Do you do the same things day in and day out? Does life feel a little “same old, same old” and lacking in vibrancy? When was the last time you felt amazed by the world, yourself and those around you? The dictionary defines wonder, as “a feeling of amazement and admiration caused by something beautiful, remarkable, or unfamiliar” or a “desire to know something; to be curious and to marvel”. There is so much wonder to be experienced in life, from the everyday to the extraordinary, but it requires a certain type of “seeing” that starts with developing a curious mindset and approach to life.
Being willing to break out of the norm and engage in the unfamiliar is what leads to the very experiences in life that make you feel the wonder, beauty and potential that life holds.
How often do you seek out novelty and the unfamiliar? Getting stuck playing it safe has a flow-on effect in all areas of life. In his article, Effects of Novelty and Danger on the Brain, Keith Hillman says, “A complete lack of novelty and excitement means that we aren’t testing ourselves, we aren’t learning, we aren’t growing … and our performance and our health thus suffer as a result.”
By adopting a more wondrous and curious approach to life you can begin to experience more happiness, support your brain health and enhance your problem-solving skills. Being willing to engage in the unfamiliar allows you to become more sensitive to the wonder around you and sparks your brain in exciting ways.
Your curious brain
Dr Emrah Düzel, from the University College London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, says, “It is a well-known fact amongst scientists that the midbrain region regulates our levels of motivation and our ability to predict rewards by releasing dopamine in the frontal and temporal regions of the brain. We have now shown that novelty activates this brain area. We believe that experiencing novelty might, in itself, have an impact on our dopamine levels.”
Your brain lights up when it experiences something new and exciting. The midbrain region, the “novelty centre” of your brain, when activated increases levels of dopamine, one of your brain’s feel-good chemicals.
It’s this activation of dopamine that gives you the pleasure and rush you feel when you say, “Wow, I never knew that!”, or you see something remarkable and inspiring. Not engaging with new ideas or experiences means you miss out on this release of dopamine, which is why life can feel “flat” and uninspiring when you are stuck in a rut.
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” — Albert Einstein
I can always tell when I’ve let my life become too comfortable because I feel less inspired and like life has “flat-lined”. I am also aware how fantastic it feels when I step out and engage in the unknown and get that wonderful dopamine buzz.
Recently I had a truly fabulous day. The day consisted of presenting to a group of women at a conference about living on purpose. I then stayed for the rest of the day and listened to the other speakers. After the event I met my husband for dinner at a restaurant, before surprising him with tickets to a comedy show.
While there were a lot of wonderful things going on during the day, the reason this day was so fulfilling was because it involved so many new experiences. The talk I presented was one I hadn’t given before and at the conference I met so many new people. I was challenged by the other speakers and engaged in activities that took me out of my comfort zone and led to new personal insights. I then tried a new restaurant with my husband, before seeing a show that explored ideas we had never considered, by a comedian we hadn’t seen before.
Being willing to break out of the norm and engage in the unfamiliar is what leads to the very experiences in life that make you feel the wonder, beauty and potential that life holds. Approaching life with greater curiosity and wonder also has a positive flow-on effect when it comes to problem solving.
Improving your problem-solving skills
Imagine a big bucket and a pile of cards. Each new idea and experience you have gets written on a card and placed in that bucket. When you need to think creatively and solve problems you can pull out the cards to help you find answers, new connections and insights.
The number of cards you have in your bucket will limit or enhance how many ideas you have. If you have lots of cards you will have more ideas to draw from. However, if you have only a few cards to work with you may struggle to find new angles and answers. The more vast and varied your experiences, the more innovative your brain can be.
When you close your mind to possibilities you can get stuck in “thinking ruts”. When you ask the same questions, you get the same answers. In his book, Cracking Creativity, Michael Michalko writes, “Once we have an idea we think works, it becomes hard for us to consider alternative ideas. We tend to develop narrow ideas about what will work or what can be done and stick with it until proven wrong.” Similarly, Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
… becoming a life-long learner is an essential element to building your cognitive reserve and keeping your brain fit and healthy.
Do you say yes to varied experiences that stretch you and expose you to new ways of thinking or living? Do you surround yourself with people who know more than you, so you can learn from them?
Your brain is capable of complex and creative thinking. The more you engage with the world and try new things, the more your brain can establish new and novel connections between seemingly unrelated ideas. By seeking newness in your life, you open up possibilities for finding effective and innovative solutions to your personal and work challenges.
At the heart of being a great problem solver is the commitment to being a life-long learner. If you want to become a more effective problem solver or creative thinker, become more inquisitive, ask more questions, learn new skills, read more books, attend more events and connect with inspiring people you can learn from.
