Curiosity: The Good, the Bad, and the Useless (How to Be Positively Curious)

Child and reflection

Have you ever met a child who wasn’t curious about something?

Children make me think of curiosity as an innate tendency, or an evolutionary impulse, that is part of who we are.

We all get curious about one thing or another (unless we’re in an apathetic emotional state). But sometimes our curiosity harms more than helps, or depresses more than encourages.

From looking into my own behavior, my curiosity usually fits into one of the following three types.

1- The good

Good curiosity is what leads us to explore and learn. Most of humanity’s discoveries and advances were probably the result of curiosity.

Good curiosity is:

Playful and nonjudgmental: We explore for the sake of exploration and see where it takes us. It’s not about impressing others, or chasing achievement.

A teacher: We learn from trying to answer the questions posed by curiosity. Even when the outcomes don’t meet our expectations, or we deem the experiment a failure, we still learn and grow from it.

Effortless: It flows with ease, not forced and without agendas or ulterior motives, other than getting answers.

Good curiosity leads us to learning something new, understanding our world a bit better, and challenging our limitations. It stimulates, engages, and improves the quality of life.

Wanting to find out if you can learn a new language in 30 days, or taking a break for a week from being online to see how you react, or exploring a new idea are all helpful—even if the end result is deemed a disappointment.

2- The bad

Negative curiosity is the opposite of good. We don’t learn from it. It doesn’t energize or stimulate, and it perpetuates its own negativity.

Bad curiosity is:

Insecure: We want to find out something because we’re afraid we’re missing out, or we’ll be left behind.

Moody: We waver between excitement and disappointment based on what we find out. It feeds a pattern of emotional highs and lows that keeps us hooked.

A master: This type of curiosity turns into an addictive behavior that on the surface seems to give us satisfaction. But over time, it’s more damaging than helpful.

Checking social media compulsively fits into this category. Obsessing over celebrity gossip and news is another. Engaging in gossip (initiated by you, or someone else) is harmful as well.

3- The useless

This type of curiosity is not harmful in and of itself, but it’s not helpful either.

Useless curiosity is:

Unfocused: Feeling curious about something on a whim and finding answers, only to jump to the next thing, keeps us engaged but without a specific purpose.

Distracting: When we feel scattered and follow every impulsive inquiry, we distract ourselves from the things that are important.

Mind numbing: Looking for answers without a clear purpose, and doing it over and over again, numbs the mind and depletes our energy.

An example of this type of curiosity is looking for answers to questions that are not important. You think of something, and then before you know it, you’re on Google clicking and looking for information you don’t really need.

How to have more good curiosity and less of the other two types

The best method to focus more on good curiosity, and let go of the other two types, is to be curious about curiosity itself.

“Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton asked why.” ~Bernard Baruch

Ask Why

Then follow the why till there are no more whys, before taking any action.

At the end of the last why, do you still want to find out?

If you keep up with answering every why that comes up, you’ll either decide that this is something that’s helpful to you, and you want to do something about it. Or you’ll realize that it’s a distraction, or not useful, and decide to let it go.

When you ask why, you engage the curious mind (hopefully without judgment). In effect, you direct your mental efforts inwardly to explore your own thoughts and feelings.

Example of bad/useless curiosity

Here is an example that might be helpful.

Why do I want to check Facebook? Because I want to know what my friends have been up to.

Why do I want to check my friends’ updates right now? Because if I don’t, I might miss out on what they’re doing and not be part of the conversation.

Why am I afraid of missing out on the conversation? Because I don’t want my friends to think I don’t care, and I don’t want to be forgotten.

Why do I want to be liked all the time? Because I will feel alone and not appreciated if I don’t get approval from my friends.

Why do I want to have approval? Because I feel I’m not good enough without validation from others to prove to myself that I’m good and valuable.

Why do I want my friends to validate me instead of being okay with myself? Because I’m not okay with myself, and it feels good to be liked.

Why do I want to feel good all the time, and does it work? Because feeling bad sucks, and I want to avoid it at all costs. I don’t feel good all the time. I feel bad most of the time. That’s why I keep looking for things to make me feel good. No it doesn’t work. Sometimes I feel great and other times I feel like crap.

Why would I keep checking when the feelings don’t last? Because that’s all I’ve got.

Why is this all I’ve got? Because I don’t want to try something else. I want to hide behind others and not face myself.

As you keep following the why, the answers get deeper and become more intimate. Then curiosity becomes an act of reflection and self-discovery—which can be of great benefit in examining our inner world, even if the answer is I don’t know.

Trying to answer every why may not change the behavior right away. But once we shine the light of awareness onto our own motives and actions, we will un-automate the action and that is the first step in long lasting change.

For example, I may still check social media, but not as frequently, and I’ll probably spend less time each visit. More importantly, I’ll have more realistic expectations of what I’ll get.

Curiosity is a wonderful motivator. When we focus on positive curiosity, we expand our knowledge and skills, and we advance life for all.

The human mind doesn’t distinguish between the different types of curiosity though. So we need to become aware of what our curiosity leads to. The best way is to start with why and see where it takes you.

Stay positive; stay curious. And ask why.

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