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
Niamh Shaw, one of the Festival of Curiosity’s artists-in-residence has been involved in a project where she’s been asking people questions about their own curiosity. “Some people told us they weren’t curious about anything,” she says. “I felt really sorry for them. I think some people lose their curiosity along the way, maybe because they had a bad relationship with school and associate learning with something negative, but I think deep down it’s there in everybody.”
Ellen Byrne feels that the modern education system can discourage curiosity for curiosity’s sake. “At the moment rote-learning is very much what our curriculum is based on. I meet primary school children who are very curious but then you get to secondary school and you can see how curiosity is sometimes drained out of people . . . If we can foster a culture of curiosity I think people would become better thinkers and better innovators. We would all lead happier lives if we were all curious.”
Research also suggests that being curious would make us more successful and could make us live longer. “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.
“Intellectually curious people tend to achieve more in life. And more importantly they live longer. We don’t know why they live longer, but I recently wrote a research paper putting forward a hypothesis that giving the brain little infusions of noradrenaline has protective effects on the brain’s structure. Curiosity gives your brain repeated infusions of noradrenaline. In moderate doses it freshens up the brain and fosters plasticity in the brain.”
So why are some people more curious than others? “I don’t know of any evidence that curiosity is innate,” says Robertson. “It’s almost certainly something you learn from parents or teachers or other people in your life. It’s a skill. It’s about looking at the world with fresh eyes. Children are naturally curious. If you are only goal-driven you can snuff out that curiosity. But you only have to see a young child and see how they are delighted by new things to see that we all start out curious. We just need to retain that.”
The Festival of Curiosity takes place in Dublin from tomorrow until Sunday, festivalofcuriosity.ie
Turn off that TV. . . And other ways to remain inquisitive
1 Engage with the world around you, says Ellen Byrne. “If something breaks do you try to fix it? Do you have a look at it or do you just throw it in the bin? Do you try to figure out how things work or even try and Google it? I think curiosity can make people more self-sufficient and the more people do it the more confident they become at life in general.”