Attention and Control – Focusing your way to happiness

I’ve always loved rainy days. My hometown got enough rain to qualify (barely) as a rainforest, so a good overcast day brings back memories of good days in my childhood. There is a sense of joy it gives me that is sometimes quite profound. So much so that one cold wet morning I found myself saying unthinkingly to a shocked roommate, “we have such lovely weather today, don’t we?”

Recently I found myself reflecting on why I love the rain so much. I love the beauty of sunny days too after all, it’s not like this is an exclusive preference. So what makes rainy days so enjoyable?

The answer actually relates to mental health and is a profoundly important reminder of how we can stay happier in our lives.

Attention and Control

In his fantastic book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven R. Covey discusses the concepts of the circle of influence and circle of concern. The core principle, as discussed in a great summary article, is relatively straightforward:

You will have a much better life, if you focus your mental and physical energy ONLY on the things you can personally influence.

Mr. Money Mustache: How Big is your circle of control

If the concept is unfamiliar I’d highly recommend reading that blog article and/or the book itself; both are great.

It’s worth perhaps noting that this does not mean one shouldn’t care about the broader world; rather it is an attempt to ensure that effort and attention don’t get prioritized wrong and generally wasted. Focusing on the aspects of the world where you have influence enables you to be better in exercising that influence, which both makes you more effective and tends over time to expand your circle of influence. Being more effective within it helps it grow much faster.

Another profoundly important element of this dynamic is the impact of attention on happiness. At one point in Deep Work (also a great book), author Cal Newport discusses the impact of attention in the context of author Winifred Gallagher’s cancer diagnosis:

Our brains…construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to. If you focus on a cancer diagnosis, you and your life become unhappy and dark, but if you focus instead on an evening martini, you and your life become more pleasant – even though the circumstances in both scenarios are the same. As Gallagher summarizes: “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love – is the sum of what you focus on.”

Deep Work

This is an important concept supported by “decades of research” according to Gallagher, who notes that “skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.” Manage the focus of your attention thoughtfully and you manage your happiness with it.

Washing the cares away

This concept plays out in my life a great deal; I have a penchant to perpetually let my focus grow too big. I’m interested in big-picture thinking: politics, religion, philosophy, and getting at the underlying truths of the world. I want to get the top-down perspective and see how it all connects and what the drivers are, and I want to get involved. One day I’m deeply concerned about a political issue and discussing how to more effectively advocate or sway minds, another I have strong views on the cultural dynamics underlying the ills in our society. A third that I will be debating what I want to devote my life to in the next step of my career and where I might derive a sense of meaning or purpose.

These are fine things to reflect on, but in this volume and scale they slip all too easily into a focus almost exclusively outside nearer control. And where thinking big thoughts might have an external caricature of profundity or merit, in practice it often rapidly devolves into a general pall of stress, anxiety, or irritability. It makes me both miserable and miserable to be around.

And then it rains, and something about the rivulets running down the windows wash these cares away for me. I read a book, I write an email to a friend, I cook or make a cup of tea or spend some time working on a project. I nap or relax in front of a movie and feel infinitely better. Something about the rain basically gives me permission to stay home and think a bit less about the great wide world, and this return of my focus to my present, my circle of control, almost inevitably makes me happier.

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Cares washed away by the water help the sun come out.

Meditations on focus

Of course, the dynamic I’m describing here is effectively a complex description of mindfulness. Focusing on “movies, walks, and a 6:30 martini” as Gallagher discusses is the kind of presence we hope to inculcate with meditation. By breaking the habit of being so lost in thought we can train ourselves to be able to choose where we focus our attention and for how long. We can choose when it’s worthwhile to debate life goals and career options and when it’s better to put these considerations down in favor of enjoying a warm drink or a cool breeze.

With this capacity we can make an active choice about the balance we want. Do I want to think about the world so often that I spend my life miserable and stressed due to things I can’t change? Or would I rather be thoughtful about how I engage in such reflections, considered in choosing to think about these things in times and places where it can be useful, and able to choose to let go and smell the flowers when I need? I would posit that the life which balances these well is both more effective on the big issues and happier on a daily basis.

Of course, despite my attempts at regular meditation, my capacity to maintain this balance is limited. I still get swept into days of big concerns or reflections (or, in my case, social media exchanges which are both particularly seductive and generally unproductive). I am thus generally thankful to live in places that have semi-regular rainstorms come through to help kick me out of my big fantastical thoughts and return me to the here and now. For this I am deeply thankful.

*For a discussion of the other seductive ways ones focus can slip into unhelpful topics, and how one can push back on that dynamic, see the article on The Three A’s.

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