Give me your undivided attention for a second. (It’ll make you happier, I promise.)
You create your world with what you pay attention to.
There are a million things happening right now: some good, some bad.
Pay attention to the good, you’ll feel better. Pay attention to the bad, and, well … you get it.
… the things that you don’t attend to in a sense don’t exist, at least for you. All day long, you are selectively paying attention to something, and much more often than you may suspect, you can take charge of this process to good effect. Indeed, your ability to focus on this and suppress that is the key to controlling your experience and, ultimately, your well-being …
Research shows that paying attention to positive feelings literally expands your world. Focusing on the negative makes it tiny.
Based on objective lab tests that measure vision, Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, shows that paying attention to positive emotions literally expands your world, while focusing on negative feelings shrinks it — a fact that has important implications for your daily experience.
As Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman famously said, “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.”
As research has shown, lottery winners aren’t as happy as you might guess and paraplegics aren’t as unhappy as you might think. Why?
For each, being rich or being paralyzed eventually becomes one small piece of their very big life. In other words, they stop focusing on it.
“People think that if they win the lottery, they’ll be happy forever. Of course, they will not. For a while, they are happy because of the novelty, and because they think about winning all the time. Then they adapt and stop paying attention to it.” Similarly, he says, “Everyone is surprised by how happy paraplegics can be, but they are not paraplegic full-time. They do other things. They enjoy their meals, their friends, the newspaper. It has to do with the allocation of attention.”
And controlling that attention can be the key to your happiness.
Kahneman says that both the Dalai Lama and the Penn positive psychologist Martin Seligman would agree about the importance of paying attention: “Being able to control it gives you a lot of power, because you know that you don’t have to focus on a negative emotion that comes up.”
So in a world of buzzing iPhones and relentless emails and text messages, how can you better control your attention and make yourself happier?
Here are six tips from research.
(I still have your undivided attention, right? Just checking.)
How you react to things is more important than what actually happens.
Research pioneered by Arnold and Lazarus shows reappraising situations, focusing on the good elements of “bad” events, can be a huge step toward staying positive.
… direct your attention to some element of the situation that frames things in a more helpful light. After a big blowup over an equitable sharing of the housework, rather than continuing to concentrate on your partner’s selfishness and sloth, you might focus on the fact that at least a festering conflict has been aired, which is the first step toward a solution to the problem, and to your improved mood.
Sound like denial? Self-deception?
It is. And it works like a charm.
That’s why people happier than you do it all the time.
Directing your attention away from a negative experience not only is not as maladaptive as many of his peers think but, according to the Columbia psychologist George Bonanno, can be a superior coping strategy. Indeed, he finds that in the wake of an upsetting event, “self-deception and emotional avoidance are consistently and robustly linked to a better outcome.” Even when you’re reeling from a severe blow, such as a loved one’s death, diverting your focus from your grief can boost your resilience.
2) Focus On Those Who Believe In You
How do politicians and salesmen stay so positive?
Part of it may be acting but they also have a tendency to selectively pay attention to positive reinforcers.
Individuals of sanguine temperament, such as certain politicians, CEOs and salesmen, seem naturally to excel at directing their focus away from negative targets. Research shows that when they confront a potentially unpleasant situation, such as some unfriendly faces at a gathering, these extraverts are apt to shift their attention rapidly around the room and zero in on amiable or neutral visages, thus short-circuiting the distressing images before they can get stored in memory.
3) Seek Flow
You don’t need more time “doing nothing” to recharge, you need more challenges that you find engrossing.
“Flow” (being so wrapped up in what you’re doing that the world falls away) is an active state of attention that research shows we like more than endless hours in front of the TV.
In a stunning example of the kind of mind-set that undermines good daily experience, most people reflexively say that they prefer being at home to being at work. However, flow research shows that on the job, they’re much likelier to focus on activities that demand their attention, challenge their abilities, have a clear objective and elicit timely feedback — conditions that favor optimal experience.
4) Make Boring Things Into A Game
Even dull jobs can be more compelling if you change the activity into a game and make it a challenge.
This increases your engagement and makes you happier.
With some thought, effort, and attention, says Csíkszentmihályi, you can make even an apparently dreary job, such as assembling toasters or packaging tools, much more satisfying. “The trick,” he says, “is to turn the work into a kind of game, in which you focus closely on each aspect” — screwing widget A to widget B or the positions of your tools and materials — “ and try to figure out how to make it better. That way, you turn a rote activity into an engaging one.”
5) Schedule Challenges For Your Leisure Time
Schedule things in advance that draw you in and you’ll find yourself enjoying your free time more.
Most of us seek unscheduled free time for our leisure but given your brain’s lazy nature, you’re likely to waste that time doing what’s easy vs. what’s really fun.
Summing up, Csíkszentmihályi says, “If left to their own devices and genetic programming, and without a salient external stimulus to attract them, most people go into a mode of low-level information processing in which they worry about things or watch television.” The antidote to leisure-time ennui is to pay as much attention to scheduling a productive evening or weekend as you do to your workday.
6) Take Time To Savor
Take time to pay attention to and appreciate the good things in life.
Yes, “take time to smell the roses” is more than a cliche.
This is one of the secrets of the happiest people and it’s part of the basis for one of the most effective happiness-boosting techniques.
One group was told to focus on all the upbeat things they could find — sunshine, flowers, smiling pedestrians. Another was to look for negative stuff — graffiti, litter, frowning faces. The third group was instructed to walk just for the exercise. At the end of the week, when the walkers’ well-being was tested again, those who had deliberately targeted positive cues were happier than before the experiment. The negatively focused subjects were less happy, and the just plain exercisers scored in between. The point, says Bryant, is that “you see what you look for. And you can train yourself to attend to the joy out there waiting to be had, instead of passively waiting for it to come to you.”
And what are the results of more focus and undivided attention?
Focused work and focused leisure not only make you happier in the moment but your selection of challenges to overcome are what forge you into the type of person you want to be.
Over time, a commitment to challenging, focused work and leisure produces not only better daily experience, but also a more complex, interesting person: the long-range benefit of the focused life. As Hobbs puts it, the secret of fulfillment is “to choose trouble for oneself in the direction of what one would like to become.”
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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.
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