Enhance Your Experiences and Boost Happiness through Attentional Control

Oct 01, 2023
Enhance Your Experiences and Boost Happiness through Mindfulness and Attentional Control

Imagine that you've planned a beautiful outdoor wedding. You've thoughtfully curated your perfect day, surrounded by your favorite people. On your big day, though, unexpected rain shows up. Is it ruined? 

Or perhaps something a little more mundane. You go to the movies or a concert, and someone near you is talking constantly. Did they ruin it? 

Some experiences suck. They are hard or challenging or frustrating or unpleasant or uncomfortable. But sometimes we spoil a perfectly good experience all by ourselves. 


By focusing on the wrong aspects. 


We Can Exercise Choice 

I love the story of Gerda Weissman Klein, a holocaust survivor who Dr. April interviewed on the Building Psychological Strength podcast years ago. Gerda talks about how amidst some of the greatest human atrocities, there were bright spots, positive moments, in the concentration camp. She shares a powerful story of generosity and talks of compassion and humor. I find her story both humbling and inspiring. We can all take a lesson or two from her.

Now, do not mistake me here. I am not suggesting that focusing on the positive cancels out the negative aspects or that you shouldn't be affected by painful, disturbing, or otherwise undesirable experiences. What I am doing is dramatically making the point that we can exercise some choice in what we focus on and that doing so can impact the quality of our experiences, how we move through them, our resilience, and our happiness.

Very few experiences are absolutely perfect. While occasionally the stars align and we're in a good mood, everything is pleasant, desirable, highly engaging, and exceeds our expectations, most of the time, our present moment experience consists of "good" and "bad" aspects (quotes because good and bad are subjective judgments, but that's a discussion for a different day). Sure, sometimes the ratio of good to bad is unbalanced, with one overwhelmingly overshadowing the other. Yet, even in the worst of circumstances, we can choose what to focus on, and what we focus on will make a huge difference in how we experience things.


A Mindfulness Move

Directing the focus of our attention is a mindfulness move. Theoretically, we can control our attention, choosing what to focus on in any given moment. For example, we can aim out attention inward, focusing on how we feel or the thoughts or bodily sensations that are arising, or outwardly, honing in on our sensory experience (what we can see, hear, smell, taste, touch).

In addition to controlling the direction, we can also manipulate how wide or narrow the beam of our attention is. We can narrow our attention, focusing on a small aspect of our experience, as we do when tune out surrounding noise to focus on the conversation we're having in a busy public place. In contrast, we can broaden our attention to take in our full experience, like we might do when seeing a stunning landscape for the first time; we may take in the view, the breeze, the sounds, and our sense of awe and wonder all at the same time. 


Attention Hijackers

Note that I said we can theoretically control our attention. While we can build the skill through mindfulness, the reality is that there are things that naturally hijack our attention, dictating both the direction and width of it. I'd like to call out a couple.


Strong Emotions.

Strong emotions like anxiety and anger, in particular, act like an attention sharpshooter, narrowing our focus and centering it on the perceived threat. That makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. When a real threat approaches, you need to be able to ignore every other aspect of your experience so you can focus on surviving. In modern day life, however, we end up getting tangled up in things that trigger our fight-or-flight system that aren't actually dangerous. The result? We pay way too much attention to those aspects of our experience and miss out on the rest. 


The Negativity Bias.

Our brain's natural tendency to look for problems and to pay a disproportionate amount of attention to negative or bad things also hijacks us. It is such a common habit to notice all of the things that aren't as we'd like them to be, are unpleasant, or need to be fixed. Unfortunately, letting that habit go unchecked means your wedding day or your movie will be ruined.


Expectations and Judgments.

Holding rigid expectations and judging may not necessarily hijack your attention in the way strong emotions or the negativity bias do, but they tend to lead to us getting caught up in our head, dwelling on how much we don't like things or how much we want them to be different. That'll surely ruin an experience as quickly as anything external could.


So What Do We Do? 

As with so many things psych strength related, it takes intentionality and practice to build the skills you need. Here are 3 strategies to help you gain attentional control and enjoy more of your experiences. 


1. Get aggressively mindful in the moment. 

It may be tempting to say, "just don't think about" when it comes to trying not to focus on certain unwanted aspects of your experience, but that doesn't work. I'll prove it.

Whatever you do - I mean it. Pretend like your life is on the line here. Whatever you do, do NOT think about a pig.

You're smirking now. Why?

BECAUSE YOU PICTURED A PIG even though I told you not to.

You see, in order to not think about it...we have to think about it. Instead of trying to not think about things that are bothering you or tainting your experience, aggressively focus on something else, some other aspect of the moment. 

This is a nuanced difference, I know. Don't think about a pig is different, though, than think about carrots. Intentionally thinking about - focusing on - something else is a way to exert control over your focus and, therefore, your experience. 


2. Build your mindfulness muscle. 

Even with intention and effort, it can be difficult to truly focus your attention where you want it, especially in the face of those natural hijackers like anxiety and negativity. The solution is to build your mindfulness muscle through regular practice. Think of it like going to gym to build your biceps. It takes way more than one curl to really gain strength and be able to lift heavier weights. It's the same thing in our brains. Controlling our attention when we're anxious is a much heavier lift than controlling it when we're calm, and control in a calm state is hard enough!

There are a number of ways to build mindfulness, including meditation and non-meditation options. Explore our other posts and episodes, enroll in our ASCEND course (we no longer actively advertise this course, but I want to make it available to you from our vault because the robust program includes a section on mindfulness, in addition to numerous other important skills and exercises), or check out a popular app like 10% Happier (my personal favorite). 


3. Practice gratitude or appreciation.

Similar to building your mindfulness muscle, this is a preventative strategy. A gratitude or appreciation practice helps to train your brain to notice the positive aspects of your experience, helping to protect you against the negativity bias. There are a number of ways to practice, so find one that works for you or try this one or this one or this one.


As we are fond of saying at Peak Mind, your mind can be your most valuable asset or your biggest liability. You get to choose. Take ownership and begin cultivating the experiences you want to have.

"We can spoil any experience..." - Dr. Marty Klein


Written by Dr. Ashley Smith

Peak Mind Co-founder

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