The Focused Life
(Page 4 of 5)
Considering attention’s importance, it’s surprising that until recently, science has come up with few strategies to improve it. Most new strategies have a “back to the future” quality derived from their origin in meditation, secularized and made amenable to scientific study. These cognitive regimens can strengthen attention and are both free and safe, all of which must appeal to the 78 million baby boomers and their aging children, who are equally concerned about maintaining their mental and physical health.
The focused life, however, requires a capacity not just for paying attention but also for the discerning choice of targets that will invite the best possible experience. Much is made of the fact that human beings are the only creatures to know we must die, but we’re also the only ones to know we must find something engaging to focus on in order to pass the time. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “To fill the hour—that is happiness.”
Deciding what to pay attention to for this hour, day, week, or year, much less a lifetime, is a peculiarly human predicament, and your quality of life largely depends on how you handle it. Moses got his focus from God; Picasso from his nearly supernatural creativity. We have other motivations and gifts, and most of us have to go through a more complicated process to find the right things to focus on. We must resist the temptation to drift along, reacting to whatever happens to us next, and deliberately select targets, from activities to relationships, that are worthy of our finite supplies of time and attention.
Some decisions, such as which profession to pursue or person to live with, automatically receive serious attention. Other choices may be less obvious but are just as important to the tenor of your daily experience: deciding to concentrate on your hopes rather than your fears; to attend to the present instead of the past; to appreciate that just because something upsetting happens, you don’t have to fixate on it. Still other targets may seem inconsequential: focusing on a guitar instead of a rerun; a chat instead of an e-mail; an apple instead of a doughnut. Yet the difference between “passing the time” and “time well spent” depends on making smart decisions about what to attend to.
Abundant research shows that most of the rich and famous, brainy and beautiful are little or no happier than individuals of ordinary means and gifts, because no matter who you are, your joie de vivre mostly derives from paying attention to someone or something that interests you. Even in the hell of the Nazi death camps, many people avoided depression because they concentrated on the one thing that was left to them: their inner experience. The rates of psychological problems among people in extreme situations such as plane crashes in remote areas are surprisingly low—often lower than in normal settings. Vicissitudes notwithstanding, these people are not sitting around brooding about the past or killing time by channel surfing but are living the focused life.
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