I do one lecture each semester in my class at Seton Hall University on the power of paying attention. It's based on the book "Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life" by Winifred Gallagher. Gallagher says total focus is the key to controlling your experience, and changing your life. The elements we choose to focus on — the very stuff of our reality — is a creation, adeptly edited, that gives us a highly selective version of the world and our own lives. As the writer William James stated, "My experience is what I agree to attend to." Now there's new evidence that paying full attention to the everyday stuff of life actually makes you happier.
In the New York Times this week, John Tierney reports the findings of Harvard psychologists who contacted 2,200 people around the world at random intervals and asked them what they were doing and thinking, using an IPhone app called trackyourhappiness. The collected 250,000 responses. The happiest people were those having sex when contacted by researchers. They rated their feelings a 90 out of 100. When asked their thoughts, most were focused on the task at hand — their thoughts strayed from the activity only 10 percent of the time.
By contrast, when people were doing anything else, their minds wandered 30 to 65 percent of the time. On average throughout all the quarter-million responses, minds were wandering 47 percent of the time, researchers found.
And wandering minds correlated with unhappiness. Whatever activity people were doing — sex, reading, shopping — people tended to be happier if they focused on the activity instead of thinking about something else, researchers found. In fact, whether and where their minds wandered was a better predictor of happiness than what they were doing.
"Our data suggest that the location of the body is much less important than the location of the mind, and that the former has surprisingly little influence on the latter," researcher Daniel Gilbert told The New York Times. "The heart goes where the head takes it, and neither cares much about the whereabouts of the feet."
Gallagher describes a similar experience. Her book was inspired by a battle with breast cancer. "When I got the diagnosis, I interviewed doctors, talked to friends who went through it, chose the best surgeon and radiologist in the best hospital for me," she told me in an interview. "And once I did that I made the executive decision to hand my body over to them and direct my attention to moving forward with life. I hated (having cancer). But I didn’t let it monopolize my focus."
That was a life-changing experience that led Gallagher to investigate exactly what is involved in paying attention. As she explains in her book, the brain is a collection of systems in conflict – the primitive, reactive system and the consciously controlled reflective mind. Humans evolved to pay attention to movement, bright colors, loud noises, negative emotions, novelty – because there was usually a threat or a potential meal involved.
The problem is, the primitive brain is still unconsciously in survival mode – automatically scanning the world for negative and alarming targets to focus on — which is why you can have a perfectly good day ruined by one jerk who cuts you off in traffic, or why you pay attention to the one person who criticizes your work instead of the nine people who praise it.
"If you don’t choose a target, your brain will choose one for you — the brain is out scanning around and saying, ‘let’s stare at that screen,’ ‘let’s listen to that infomercial,’" Gallagher says. "When you focus on something, your brain photographs that sight or sound or thought or feeling –and that becomes part of your mental album of the world. So it’s important to make those choices count."
Gallagher calls it "top-down attention." It requires asking yourself, "What do I want to concentrate on?" and screening out everything else. And now we know that making those choices count, and giving them our full attention, will also make us happier.
But that’s not an easy task in a multitasking world. Do you have strategies to help you give your full attention and energy to a task? Do you find that mindfulness makes you happier?