Attention: where and how we direct it matters most

“Any aspect of life to which attention is directed will loom large in a global evaluation. This is the essence of the focusing illusion, which can be described in a single sentence: Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.”

Thinking, Fast and Slow (p. 402) 

We often think of that the outward quality of our lives dictates our wellbeing, and I believe it does – to an extent. However we can have all the worldly riches in the world and still feel unsatisfied. 

Part of this conundrum is due to how and where we focus our attention. 

I can show you this by posing the question: how much pleasure do you get from your phone?

This very likely generated an immediate answer in your mind, but now answer a different question: When do you get pleasure from your phone?

If I pose the question when do you get pleasure from your phone? The only answer is when you think about it. For we often use our phones without thinking about them, we’re usually engrossed in what we’re doing with it, such as sending an email, making a phone call or taking a photo and therefore wrapped up in whatever thoughts that activity produces and not thinking about the phone itself.

We create the world through what we think and pay attention to, therefore what we see depends on what we look for. This is not simply about thinking positive thoughts but being aware of where we direct our attention. If we recently lost our job and are replaying the scenario over and over then there is little room to pay attention to the other parts of our lives. A moment in our lives does not have to define our lives.

Daniel Kahneman illustrates this beautifully:

“The focusing illusion can cause people to be wrong about their present state of well-being as well as about the happiness of others, and about their own happiness in the future.

What proportion of the day do paraplegics spend in a bad mood?

This question almost certainly made you think of a paraplegic who is currently thinking about some aspect of his condition. Your guess about a paraplegic’s mood is therefore likely to be accurate in the early days after a crippling accident; for some time after the event, accident victims think of little else. But over time, with few exceptions, attention is withdrawn from a new situation as it becomes more familiar. The main exceptions are chronic pain, constant exposure to loud noise, and severe depression. Pain and noise are biologically set to be signals that attract attention, and depression involves a self-reinforcing cycle of miserable thoughts. There is therefore no adaptation to these conditions. Paraplegia, however, is not one of the exceptions: detailed observations show that paraplegics are in a fairly good mood more than half of the time as early as one month following their accident—though their mood is certainly somber when they think about their situation. Most of the time, however, paraplegics work, read, enjoy jokes and friends, and get angry when they read about politics in the newspaper. When they are involved in any of these activities, they are not much different from anyone else, and we can expect the experienced well-being of paraplegics to be near normal much of the time. Adaptation to a new situation, whether good or bad, consists in large part of thinking less and less about it. In that sense, most long-term circumstances of life, including paraplegia and marriage, are part-time states that one inhabits only when one attends to them.”

Thinking, Fast and Slow (pp. 404-405)

With this is mind, think of a place or object that you take real pleasure in. It could be a peaceful room, a beautiful vista, an heirloom or an object you have created. The pleasure we derive from that place or object is not inherently contained within it, but rather within its power to grasp our attention.

So if our attention can dictate and shape our level of overall wellbeing with the world, it makes sense to cultivate our ability to direct our attention to what we chose, rather than have it consumed by our whims and fancies. This is where meditation reveals its true power.

This is important because even if we are in our most pleasurable place or using our most pleasurable object but our attention is elsewhere – on the things we have to get done, or have failed to do, our relationship problems or family dramas – then we might as well be anywhere else because we are failing to derive pleasure from what we actually want to pay attention to.

This is indicative of our entire lives. In every moment we are deciding what matters by what we pay our attention to. Do you really want to be ruminating about some minor inconvenience when you are on a holiday? Is it wise to continually curse the person who just cut you up in your car or should you pay more attention to the road? It is a good use of time to check emails at your daughter’s birthday party?

It’s the cultivation of mindfulness through meditation that gives us this choice. If we’re not free to choose where we direct our attention, then are we really free at all? Otherwise we’ll continue to be stumble unconsciously from impulse to impulse, desire to desire or aversion to aversion.

I footnotes