Thursday, August 16, 2012

Review - Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life by Winifred Gallagher

Short review: You are what you pay attention to, so pay attention to things that matter.

Paying attention
Shapes the world we reside in
And makes us happy

Full review: Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life is, more or less, half of a good book. The central claim of the book is that people tend to not just be more successful and productive, when they are more focused, but also happier. To buttress this claim Gallagher provides a collection of anecdotal examples and a handful of studies on the subject, making her case that there is a connection between focus and happiness reasonably well. However, the book seems to fall short of establishing that a focused way of life will cause happiness – it seems entirely plausible that the causal arrow might point the other direction so that happy people are naturally more focused. The book also gives no real advice for how to achieve a focused life other than to say "focus more and you'll be happier".

The concept of "paying attention" is something that most of us take for granted. But for the most part, we only notice "paying attention" when we, or someone we are trying to talk to is not. In Rapt, Gallagher begins by discussing the relatively recent development of the serious study of "attention", and exploring how this psychological phenomenon affects us. Although many people have the idea that even though they don't consciously remember all of the elements of a scene that they have looked at, that all of the information is filed away in our brain somewhere. But the reality seems to be that elements of that scene that we were not paying attention to effectively did not exist for us. Our world is shaped by the limitations of our attention. In effect, the world that we individually live in is created by the limits of our ability to focus.

With this knowledge in hand, Gallagher proceeds to illustrate the ways that focus can make our lives happier. She points out that people who are always trying their hand at new things are required to give their full attention to the task in order to master it, and such people tend to be happier than people who pursue the same mastered tasks ad nauseum. Those things that are new and difficult, but which was can master with sufficient work, our brain is engaged, and as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes it, we "flow", a kind of state in which our perception of time alters as our focus carries us away. Humans, it seems, are happier when dealing with novelty, and when the novelty wears off, what once made us interested and buoyant becomes commonplace and boring. The example is given of winning the lottery – people think that winning a lot of money will make them happy. And studies show that for short periods of time it does. But having lots of money soon becomes the ordinary experience for such people, and the excitement of having lots of money loses its allure. Because one no longer focuses on their good fortune, the money no longer provides happiness. This effect also goes a long way to explain why the wealthy are no generally happier than those of more modest means, and why the impoverished are not generally unhappier. For them, such conditions are normal, and thus cease to factor in their perception of well-being.

People who are told to focus on the "nice" things as they take a daily walk self-report a happier outlook than those who are told to focus on "bad" things, or simply given no instructions at all. In a sense, the reality we experience is bounded by our focus. This can be a useful observation, potentially allowing us to choose to focus on those things that provide us with a happier life. But this reality also poses some potential hazards – those whose focus is consumed by "bad" things will come to see the world as being irreparably damaged.  This kind of myopia can also lead to a person choosing to focus only on those things that confirm their chosen world view. This kind of focused attention may account for the tendency of some people to cling tenaciously to wrong-headed pseudoscience, or untenable prejudices. When one considers the narrowness of focus that we are all subject to, one can quickly see the necessity of the more objective analysis that comes from a communal and testable evaluation, such as that we see in the pursuit of science. Though we harbor the notion that we all share the same world, the reality seems to be that we each live in an individual world of our own choosing, even if our choice is often made unconsciously.

Competing with our focus is distraction. One might wonder if focus is so valuable to us, allowing us to accomplish tasks, and provide the key to happiness, why are we so easily distracted? The answer seems to be rooted in evolution: those of our ancestors who were too focused, missed the signals that warned of danger, and were, presumably, eaten by a lion or some other beast. This also explains why, when our focus is interrupted, our focus can shift so tightly onto whatever it is that distracted us – if the event that was significant enough to pull our attention away from our current task were one that signals danger, it would have behooved our ancestors to pay close attention to it. The difficulty is that until one focuses on the distraction, there is no way to tell whether it is important or not. So we are subject to distractions that are trivial or irrelevant, and our brain often treats them as being just as important as whatever we are doing at the time. And in the modern world, this tendency to distraction means that we are constantly fighting to keep ourselves focused on what is in front of us. Because we have a tendency to treat each distraction as equally important, when we try to multitask, we are unable to focus, and not only are we less effective, we are also less happy.

But the failing of the book is that while it offers the suggestion that a more focused life will lead to a happier self, it gives no particular advice as to how to accomplish this more substantial than "try new things", and "reduce the distractions in your life". These suggestions, while evidently true, are of little practical value. If people could avoid distractions, then they would do so. Simply saying "avoid distractions" is a banal, and mostly useless bit of advice. Perhaps this sort of criticism is unfair to Rapt. After all, if a book was published showing the connection between being unfit and a shorter lifespan, one would not automatically expect that it would also take on the task of advising the reader how to become fitter. But conversely, the author of such a book would also be writing in an environment in which books about diet, fitness, and personal health are commonplace, and thus when writing about the virtues of a healthy lifestyle might possibly feel no need to offer any kind of advice concerning how to achieve such a lifestyle. But with the exception of pop self-help books, there doesn't appear to be much assistance for someone seeking to try to obtain the benefits of a focused life. Consequently, when the sum total of the advice in this book amounts to little more than "operate on the edge of your competence", and "focus your attention on happy things", it feels decidedly unsatisfying.

Understanding how our brains work is one of the most interesting areas of study. Understanding ourselves allows us to better understand the world around us. Looking inward and figuring out how our own perceptions are formed gives us a way to evaluate how well those perceptions match up with the world around us, and if necessary, correct for them. Rapt not only explains how our focus makes us happier, but also reveals that we live in a world defined by what we focus upon. Although the book does not offer any suggestions as to how one could shift one's focus in a manner that would make one happier or more productive, it does offer some real insight into how our focus shapes the world we live in, and by extension, shapes us.

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  1. Interesting. I was all set to buy until you mention what the book lacks.
    I prefer to focus on the positive. The alternative is simply depressing. And I do have my own methods...

  2. @Julia Rachel Barrett: I agree completely. The book, while interesting to read, is not a book I would have gotten if I had known ahead of time what was and was not in it.