedom

Step two in my genius plan was to consult a map and plan our big trip.

In the park at the end of our street, where it met the highway north, was a billboard map of Newcastle. Dad had shown us the map a few weeks ago. I was fascinated by the map’s caricatures highlighting the region’s sights.

There was a caricature of people squishing grapes in the Hunter Valley wine country, and a captain looking out to sea from Nobby’s lighthouse. And of course there were smiling men in hardhats at the steel works. Though I never actually saw anyone smile there.   

We must have looked a curious sight that morning.

Two small boys and a bear staring up at the comically oversized map. Alone.

That’s where dad found us.

He’d been driving around looking for us, since mum discovered our escape an hour earlier. He was furious.

Any other day, he would have looked hilarious unravelling his John Cleese-like frame from the black Mini Minor, having slid to a stop at the giant map.

Generation X Curious and caught running away from home

That was my earliest memory of travelling. And the earliest sign of a lifelong curiosity of the world and its bizarre inhabitants. This curiosity has helped me learn enough to understand the world, navigate through it and to make (mostly) good life judgements.      

Of course, dad didn’t see it that way. He only saw two little boys at risk of being squished on the nearby highway.   

Curiosity has its downsides too.

Why So Curious?

While researchers can’t fully explain curiosity yet, they agree it has evolutionary benefits.

The long-term benefits of being curious enough to walk into the next valley (benefits like new sources of food, water or other shaggable cave dwellers) outweigh short-term risks like being eaten by a lion. This is called ‘state curiosity’. It’s inherent and reward driven, and the reason why I ran away from home at age seven.

‘Trait curiosity’ varies between individuals and is not reward-based. Learning for the sake of learning or watching news about people we don’t know is trait curiosity. It’s the one we can exercise.

Curiosity has a bunch of tangible benefits. When we’re curious, we’re better at:

  • Coping with stress
  • Making good decisions
  • Retaining information
  • Learning and developing
  • Social interactions

Does Curiosity Make Us Happy?

When babies learn to crawl and then begin to take those first wobbly steps, they don’t then sit down and never move again. They could if they wanted to, we’d still bring them food and wipe their asses for them.

But they don’t. They get up and move for the rest of their lives in (usually) ever increasing circles of geography, learning and experience.

Why?

Because our pleasure system rewards us for being curious. Making us happy now. Encouraging us to learn and grow. Making us happy in the longer term.

You might not see a straight line between your curiosity and your level of happiness, but the research is pretty clear.

You’re likely to be happier if you’re curious than if you’re not.

Generation X Curiosity

Is Generation X Curious?

Well Generation Xers, if you got this far into the article, then you’re likely a fairly curious type.

But curiosity tapers off as we grow older.

Grandma is not likely to go caving or take up electric guitar anytime soon.

Generation X is around the age when natural curiosity begins to decline.

Many of our baby boomer parents have slowed down or stopped their explorations of the world around them, and are more interested in being comfortable. They naturally seek routine and predictability.  

That doesn’t mean Generation X should accept the inevitable and surrender to daytime TV and dinner at 5pm sharp.

We can keep our lifelong habit of curiosity alive and active. Just as our curiosity can be piqued by a tantalising snippet of news or an intriguing movie plot or new people moving into the neighbourhood, we can routinely use this effect to keep our curiosity alive.

Curiosity: Use It Or Lose It

Here’s some of the more sensible tips I found on the ‘net:

  • Stop Googling everything. Go old school and read a book on the subject instead. This will pique your curiosity for longer and you’ll retain the information better  
  • Keep developing new interests and meeting new people, even if your focus shifts from freestyle half-pipe skateboarding to embroidery
  • Be a humble learner. Resist the urge to assume you know enough now that you’ve been around for a half century! Be willing to ask stoopid questions
  • Read opposing views. Watch a TV show you wouldn’t normally be interested in
  • Become an expert on something – no matter how trivial or obscure
  • Rage against routine. Take a different way to work, do the shopping at a different supermarket (and buy some different foods), vacation somewhere new. Value different and interesting over easy or convenient

Still curious?

Head to Meantime’s Planet X to check out more posts on the world Generation X is inheriting…