Curiouser and curiouser: the key to health and happiness?
Research suggests that maintaining an inquiring mind can make us happier and even prolong our lives. Just as well the Festival of Curiosity starts in Dublin on July 25th, then
“If you look at people’s achievements in life, intelligence plays a part and perseverance plays a part, but the third factor is intellectual curiosity,” says Ian Robertson, professor of psychology in Trinity College Dublin
‘We want to encourage people to have the confidence and courage and opportunity to be curious,” says Ellen Byrne, creative director of Dublin’s Festival of Curiosity, which begins on Thursday.
“We want to encourage people to ask questions and also to feel okay about saying ‘I don’t know’. If your son or daughter asks you ‘Why is the sky blue?’ how do you answer that? Do you make up a funny story or say ‘why does that matter?’ We wanted to allow parents to say ‘I don’t know’ but then have the confidence to actually go and find out how something works. I think it’s absolutely essential that we create an environment where people can ask questions and want to ask questions.”
Once upon a time this sort of thinking could get you burned at the stake. “Nowadays we see curiosity as a good thing,” says Philip Ball, author of Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything.
“In ancient Greece, curiosity referred to finding out stuff you didn’t need to know, or perhaps shouldn’t know. It meant prying into things that didn’t concern you. A curious person was a busybody.”
Things got even worse for the curious in the Middle Ages under Christianity. “Curiosity meant you were going beyond what God had ordained we were supposed to know,” says Ball. “There are plenty of warnings in the Bible about how too much knowledge was a dangerous thing. In medieval times, society was very strongly hierarchical and there was the notion that there were hierarchies of knowledge that had to be respected. The ordinary person shouldn’t know too much. The priests and the rulers should know more, but no one should aspire to know as much as God knew.”
The notion of curiosity we have today, developed between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. “In the 17th century there was suddenly this idea that we were created to aspire and that it wasn’t a bad thing to want to improve ourselves and know about the world,” says Ball.
“[Before that], putting it simplistically, you became a scholar by learning what the ancient writers had said rather than by thinking for yourself. The Renaissance permitted a new kind of curiosity that involved going out in the world and looking at stuff . . . An experiential approach to knowledge. You could learn by direct interaction with the things you were interested in, and the great scholars or scientists of the 17th century, people like Christopher Wren, were interested in everything. There was no clear demarcation between disciplines . . . Pretty much any question became permissible. Not just the big obvious questions like ‘why do we become sick?’ or ‘how do the stars move around?’ but also ‘what does a gnat’s leg look like?’ The most obscure phenomena were being followed up.”
Of course, this era of curious amateurs and polymaths was limited to a small cadre of rich European men. But nowadays, while theoretically more of us are free to pursue our interests, in reality, goal-based education systems, a hyper-specialised employment environment and a passive entertainment culture can lead to a deadening of our curiosity.