Coaching and Curiosity

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In a recent study, more than 2,000 older adults aged 60 to 86 were evaluated to deter- mine who was more likely to be alive at the conclusion of the study. In the group that achieved greater longevity, one factor was significantly more important than any other.9 Are you curious as to what that factor was? Knowing about this factor also may help you enjoy a long life.

In his new book, Curious? Todd Kashdan, professor of psychology at George Mason University, reveals that the all-important ingredient to longevity in this study was curiosity. He points out: “Those who were more curious at the beginning of the study were more likely to be alive at the end of the study, even after taking into account age, whether they smoked, the presence of cancer or cardiovascular disease, and all the rest of the usual markers.”2 While he acknowledges that declining curiosity may be a sign of declining health and neurological illness, Kashdan believes that “there are promising signs that enhancing curiosity reduces the risk for these diseases and even the potential to reverse some of the natural degeneration  that occurs.” According to Kashdan, curiosity has a powerful effect on well-being and thriving.It is incumbent upon coaches to understand precisely what it is, its benefits for psychological and physical health, and how to best facilitate curiosity in our clients.

What is Curiosity?
Curiosity has received more than a century of psychological study and many definitions have been offered over the years. What all definitions have in common, however, is that curiosity is (1) a motivational state; (2) approach-oriented and; (3) associated with exploration. A good working definition of curiosity, offered by Kasdan, is: “The recognition, pursuit, and intense desire to explore novel, challenging, and uncertain events.”

We are Wired to Be Curious
Psychologists who subscribe to the intrinsic motivation tradition believe that interest or curiosity arises from the operation of evidence- based primal needs, such as competence, autonomy, and relatedness.1,8 Scientists also have focused on physiological explanations by studying curiosity patterns in the brain. They have discovered that the chemical dopamine is released from the striatum in the brain at a greater rate when a person pushes beyond the boundaries of the known, facing challenges, novelty, and uncertainty. There is also a greater release of dopamine when there is personal importance or meaning in the novel situation. This surge of dopamine prepares us to capitalize on these experiences by focusing our attention on the present, mobilizing our energy resources, and initiating approach  movements.

What purpose does curiosity serve?
Curiosity motivates us to be receptive to the happenings of the present moment, to be immersed in, explore, and investigate our surroundings. In the process, curiosity stretches our knowledge and skills, enabling us to meet new people and learn new things. In the long term, curiosity builds competence.

Curiosity leads to well-being
In cross-sectional studies, researchers who measured levels of curiosity consistently report a greater level of psychological well- being.5,6,10 Regarding physical health, as was previously mentioned, older adults with greater curiosity have been found to live longer over a 5-year period. Kashdan admits that the mechanisms linking curiosity to physical health, illness and mortality are not yet fully understood. He offers several intriguing explanations for why highly  curious people may live longer, such as “the process of neurogenesis stemming from continued novel and intellectual pursuits, a non- defensive willingness to try unfamiliar yet science-based health strategies, or the psychological benefits of evaluating stressors as challenges being guided by exploration as opposed to avoidance.” He suggests that “an examination of cognitive, behavioral, social, and biological levels of analysis will lead to promising avenues of when and how curiosity leads to desirable outcomes.”

In Coaching
Perhaps most important for coaching, curiosity promotes new ways of thinking and acting. Perspective change is the bread and butter of coaching. Kashdan writes, “People who feel curious challenge their views of self, others, and the world with an inevitable stretching of information, knowledge and skills.”4 Coaches know that this is an important route to meaningful change.
Curiosity also helps in goal fulfillment. Kashdan and Steger (2007) studied people over the course of 21 days and found that people who were highly curious were more likely to persist in attaining their goals, even in the face of obstacles, and were also more likely to express gratitude to their benefactors. This led to higher levels of perceived meaning and purpose. Curiosity also can help our clients build neurological connections as they explore new experiences and seek out new information. Finally, according to Kashdan, curiosity leads to more efficient decision-making and helps us grow in our ability to see the relation- ships among disparate ideas, leading to more creativity.

Conclusion
It is not surprising that curiosity and achieving our best life have been found to be linked. Imagine life without curiosity. It would be a grim, boring existence. Our mission as coaches should be three-fold. First, we should be curious about curiosity, encouraging research in our field. Second, we should model curiosity for our clients in our powerful questions, active listening, and perceptive reflections. Third, we should facilitate curiosity, helping clients develop and use their curiosity to enhance their lives and their health, so that they can live longer, more fulfilling lives.

Originally published in ACSM Certified News Coaching Column

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