Happiness and Attention
“My experience is what I agree to attend to.” – William James
I have a friend who reads the news every morning and typically by the time I meet her for lunch she is pretty depressed and anxious. She’ll tell me about the most recent unemployment rate, the number of homeless animals that had to be euthanized at shelters this year, and a terribly sad and scary story of a local abduction. I always leave thinking I should call her later to see how she’s doing.
I have another friend who also stays well informed. But our lunches don’t leave me down and worried about her. I asked her how she manages to keep up with the news and not get depressed. The answer was simple – she chooses to focus more on the positive stuff. She pays more attention to the news about the extremely successful pet adoption this past weekend, the story of the women who were freed after decades in captivity, and the fact that the unemployment rate tends to be improving.
Your experience – your life – is what you agree to attend to. Whether it’s something outside of you (the news, who comes to your party and who doesn’t, if your dinner was burned or not) or something inside of you (your prediction that your blind date will be awful, your thought that maybe you WILL get that great job, staying focused on your elbow pain or feeling grateful that your migraine finally broke) – what we pay attention to hugely informs our mood.
Don’t get me wrong – we can’t just notice shiny happy facts about life, and can’t have only optimistic thoughts. Paying some attention to the stuff that makes us feel “bad” in some way is really important – it can inspire incredible action. I bet a lot of those new pet owners read about the euthanasia rate. The point is, focusing mostly on depressing facts, worry thoughts, and negative possibilities is going leave you depressed, worried, and negative! Try this: for 24 hours, within reason, focus on more positive stuff (internal and external) than you usually do. Notice how it affects your mood, your behaviors, and how others respond to you.
And tell me if you don’t feel happier at the end of the day.