Happiness and wellbeing both start with how we pay attention.
Imagine you’re at a buffet and see a flowing fountain of chocolate fondue. “How delicious,” you think, observing the display.
Moments later, before consciously registering what you’re seeing, your nose wrinkles up and your brow furrows as your eyes rest upon a bedraggled fly, hitching a ride in the glossy brown waves.
Your appetite isn’t quite the same for the rest of the night.
Life is a mix of fondue and flies. Before we can intend anything different, what we pay attention to directly affects our minds and bodies. These changes to our state then go on to affect our happiness.
This probably sounds simplistic. How can something as complex as happiness be explained by what catches our attention?
In short, where our attention goes, our mood and behaviours follow.
The Basics of Attention
Our brains receive a constant stream of information about our external world. At this moment, your brain is processing a phenomenal amount of visual and auditory stimuli. It’s monitoring taste and smell for important information and keeping track of everything touching your skin.
But humans are more than stimuli filters; we have vast stores of knowledge and powerful imaginations that allow us to think about situations we are not currently in. It is here, in the thinking part of the brain, where we can project ourselves into the future, consider our past, and problem-solve.
Luckily for us, we get to choose where we focus our attention at any given time. At one moment, you might rest your focus on something pleasant in your external environment, such as the feeling of a soft blanket against your skin. Next, you might focus on something positive in your imagination, like the memory of a funny conversation you had earlier today.
Whether external or in your imagination, choosing to focus on positive things directly supports joy and happiness. But the reverse is also true, having flow-on effects on your behaviour and subsequent things you’ll tend to notice.
Negativity and Noticing
When we feel negative, we notice more negative things.
Think about the way others tend to irritate us more when we’re already in a bad mood. Or consider how one small failure can send us down the spiral of assuming our whole lives will fall apart.
These overreactions happen because negative emotions prime us to notice more negative things–both in our environments and in our minds. Scientists call this "mood-congruent processing."
In other words, you look for and then process information that matches (or is congruent to) your mood. It is this process that underlies the onset of depression; a person has difficulty focusing on the positive or retrieving positive memories, and so they spiral downward emotionally.
Now, consider how frequently negative things are thrust into the line of our attention. Think about everything we are shown on television and the speed with which bad news circles social media. Combine this with a lousy day at work or the emotional ups and downs of adolescence, and science would say you’ve got a recipe for unhappiness.
Attention Hijackers Drive Unhelpful Habits
Economists and psychologists are increasingly referring to a term known as the “attention economy.” Our attention is now a quantifiable commodity. Every click, every like, and every follow can make somebody money. This means businesses, social media influencers, and web developers will try very hard to keep your attention.
The longer we give social media, the news, and other information sources our attention, the more likely we are to come across subject matter that makes us feel lousy. But the negative consequences of this battle for our attention don’t stop with our mood.
An hour on TikTok may eat up the time we had planned to spend at the gym, getting enough sleep, or in the real world with people we love. Advertisements may tempt us away from healthy choices as push notifications remind us our favourite takeaway is only a few miles down the road.
Lockdowns during the COVID pandemic only fed the attention economy. Trapped in our homes, worried about the health of our loved ones, we welcomed the distraction of the internet. Many of us have become accustomed to giving our attention to social media as a coping mechanism and are finding our daily routines hijacked by time spent scrolling through Instagram.
So what can be done?
Harnessing Attention for Happiness
Happiness and attention are connected. When we practice staying conscious of what our attention is doing, we can do two things differently to elevate our happiness: We can stay present, and we can use our time wisely.
Keeping our attention on the present moment means being totally focused on what is good and in front of us right now. We don’t dwell on things that cannot be changed or are not yet happening.
For example, we don’t agonize over our plans for the future nor dwell over a fight with our spouse. This principle of present-moment attention is at the crux of the mindfulness movement, and it allows worries and resentment to take a backseat.
Wise time-use is another cornerstone of happiness. Do we actively work toward our goals and dreams, or do we use our precious time to engage in useless or harmful behaviours?
Learning to observe what attention is doing is like a superpower for overcoming addiction and temptation. Indeed, research suggests that harnessing attention can ‘hack’ and retrain reward structures in the brain that tempt us to engage in a range of unhelpful habits.
Whether it’s the psychological pull of an early-hours Netflix binge, or something more satisfying to the senses, like a cigarette, large fries, or second glass of wine, it tends to be the same reward centers in the brain feeling the pull.[viii] This means that focused attention is an effective solution for overcoming all sorts of addictive tendencies.
Letting attention rest on the feeling of temptation without indulging it inserts the briefest moment of pause between thought and action. This interrupts our brain’s well-trained behavioural response (to indulge) following the cue of a craving. Watching ourselves like a hawk, we can then ‘surf’ the urge, allowing the feelings of temptation to pass.
At the same time, we can remind ourselves of our future goals and consider all the reasons to make a healthier, happier choice.
The next time you crave that unnecessary indulgence or notice you’ve spiralled into negativity, try this:
- First, recognize that your attention has been captured by your mood or temptation.
- Take a few slow breaths. While doing so, observe your thoughts, feelings, or cravings, and let them pass by. Imagine they are small sticks floating in a fast-moving river or attached to balloons that will soon float high up and out of sight.
- Next, shift your attention to the current moment. What do your senses pick up in your environment? What can you see, hear, or smell?
- If your environment is not stimulating enough, focus on the future successful, happy version of you. Ask yourself: What would that version of me do in this situation?
- Repeat this process until the grip of your mood or desire becomes weaker or disappears altogether.
When we focus on the present moment or the future happy version of ourselves, our actions can create the conditions for happiness. So try taking control of your attention today, and let your happiness flow forth!
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