The power of attention

I’ve been reading about a book by Paul Dolan, who’s a professor of behavioural science at the LSE, called ‘Happiness By Design’. Dolan suggests that we can affect our level of satisfaction with our lives by controlling where we place our attention. This seems both obvious and revolutionary. Already I find that I limit the amount of time I give to reading about the horrors of our world: it’s so easy to fall into despair about humankind. Perhaps despair is the only truthful stance, but I resist it. On a more personal level, I don’t read reviews of my work, to protect myself from hurt. I feel guilty about this, and presume it to be a sign of weakness. Now, reading Dolan’s theories, it strikes me that maybe there’s something more powerful at work here. Maybe by choosing where to focus our attention we can and should enrich our lives. But can it be done by will alone? Isn’t the habit of feeding on misery something that is driven by some deeper need beyond our control? And anyway, if there’s misery in the world, shouldn’t we face it manfully?

I don’t know the answer, but a metaphor comes to mind. I take care to keep myself clean, and to put on clean clothes, and in general to maintain a certain standard of appearance. This takes effort, but has a real effect on my morale. If ever I’m tempted to stay in my pyjamas all day I always feel a little degraded. None of this is logical, but so it is. Maybe a similar process applies to the psycho-emotional self. Maybe if I impose some discipline on my thoughts I’ll be able to increase my day-to-day level of satisfaction. This sounds robotic, as if I’m to treat myself as a machine. We’re so accustomed to the notion that our moods are out of our control. We almost want them to be out of our control, because then it’s not our fault that we’re unhappy. And yet we accept that wealth, for example, does not automatically bring happiness. Why not? Because the rich man is fixing his attention on those parts of his life that are not as he would wish.

Many years ago I was attacked in my home, tied up, and threatened with a knife. When the ordeal was over – I was unhurt – I experienced an ecstatic rush, and for about twelve hours life seemed to me to be intensely beautiful. Simply to be alive was enough. Then the moment passed, and I returned to my usual levels of dissatisfaction, disappointment, and anxiety that manage to turn a life of relative privilege into a switchback of mood swings. How can one live in that state of joyful gratitude for more than a few hours? Most people will say it’s simply not possible, human nature isn’t made that way. But what if it’s a matter of making the effort? What if it’s all about training ourselves to direct our attention towards what makes us happier?

No more obsessive comparing of our lives with the lives of more successful friends. No more Fear Of Missing Out. No more lamenting the parts of our anatomy that fall short of the ideal. No more regretting the road not taken. No more ghoulish hunger for other people’s pain. No more rage at our own impotence. No more fear of the future. In the place of all these useless ways of beating ourselves up, we give our attention to the life we’re leading, to its purpose and value, to the actual people we encounter, to the world round us, and to now. To the mighty present moment.

Yes, I know. It can’t be done. We’re not saints. But then, I’m also not much of a fine dresser. But each morning I make an effort, and manage not to shame my family. So maybe that same small difference can be achieved when I rise in the morning and dress my mind for the day…