The Power of Paying Attention

by Laura Rowley
Thursday, April 30, 2009, 12:00AM

If you want to be happy, pay attention.

That’s the conclusion of the new book ‘Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life’ by behavioral science writer Winifred Gallagher. Interviewing neuroscientists, psychologists, philosophers, and others, Gallagher argues that your happiness depends in large part on where and how you choose to place your focus.

Paying attention sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s similar to the platitude “Live within your means” — it makes a gigantic difference in your well-being, yet many people can’t figure out how to do it. Gallagher breaks down the science of attention, explaining what happens in the brain when we focus on something; why certain things grab our attention and can sabotage our mood, creativity, and productivity; and how to take control of the tool of attention to create a more fulfilling life. At its heart, the book optimistically affirms that no one is a victim of his circumstances — no matter how difficult those circumstances might be.

Gallagher knows that territory intimately. The book was inspired by her battle with cancer a few years ago. “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 recalls. “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. That’s not to say I was happy, or thought, ‘Gee, cancer, what a blessing.’ I hated it. But I didn’t let it monopolize my focus.”

Shifting Your Attention

Instead, she shifted her attention to what was engaging and meaningful. “I would get up in the morning and look in the mirror; I was bald and I could have thought, ‘I don’t feel good, I’ll lie here in bed and watch Oprah.’ But I got dressed and booted up the computer,” she says, adding that she also concentrated on her five children and day-to-day tasks. “The thing that impressed me was it really worked. We do have much more control over our attention than we think.”

Perhaps first and foremost, “you have to choose your target,” says Gallagher. “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.’ 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.”

And when it’s not deliberately focused, the brain tends to home in on bad news. “We evolved to pay attention to painful, negative feelings for the excellent reason that if something is scaring you or making you angry, you are motivated to do something about it,” says Gallagher.

The problem is, research has shown that “negative feelings shrink your visual and conceptual reality, which limits your options,” Gallagher explains. “The attentional issue is particularly important now, when so many people are under terrific financial stress. You can’t focus on it 24/7. Focusing on the positive literally broadens your visual field; you can take in the big picture, both visually and conceptually, consider more options. You’re in a better decision-making space.”

A Recent Tragedy

Gallagher points to the tragedy of David Kellerman, the 41-year-old chief financial officer of Freddie Mac and married father of a 5-year-old girl, who recently hanged himself in his Virginia home. “One can only assume the terrific strain he was under — he ate, slept, and drank the crisis and felt personally responsible,” says Gallagher. “The world literally shrunk, so that the only thing that existed for him was that crisis, and we see how it limited his options.”

The good news is that the brain is trainable. University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson, for example, has found changes in the structure and function of the brains of Tibetan monks when they meditate, Gallagher writes. Deliberately focusing on feelings such as compassion, joy, and gratitude, Davidson conjectures, may strengthen neurons in the left prefrontal cortex and inhibit messages of fear and anxiety from other parts of the brain.

When people do experience fear, anxiety, or loss, creating a diversion can be a better way to cope than chewing it over with a friend or therapist, Gallagher writes. One study found four in 10 bereaved people do better without grief therapy. Columbia psychologist George Bonanno tells Gallagher that, in the wake of an upsetting event, “self-deception and emotional avoidance are consistently and robustly linked to a better outcome.” (Or, as a friend of mine cheerfully counsels: “Deny, defy, and sugarcoat.”)

So if skillful management of attention is critical to happiness, what should we focus on? Gallagher argues for activities that create flow. That’s the phenomenon that occurs when someone is so deeply engaged in a challenging activity that he forgets the passage of time, a concept developed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. “What makes you happy is paying rapt attention to something that interests and absorbs you,” she says.

This sounds a bit circular — pay attention to things that absorb your full attention — but, ultimately, Gallagher’s book comes back to the notion of calling. What are your passions and talents? What are you here for? What do you value, and how will you set goals to manifest those values in your life? How will you attend to those values in your daily experience? When the money disappears, perhaps the silver lining is that we are no longer distracted by the incidentals of what to buy or how to get rich quick, and we can focus our precious attention on the questions that really matter.

As the poet W.H. Auden put it: “Choice of attention — to pay attention to this and ignore that — is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases, a man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences, whatever they may be.”

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