Ever notice something in you jump in shock when somebody you’re listening closely to says something you really don’t like? That’s what happened to me when Jonathan Haidt called curiosity “selfish.” I was interviewing the renowned social psychologist and author for this latest episode of the Braver Angels Podcast when he said it, fairly casually, on his way to making one of many fascinating points. I knew he didn’t mean it as a takedown of getting curious; chasing knowledge is beautifully self-enriching and there’s no shame in that! But since the word “selfish” tends to sound bad when applied to something you love, his comment landed with me like an insult in that moment anyway — a reaction I found fascinating all on its own. Why did I cringe so hard at the idea that curiosity is selfish? I realized the answer days later: It’s because I know how powerful curiosity can be when it’s given as a gift.
I was meeting with an acquaintance not too long ago to get some things done on a day when I’d just gotten some good news. I figured she’d want to focus and got ready to focus myself, but she must have noticed some sparkle in me. “What’s going on?” she asked. “You having a good day?” I casually said I was, being careful not to bait more questions out of turn, but she wanted to ask them. “What happened?” she said. So I told her a little, still assuming she’d want to turn away from the topic of me just as soon as she could. But she didn’t. “That must feel amazing!” she said. “Tell me more…” I looked at her face and saw nothing but genuine encouragement. She really wants to know, I thought? So finally, I relaxed. I let myself believe it was OK to share something meaningful with this person, freely. It wasn’t self-indulgent or out of place. Why? Because she’d given me the gift of her genuine interest. And it felt… amazing. Seeing friends and family for the holidays? Add your curiosity about them to your gift list. It might be the most valued gift of all.