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The Element of Surprise

Something to chew on

“Cows don’t get cavities.”

“Really?” 

“Nope. They don’t. Surprising, right? They eat all day long. And obviously, they’re not brushing their teeth.”

Mark was getting excited now. 

And so was I. It wasn’t that I had strong preexisting convictions about cows and cavities. But nonetheless, I leaned forward, eyes wide, eager to know more.

“Neither do horses,” Mark continued. “Unless you feed them sugar cubes, of course.”

Mark Wolff is the dean of Penn Dental Medicine. He has known for a long time that refined sugar is a massively important cause of cavities—much more important than I’d realized.

At dinner with my family that evening, I couldn’t wait to share my new fun fact. And after dinner (decaffeinated coffee, no sugar), I found myself on an hours-long “wild google chase,” learning about how sugar feeds the bacteria that naturally live in our mouths, which leads the bacteria to multiply. They digest the sugar, producing acid as a waste product—and the acid erodes the enamel on our teeth. 

What good is curiosity—the emotion that dilates our pupils and propels us to ask questions and pay special attention to the information we hunt down?

Recent research suggests that consistent curiosity goes hand in hand with happiness. For 21 days, participants kept a daily diary in which they responded to several different measures of well-being and, in addition, two curiosity questions:

Today, I viewed challenging situations as an opportunity to grow and learn.

Everywhere I went today, I was out looking for new things or experiences.

On a scale from 0 (not at all) to 10 (very), the average rating for these curiosity questions was about 3—quite a bit lower than I would have expected—but there was a lot of variability, both across days and between people. 

It turns out that consistently high ratings on these curiosity questions were correlated with higher ratings of life satisfaction, flourishing relationships, feelings of competence, and physical exercise. 

Of course, with a diary study like this one, it’s impossible to tell whether curiosity causes happiness or, in fact, happiness causes curiosity—or if some third variable encourages both curiosity and happiness. I suspect that, as with so much of life, all three possibilities have at least some truth. 

For me, a day when I ask a lot of questions is a very good day. And the two questions in the diary study are a wonderful reminder of how I want to live my life. 

Try kicking off tonight’s dinner conversation with this question: “Did you learn anything new today?” Be ready to go first with something you learned. And make sure everyone takes a turn. As Albert Einstein once observed: “The important thing is not to stop questioning.” 

With grit and gratitude,
Angela