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W2C: How to Cultivate an Openness to Experience

April 20, 2022 by Lauren Gombas

By Lauren Gombas and Britt Fulmer

In 2019, Esther Horvath shot this award-winning image of a mama polar bear and her cub exploring two red flags on a snow-blanketed surface. But it wasn’t just the image that caught the attention of the photography world - it was the story behind the photo that brought it to infamy. The Arctic is one of the most desolate and unresearched parts of the world. So desolate and unchartered that if a boat were to experience an emergency while sailing the Arctic Ocean, it would take weeks for a rescue boat to find them. 

Due to its desolation, very little research has been done in the region. So, a group of scientists and crew members set sail to the Arctic Ocean to spend one year anchored to an ice floe adrift at sea. Esther Horvath was on board for this adventure, and her photography skills did not disappoint.

How to Cultivate an Openness to Experience

 In a recent interview, Horvath said,

“I’ve dedicated my work to raising awareness of the climate crisis in polar regions. When we think about the moon landing, we don’t think about the science it took to get there. We think about the photo of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon. That’s what I’m striving for: an image for our imagination to latch on to when we think about the Arctic - the disappearing land of the polar bears.”

Without Horvath’s passion for our world’s polar regions and her openness to experience, we would not have this iconic image of a polar bear and her cub exploring the ice, nor the meaning behind it. You can see more of her images and learn more about the science expedition in her book Into the Arctic Ice

Defining Openness to Experience

Of course, most people don't have to travel to the Arctic to make exciting and unusual connections. Trying a new restaurant, or signing up for an interesting course are just two of the great ways to try new experiences, within a reasonable budget. However, simply being willing to get out of one's comfort zone can create original and compelling insights. This trait, known as openness to experience, explores one's inner and outer worlds and helps people engage in new experiences. It consists of intellectual engagement (an exploration of complex ideas), affective engagement (the exploration of emotion), and aesthetic engagement (the exploration of art and fantasy). In Horvath’s world, each type of engagement converged for her during her exploration of the Arctic Sea.

Openness to experience is one of the Big Five personality traits. These include neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, and openness to experience, which determine the unique makeup of each individual's personality. Together and individually, these traits can provide insights on the outcome of a person's health, school, work, relationships, etc. 

Although these traits have their benefits, Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire, authors of Wired to Create, note that the single most significant personality factor that predicts creative achievement is being high in openness to experience. The connection here is that individuals high in openness to experience are more likely to be open to novel experiences, which allows for more opportunities to discover insights. Conversely, individuals who are low in openness to experience prefer routine, tradition, and the familiar over new and dynamic opportunities.

Why Engage with an Openness to Experience 

In the case of Horvath, the benefit of her openness was that it ignited her curiosity and creativity. Although these are the most well-known benefits of openness to experience, there are other reasons to be open to new experiences. It helps us adapt, make connections between unlikely pairings, and experience overall well-being and positive emotions among other benefits. 

Dopamine and Plasticity 

Like Horvath, all of us possess a sense of curiosity. So naturally, our bodies prime us to release dopamine, the hormone that motivates us when anticipating something that will engage our curiosity. Dopamine surges when we dream and when we engage in new experiences. As a result, there's more activation in the brain's right hemisphere during both: This means that people who exhibit heightened openness to experience have dopamine systems busy working night and day to provide insights into creative questions. As Wired to Create puts it, “Dopamine is the mother of human invention.”

By increasing the desire to continue pursuing new experiences, these dopamine systems set us up to look at our collective world: it expands our psychological plasticity or the ability to adapt based on an experience. In other words, our desire for and openness to new experiences strengthens our ability to be more resilient, face uncertainty, and learn something new, all of which are essential for survival.

Diversity of Experience Matters 

Openness to experience also opens the possibility of replacing a negative memory with a positive one. Research has shown that when we gain new experiences, some of our connections between ideas are strengthened on both a psychological and neurological level, while others cease to exist. Cultivating new connections, a key ingredient for creative work, inspires novel ideas. For this reason, Steve Jobs was a prime proponent of having a large bag of experiences

Take the calligraphy course he audited as one example. He didn't see it at the time, but his curiosity about calligraphy would grow into a love for typography. This love for typography later turned into the unprecedented decision to offer multiple fonts on Macintosh computers. This simple design component is now a standard in the tech industry.

Diversity of experiences not only matters within a single person, like Steve Jobs, but also in a greater cultural context. A study conducted in 1997 discovered that periods of high immigration had preceded historical creative achievement. When the current residents are receptive to the new ideas brought in by immigrants and the immigrants are receptive to old ones, they can use their collective knowledge to create something new. 

The Health Benefits of Openness to Experience

Openness to experience benefits include more than adaptability, tolerance for ambiguity, and connecting the dots. Wired to Create mentions openness to experience’s association with benefits such as enjoyment of mind-wandering, authenticity, and intrinsic motivation. Overall well-being and health also are key benefits, as people who are high in this trait feel more positive, have stronger relationships, and are more prepared to handle stress

People who are high in openness to experience are intrinsically motivated to actively seek out complex ideas. As intrinsic motivation correlates with achieving long-term goals and less burnout, those high in openness to experience reap these same benefits.

The Emotional Benefits of Openness to Experience

Although it isn't possible to increase someone's creativity in only a few days, having them explore activities that engage in openness may generate positive emotions. Researchers Zachary van Allen and John Zelenski set out to determine the short-term benefits of being more open by placing participants in two writing groups. The first group, or the control group, was asked to record everything that happened in their lives. The second group, or the group asked to engage in more experiences, were asked to elicit introspection, feelings, and ideas in their writing.

At the end of the experiment, the participants in the second group, regardless of their innate openness to experience, reported more positive emotions after the test. In contrast, the control group claimed less positive emotions. Individuals who scored high on openness to experience previous to the test showed particularly heightened levels of positive emotions if they were in the second group. Conversely, if they were in the control group, they reported lower positive emotions at the end of the study. The caveat here is, regardless of a participant’s innate openness, one has to be willing to engage in novel experiences in order to reap the benefits.

How to Engage More Openly with Experiences

If you decide you want to explore being more open to experiences, something to keep in mind is that cultivating an openness to experience doesn't mean you have to travel to a new land, go bungee jumping, or become a pro wrestler. Instead, opening up to something new in your surrounding area, trying new foods, or exploring something you are curious about can be enough. Like the participants mentioned in the second group above, consider writing down insights into new experiences. Then, explore these insights and see if you can make any new connections.

Perhaps an experience you journal about is joining a meetup group that shares the same environmental values as you, such as a bicycling group, or a new cooking group. Perhaps you note both what you enjoy about these new experiences and how they make you feel. Here, being open to the possibilities of whatever outcomes present themselves opens up the opportunity to cultivate a greater sense of openness. The key is to acknowledge that if a new meetup group doesn't inspire excitement, to not give up, but rather find another experience. Regardless of which new experiences you try, you can reap the benefits of engaging in life more openly.

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