The Power of Paying Attention

April 30, 2009

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.”

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