Do you ever find that it is easier to adopt a kind of passivity about a situation, rather than scratching the surface and asking some vital question that has been gnawing away at you?  I do. I guess it acts as a kind of security blanket.

Curiosity has been called ‘The Lust of the Mind’*. Not a bad image, and one that also conjures up self-indulgance. Many great creators and thinkers have extolled the virtues of curiosity. Like anything we think about though, we can fall into lazy habits that just don’t do the job.

It takes courage to step away from the herd and ask those all-important questions. It might rock the boat, but that might be the only way to check if the boat is stable.

It pays us to develop a habit of curiosity. We tend to forget this because it’s easier to conform, to go with the flow of opinion or received wisdom. This avoids the need to think, and stunts the natural learning process which begins when we are children, but withers and dies if you don’t do something to keep it alive.

This is one aspect of how we simplify and economise our thinking doing what’s easy rather than flexing our mental muscle and thinking more creatively.

Social conventions

When asked how we are, we often respond with a bland statement like “not bad”, rather than saying something more upbeat and creative. We conceal our true feelings and distance ourselves from life when we reply with a standard formula rather than a considered response.

These stock questions – “How do you do?” and “How is your meal?” are two more examples – act as a sort of social lubricant. Along with “How are you”, they are part of the polite conventions that enable us to function in a civil society. Convention dictates that we answer with a stock response, “I’m well” or “Great, thanks” are fit for the task with the examples I’ve just given.

But there is another type of commonly-used question where opportunities are lost when we resort to a stock answer. “Any questions?” during a meeting, for example or, “Did you enjoy the movie”? are openings for an engaging our minds and opening discussion.

Knowing the difference

Understanding the difference between the questions that really only require an unthinking stock answer, and situations where a thoughtful response could prompt further engagement, is a critical skill that exercises our cognitive processes and provides an opportunity for feedback. How often have you replied that you meal is “Great, thank you”, when really it wasn’t, or said that you were OK when really you really  uncomfortable?

Maybe a lot of this – mindlessly accepting our dissatisfaction by concealing it from ourselves and others with a phrase like “Not bad, thanks” rather than saying what we think– is because we are not told that things can be different, that we can create the life we want. If we learn it at all, most of us have to discover it as we go through life, often this is only when something goes wrong. Repeatedly saying things are OK, when they really are not, can mean that an unsatisfactory situation never gets addressed.

I have been lucky; I learned when I was a young adult that we do have control over what happens to us and how our lives pan out. My mission in life for the past 30 years has been to show dissatisfied others that “life doesn’t have to be like that.”

A good starting point is to fight passivity by developing a keen sense of enquiry about life, and nurturing curiosity about everything, because this helps to keep our senses active and alert.

Nurturing curiosity

But that curiosity must be the right kind of curiosity. Simply asking “Why” all the time is not what I mean (that has the opposite effect because it can tie us up in knots). The key is to remain curious in the way that we observe what’s going on within us and around us.

The Zen people talk about developing a ‘childlike curiosity’. Many great thinkers have talked about this too. This doesn’t mean acting in a childish way, it means developing the maturity of understanding that the more we reflectively observe and engage with what’s going on around us, the truer our understanding of ourselves will become. This of course requires courage and commitment, and not everyone is up for that. So the security blanket gets used instead.

* English philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

I’m a psychologist, coach, and therapist. All my work is aimed at enabling people to improve personal aspects of their lives and work.


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