What interests you? Think about topics, things, or perhaps hobbies that you find yourself being drawn to. You might also realize that being interested in something motivates you to continually want to understand, or know more about your target of interest. The question of what makes something interesting has recently been the subject of psychological research – thanks to the work of psychologist Paul Silvia. Silvia defines interest as an emotion we experience when we make sense of something as being both complex, and comprehensible. Simply put, things which are novel, unusual and complex – but importantly, understandable, are what make something interesting .
You might be able to recall subjects that you’ve taken as part of your high school or university curriculum. The subjects that probably generated the most interest to you were likely those which you found challenging and complicated – but also those that you could grasp and understand. Perhaps it took a while for you to have the lightbulb ‘aha’ moment – the moment where it all ‘clicked’. The study of genetics may seem very complex and confusing initially (as it is to the writer of this article!), but understanding the underlying mechanisms through, say, Mendel’s experiment with peas and on genetic inheritance might have made you a little more interested during biology class. Conversely, if a topic was complex, but not comprehensible, then you might have instead experienced another emotion – confusion. And if the subject was too easy, mundane, or something you have already studied many times over? Boredom might have set in. In short, for something to be interesting, it needs to strike that balance between being sufficiently complex with being adequately comprehensible.
Interest, along with emotions such as surprise and awe, feature as an important part of our experiences and responses to art – hence its classification as an aesthetic emotion. Recent research, however, suggests that beyond being a response to works to art, there are benefits to being interested about, well, pretty much anything. Naturally curiosity individuals enjoy positive psychological and well-being outcomes. These individuals are more likely to seek out the new and challenging with less feelings of distress or aversion. In the process, they are likely to expand their understandings of the world around them, leading to enhanced skills and competencies . Being naturally curious motivates individuals to challenge themselves, to approach the new and unexpected with a sense of willingness and wanting to learn, thereby paving the way for long-term growth and development self.
One recent study shows that being interested may even help with replenishing resources, allowing individuals to persist in difficult tasks. Put another way, feeling interested helps to recharge our energy and motivation. In a series of three studies, researchers asked participants to engage in a resource-depleting (i.e. tiring and taxing) tasks. The participants completed a series of psychological tests, and were allowed to stop whenever they felt like it. Some of the participants were then asked to complete an interesting task – solving a mystery. Others were asked to do a pleasant, but uninteresting word search for positive-sounding words, or for neutral words. All participants then completed another series of demanding tasks – write a story, or complete some puzzles. Results of the study showed that participants who worked on the interesting task (solving the mystery) persisted longer on the second round of demanding tasks than did participants who did the word search. Even though solving the mystery was more complex and mentally demanding, it was best in replenishing psychological resources relative to the word search tasks, leading the mystery-solvers to persist more on the story-writing and puzzle-solving tasks later on .
Think about tasks at work that you personally find mundane, repetitive, or tiring. Or when you return from work feeling stressed and drained. What could you do to give yourself a bit of a boost of motivation and perseverance for later tasks? Try doing something that interests you. Leaf through a book on a topic that you are curious about, learn a language, or create a plan for a passion project at home. These may all be complex – but if they generate interest to you, can help you sustain your motivation and persistence in other aspects of your life. Why not start on that project you’ve always been interested in, but have been putting off all this while?