It All Starts with a Spark: The Benefits of Being Mindfully Curious


July 10, 2020

mindful curiosity |

A Little Curiosity Goes a Long Way

Eleanor Roosevelt said that if she could ask a fairy godmother to give a child one gift at birth it would be curiosity.

We often don’t think of curiosity as something special. Much of the time it’s like a back-up singer to the Beyonce of our bolder emotions. We know it’s there in the background playing its part on stage but it’s easy to take for granted.

And yet, it’s the quiet insistence of curiosity that often guides us to some of our most profound discoveries and joyful experiences.

Things like penicillin, the iPhone, and trips to Mars would never have been possible without scientific curiosity. (NASA, by the way, has a rover on Mars aptly named…Curiosity.)

How Curiosity Positively Impacts Your Life

Following the breadcrumbs of our inquiring minds leads us to other positive outcomes, including more happiness, empathy, greater social connection, and academic performance, according to research. 

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Curiosity is also pleasurable. Neuroimaging shows, for example, that dopamine pathways and reward centers of the brain activate when we’re curious. 

Rooted in our DNA, the henpecking of curiosity likely kept our ancestors alive. To thrive as a species, we needed to figure out everything we could about our environment. Like dimples or blue eyes, curiosity is an inherited trait passed down through the generations.

But we can all cultivate more of it by mindfully tuning into its small voice. Author Elizabeth Gilbert likens curiosity to a gentle friend who taps you on the shoulder and whispers in your ear: “Hey, that’s kind of interesting.”

More often than not we’re rewarded when we listen to that whisper.

When my mom was 85 years old, curiosity offered her much needed moral support in overcoming a badly fractured femur. My mom spent months in a nursing home recovering physically from her injury, but emotionally a cloud hung over her. One day, not too long after she’d left the nursing home, we were on the way to a doctor’s appointment and walked by where she’d convalesced.

As we walked slowly along the sidewalk, she noticed a narrow alleyway behind the nursing home leading to an open door. She stopped, leaned on her walker, and with a bit of mischief in her voice said: “I wonder what would happen if I went through that door.”

Before I had time to respond, she was shuffling her walker over a patch of grass and heading down the alleyway. When she walked through the door, the nurses greeted her with such warmth and congratulations that she teared up with joy. It was the first time in a long time that I had seen her smile.

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As I recall that story, I’m reminded how ordinary, but life-giving curiosity is and also how intimately intertwined it is with mindfulness.

How Can You Embrace Curiosity?

It takes a bit of mindfulness to heed curiosity’s modest gestures. We need, for example, to notice when we’re a little bit bothered by not knowing the answer to something to spark our intellectual pursuits. We need to feel the upwelling of subtle enthusiasm that often marks curiosity’s arrival. And most of all we have to be brave enough to follow our curiosity and allow ourselves to be guided by its kind hand.

In mindfulness meditation, curiosity is like a rudder that steers our attention toward a deeper understanding of ourselves.

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Instead of becoming frustrated at how busy our minds are we can shine the light of curiosity on our thinking. 

  • Are our thoughts plodding or urgent? 
  • Do sensations arise along with them? 
  • Is what we’re thinking jet fuel for our irritability? 

Curiosity can even interrupt our most ingrained mental habits. When we become self-critical, for example, we can shrug our shoulders and say: “Hmmm. That’s interesting. I wonder why I do that?”

In other words, we can accept the gift of curiosity and allow it to take center stage.

Written by Kelly Barron, eM Life Teacher