Building a healthy brain
By becoming more curious and inquisitive you not only develop your problem-solving skills bur you also protect your brain from cognitive decline. Studies are showing that becoming a life-long learner is an essential element to building your cognitive reserve and keeping your brain fit and healthy.
Yaakov Stern, Professor of Neuropsychology at Columbia University College, says, “Individuals who lead mentally stimulating lives, through education, occupation and leisure activities, have reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Studies suggest that they have 35–40 per cent less risk of manifesting the disease.”
A curious mind allows your brain to work more optimally in the here and now while also becoming more resilient for the future. What new skills or knowledge could you commit to learning this year? What events are coming up that would stretch your current thinking or opinions? Is there a course you have always wanted to take that you could sign up for?
The gratitude/wonder loop
The brain is such that what you focus on magnifies. This filtering ability means your focus can determine how you experience your life. What you pay attention to forms your perception of life. When you focus on the negatives in life you will start to see more challenges and problems. However, if you focus on the positives you begin to see more of the good things in your life.
What you focus on is your choice. You have considerable control over what you see in the world and how you feel about your life. When I was 23 I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I lost my health, my job, my independence and my sense of self. One of the ways I managed these massive changes was to focus my attention on what I could still do, not on what I couldn’t. Choosing to focus on capacity and not limitations was what allowed me to stay open and curious about the world. I believe my choice to focus on capacity and gratitude helped me rebuild my health and my life.
The more grateful you feel, the more you see the world as a good place and the more you experience moments of awe and wonder. I call this cyclical process the “gratitude/wonder loop”.
Studies have shown that the more grateful you feel the more grateful you become as your brain “tunes into” all the good things around you. The more grateful you feel, the more you see the world as a good place and the more you experience moments of awe and wonder. I call this cyclical process the “gratitude/wonder loop”.
In the same way that gratitude activates wonder, so too does wonder activate gratitude. By focusing on the good, the beautiful and the amazing in your life, you re-wire your brain to be more positive and to experience a greater sense of wellbeing. You can kick start the “gratitude/wonder loop” by becoming more conscious of what you are thankful for and being on the lookout for “wonder moments” in your life.
The challenge of curiosity
There’s no doubt that wonder and curiosity are good for your brain and wellbeing, but it’s not always easy. While I was writing this article, I looked at my own life and asked myself, “Why do I sometimes struggle to be curious and open to new experiences?”
To experience wonder you need to be open to the unknown and willing to try new things. I don’t always find this easy. Inherent in the unfamiliar is also fear of the unknown. Sometimes I feel threatened by new opportunities and experiences rather than excited and motivated. My fears stem from thoughts of not being good enough, getting it wrong, making bad decisions, being criticised or looking silly. Maybe you can relate?
At times I have let these thoughts stop me from taking action. The problem with this safe approach to life, however, is that nothing truly magical happens in our comfort zones. In order to develop a curious mindset and experience more wonder in my life, I realised I needed more courage and humility. I needed to be more willing to move through fear and accept that I won’t know everything or be good at everything I try and that’s OK, not something to be feared.
I know it’s only through engaging with the unfamiliar that I learn, grow and discover what I am truly capable of. So now when I want to pull back from new experiences I consciously take a few deep breaths, re-frame my thinking and choose to engage.
While it can be daunting to move into the unknown, the times I have done this have allowed me to experience the most wondrous moments in my life, including climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge despite being afraid of heights, to making the choice to become a mum despite all the inherent unknowns of raising a child.
What might be standing in the way of you developing a more curious approach to life? What are you missing out on in your life by playing it “safe”? There are many simple day-to-day things you can do to develop your inner explorer, novelty seeker and wonderer.
15 practical ways to become more curious
- Ask more questions, be more inquisitive.
- Surround yourself with smart and engaged people.
- Say yes to experiences where you would normally say, “No, that’s not really my thing.”
- Read more and more widely.
- Watch documentaries that are inspiring and expand your thinking.
- Go for mindful walks, paying close attention to everything around you.
- Try new cafes and restaurants and order new dishes.
- Attend seminars, workshops and events that stretch your thinking.
- Take more risks; follow more of your dreams.
- Become a life-long learner; sign up for a new course or learn a new hobby or skill.
- Look up and observe the world more often.
- Spend less time looking at a screen.
- Travel to new places in your city, country or overseas.
- Spend time in nature.
- Spend time in silence, tuning in to your own inner wisdom and genius.
Your brain is wired for wonder. By cultivating your curious side and exploring new ideas and experiences you will become happier, healthier and smarter. You will also be activating and protecting your brain for years to come. The world is a truly wondrous place. Move out into the world, saying “yes” more often to new experiences. Quieten your fearful inner voice, be more inquisitive, explore and enjoy the truly wondrous journey that is life.
This article first appeared in WellBeing Magazine.