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Improve Your Connections & Supercharge Your Social Life With This Skill

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Ali Pattillo

By Ali Pattillo

mbg Contributor

Ali Pattillo is a freelance health and science reporter. Originally from Atlanta, GA, Ali received her B.A. from Dartmouth College and graduated from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. . Ali is passionate about helping readers use the latest science to live happier and healthier lives, whether she’s covering home hormone testing, mental health in firefighting, or the power of social fitness.

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Decades of data are clear: If we want to live longer and be happier, it pays to strengthen our relationships. But that isn’t always easy to do. Family ties end up on the back burner, partnerships crumble, and friends drift apart.

Despite what common self-help rhetoric might claim, there’s no quick fix for disconnection or conflict. However, experts note that one skill may go a long way toward improving the relationships we have with others and ourselves. Harnessing curiosity, they say, can help revive a stagnant social life, curb anxiety, and repair fractured bonds.

The curiosity fix: Why this characteristic is so powerful

Curiosity is a “vitality amplifier,” says Todd Kashdan, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at George Mason University and author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. Kashdan, who has studied curiosity for almost 20 years, describes it as the driving force behind learning and the desire to seek new knowledge and experiences.

That said, having the motivation to explore novelty isn’t enough. You also need the ability to cope with the anxiety that can arise from confronting the new.

When something is uncertain, in our environment or within ourselves, curiosity sparks. At first, facing this ambiguity can feel uncomfortable. But leaning into it can create a self-perpetuating loop of feel-good emotions like flow, happiness, and meaning, he adds.

This drives the propensity to be more open in the future. Whether a song on the radio inspires you to pick up the guitar or traveling to an unfamiliar place helps you see your partner in a new light, being mindful of when curiosity strikes can help you identify things you cherish and enrich your relationships. 

Cultivating “deep curiosity” can be particularly powerful, says Scott Shigeoka, a lecturer on well-being and connection at the University of Texas, Austin, and author of the new book, Seek: How Curiosity Can Transform Your Life and Change the World.

On the heels of the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the country’s surging divisiveness, Shigeoka felt overwhelmed. He could see political polarization seeping into his own family and friendship dynamics. Like a lot of us, he found himself arguing across the dinner table and drifting away from loved ones. 

Shigeoka grew sick of feeling angry and sad all the time. So, he packed up his belongings and hit the road, roaming the country for a year with a single goal: find a way back together. He went to anti-LGBTQ+ group meetings, Trump rallies, and church services, speaking with those who he felt were opposed to his perspective as a liberal, queer Asian American.

Shigeoka noticed a common theme across these settings: People weren’t curious about what they saw as “other.” They were afraid and, in turn, kept their distance.

“We are living in an era of ‘incuriosity,'” Shigeoka says. “Instead of turning toward others, ourselves, and the problems in the world, we are turning away in denial.” Engaging in deep curiosity is a way to become curious about the opinions of others—even if they seem wildly different from your own.

If you’re stuck in a recurrent squabble with your spouse or a heated debate with a relative, engaging beyond the surface is crucial to navigating conflict and strengthening bonds. 

The diverse spectrum of curiosity

Curiosity is a universal feature of human behavior that’s been studied for over a century, but the science isn’t settled. Like other characteristics, including gratitude or grit, it’s tricky to measure. It also overlaps with qualities like open-mindedness or novelty seeking, so pinning down how curious an individual or a community is isn’t easy, says Celeste Kidd, Ph.D., a developmental psychology researcher and professor at the University of California, Berkeley. 

Some leading experts, including Kashdan, argue that there are five core dimensions of the trait, allowing us to do things like recognize knowledge gaps, experience wonder, learn from others, accept anxiety in service of discovery, and take risks. Others break the concept down into three types1, including diversive curiosity (the transient desire to explore new things), epistemic curiosity (the thirst for knowledge), and empathic or social curiosity (the yearning to understand other people’s thoughts and feelings). 

No matter its forms, it’s clear that curiosity sets off a cascade of positive effects: It releases dopamine2 and boosts energy. Over time, practicing it is associated with higher levels of life satisfaction, improved mood, better job performance, a greater sense of purpose, and increased perseverance and grit. Being curious enhances the learning process and helps people better store memories. Trying new things and seeking new information builds self-efficacy and resilience to future stressors too. 

