The #1 Key to Happiness: Management of Your Attention
These are the words that, to me, sum up the absolute heart of the field of positive psychology, the underpinnings of every intervention and theory. I first heard them in a classroom at Penn from Dr. Michael Baime MD, the founder of the Penn Program for Mindfulness. Dr. Baime has trained more than 10,000 people in mindfulness-based stress management, helping them to reduce their stress, cultivate growth, and bring more awareness to ways that they live their lives.
Attention is the single most powerful resource that each of us possesses. It is also something that no one can take away from us, something that costs no money, and something that can be cultivated and expressed according to our individual preferences and context. Based upon extensive research from positive psychology, I argue that is the way in which we choose to direct our attention that determines the quality and experience of our lives.
What is attention?
It’s important to bring awareness to a simple fact that we all know, but rarely acknowledge: your experience of the external world is always filtered through your internal world, which is known as your consciousness. Consciousness is responsible for representing information about what is happening both inside and outside of you, in such a way that you can act upon it. It’s a fancy word for something that is absolutely fundamental to you and your life, and therefore, your well-being.
There is a classic proverb that illustrates the nature of consciousness: if a tree falls in the woods with no one around, does anyone hear it? In order to experience the sound of a tree falling, you must have recognition of the event within your consciousness. Our consciousness is also what allows us to imagine possibilities, acting almost as a mirror that can reflect reality to you and allow you to mentally transform it.
However, this mirror does not usually cast an accurate reflection. It’s more like a funhouse mirror (or for all my millennials, a Snapchat filter) that distorts your perception of reality.
Consider the last time that you were in a terrible mood, and the way that the rest of the day seemed to unfold accordingly: you got cut off in traffic, your manager was brusque with you, and you were up all night taking care of your sick child. This narrative of continual suffering became your experience that day, and it probably had a pretty detrimental impact on your mood, thoughts, and behaviors. While the narrative appeared to be true to you, it was merely the result of what your consciousness was representing to you, a representation that was dictated by the way that you focused your attention. You chose to focus on your manager’s brusque tone instead of his neutral words, creating a personal belief that you had done something wrong, and inspiring the feelings of frustration and shame. While it is definitely true that your child was sick, you chose to perceive that sickness as a burden upon your shoulders, rather than any other interpretation (such as an opportunity to express love and care for someone you cherish).
Your consciousness is responsible for the way that you experience the world, and you are responsible for cultivating your consciousness through the way that you direct your attention.
How does attention work?
Attention shapes our lives through filtering through all of the available existing information in the world and selects only a small portion of it, creating the world that we perceive to be ‘reality’.
In this moment, as you read the words on this page, your attention is laser-focused on comprehending and understanding the text. You’re probably not, at this moment, thinking about the way that your pinky toe is pressing into the bottom of your shoe.
But now you are.
Now it is in your attention. You can’t help but notice it. You probably are wondering how you didn’t notice it before.
We can’t possibly pay attention to all of the things that are happening around us. There is so much going on at any one time: the sounds, the smells, the noises, the flickering light, the way our clothes feel, our latest emotional pain, the grocery store list, the nagging worry about a mole on your arm, that email you’ve been putting off. Our attention can only handle seven pieces of information at one time, give or take two – the average number of digits in a phone number. From the nearly endless supply of stimuli, our attention must be selective.
There are two ways in which we select the objects of our attention: involuntarily and voluntarily. Involuntarily, we find our attention pulled by sounds, movements, interest or habit. Voluntarily, we choose to point our attention towards something that we have deemed personally meaningful or important to us, something that is important enough that we are willing to neglect the other stimuli and focus upon it.
William James, the founding father of psychology, argued that “effort of attention is the essential phenomenon of will.” It is not easy to control our attention, because there is no shortage of stimuli out there in the world that beg for your attention and that hope to capitalize upon your lapses into involuntary selection. Any application that has a pop-up notification captures your involuntary attention. The person in your office who frantically jumps from email to meeting to crisis to email is a servant to their involuntary attention. Imagine how this manifests when you feel pain or sadness or some other negative emotion – the pull is magnetic, leading us to circle around and around those painful thoughts over and over again, leading to state of rumination, which has been shown to lead to depression and anxiety.
On a more positive note, attention is also what allows us to pursue and experience well-being. Attention allows us to engage in many productive choices, such as:
- Choosing thoughts and battling unproductive ones, which is a core skill of resilience
- Envisioning our future selves and lives in order to set goals and objectives
- Choosing to execute upon strategies and implement habits or interventions, or override unhelpful / habitual responses
Why is attention so central to well-being?
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the founders of positive psychology, has said that “control of consciousness determines the quality of life”. We have very little control over what happens to us and over the ultimate events of our external lives. While we can certainly increase the probability that good things will happen to us through activities like building strong relationships, finding a job that fits our strengths, exercising and eating healthy, and so on, it is an unfortunate truth of life that these are only valiant attempts at very best. Even those of us who live the most blessed, fortunate life imaginable will absolutely come to know and deeply experience suffering. While it might seem bleak to recognize that the only assurance in this life is that we cannot control the external world, it is in fact something that can set us free.
The most expedient way to improve the quality of life is through taking responsibility for one’s own consciousness through the way that we use our attention. While incredibly powerful, our attention is limited, like a flashlight that can only illuminate a small area of space. Imagine holding a water bottle under a tap that is spraying widely; only a little bit of water will get into the jar. If the water stream is focused, it will quickly fill the bottle. The process of learning to develop and control your consciousness is what transforms the way that you exist in the world, because every single part of your existence is impacted by said consciousness.
Your life happens both inside and outside of you. While you cannot control what goes on outside, you can learn to cultivate your insides, which ends up having a pretty unbelievable impact on the way that the outside world looks and feels. Religions have long known this. Almost all spiritual practices are about learning to cultivate your attention - through mindfulness, loving-kindness meditation, prayer, service - in a certain direction that is designed to have an impact on your well-being and your overall life. Many of us have gotten wrapped up in the content of these practices, comparing and contrasting, but the process is remarkably similar.
The thoughtful management and control of your attention is absolutely key to improving almost every single aspect of your life and your well-being. What will you do with yours?