Curiosity can be a major boon to your social life as well. Curious people tend3 to be more open-minded, playful, creative4, and emotionally expressive, and they have greater tolerance for anxiety and uncertainty. They’re often less defensive, aggressive, or judgmental with others, research shows5.

Developing curiosity “strengthens your relationships, not just with others but also with yourself,” Shigeoka says. It involves detaching from assumptions and biases, and approaching situations with an open mind, he adds, which can be the “ultimate force for connection.”

How to cultivate a more curious mindset

We’re all born with a natural baseline6 of curiosity, but our reserves of it aren’t fixed. Kashdan says curiosity is trainable and shaped by experience.

Curiosity operates on a spectrum, so it’s important to consider the individual variation among people, adds Kidd. In the throes of a panic attack, traumatic episode, or depression, for example, curiosity understandably takes a “nose-dive,” Kashdan explains. It also dwindles in situations where questioning authority is discouraged, like a high-pressure work environment or school setting, Kidd says. But even when it wanes, we can actively renew it with practice.

Becoming more curious—and reaping the benefits—doesn’t require a massive lifestyle overhaul. Here are some ways to tweak your everyday interactions to enhance curiosity:

1.

Take the bid

The next time your friend or partner brings up something you usually find boring, try shifting into a curious state. Instead of rolling your eyes or changing the subject, muster genuine interest. Why? Because these small moments are considered “bids” for connection: attempts to gain attention, affection, or acceptance, Shigeoka explains. And calling on your curiosity to turn toward these interactions, not away from them, can feed relationship satisfaction and intimacy.

Kashdan also suggests going a step further: When someone shares news, ask questions to uncover more details. Research shows this can make the other person’s memory of the news “stickier” and have a bigger impact on their mood, which will positively reflect on your connection with them. 

2.

Dive deep

Typically, when meeting someone new, people fixate on their “opener” and worry that others will think they’re awkward or weird (though, of course, this negativity bias3 rarely holds up when people reflect on the interaction).

Instead of getting caught up at the beginning of your conversation, Kashdan recommends focusing on the volley—the back-and-forth of the exchange. Get curious about what others seem to care about, using body language as a cue. When someone’s speech speeds up, their pupils dilate, or they become more animated, these are signs to engage beyond the surface. 

Going deeper can create what Shigeoka calls a “give-and-take spiral,” reciprocal self-disclosure that builds a closer bond7. It’s not about asking intrusive questions off the bat but open-ended ones beyond typical small talk like: “When did you last feel total bliss?” or “What do you want to try but have been too scared to pursue?” It’s important to stay open to sharing your own answers with appropriate boundaries too.

3.

Go internal

We all experience grief, failure, health scares, and heartbreaks. Rather than fighting against negative emotions or events, getting curious about them can actually reduce their effect, Shigeoka says. Start with your breath: Asking yourself how deep or shallow it is, and adjusting accordingly, can help calm your nervous system

In moments of major struggle or overwhelm, journaling8 is also a way to practice curiosity and cut through the mental noise. Write down what feelings are bubbling up inside of you, make intentions about ways to care for yourself, or reflect on how to solicit support from others. It may feel counterintuitive to lean into negative feelings, but doing so in short doses can actually help alleviate them.

4.

Ditch your assumptions

Conflict often kills curiosity at the outset, but actively working to stay curious in tense moments can keep disagreements from escalating, Shigeoka says.

If you encounter a situation that stirs anger or strong emotions—maybe your partner makes an inappropriate joke at a dinner party, or you come across protesters who vehemently disagree with—cross-check your initial reaction. Instead of jumping to negative conclusions, imagine an alternative hypothesis for someone’s behavior, Kidd suggests. Our gut takes can be unreliable and rooted in unconscious bias, so proactively scrutinizing them can reveal whether they are justified or knee-jerk responses.

Curious people also tend to be better at perspective-taking and bouncing back from rejection9—tendencies that lead to smoother conflict resolution. This is one reason that Kashdan considers curiosity the “antidote to defensiveness.” 

The takeaway

While practicing curiosity won’t be a magic balm for soothing conflict or disconnection, it is a good place to start. You might be surprised by the difference it makes when you infuse more curiosity into your relationships with others—and yourself. So, we’re curious: How will you practice this skill today?

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