Why “There” is No Better Than “Here”: How Your Attention Creates Your Happiness

Here’s a money quote from Gordon Livingston’s book Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart, which I learned about from Derek Sivers:

“The list of paradoxes [in life] is endless: the relentless pursuit of pleasure brings pain; the greatest risk is not taking any. My personal favorite is the truth that everything in life is a good news/bad news story. The long-sought promotion brings more money and more headaches; our dream vacation puts us in debt; experience has taught us well, but now we are too old to use the knowledge; youth is wasted on the young.”


Everything in life is a good news/bad news story

You know the drill: you pay for a dream vacation, but once you get there, that stupid couple from Germany took the best poolside chairs. That couple is letting their young kids run wild. Crap like this is going to happen unless you rent out the entire hotel or get an AirBnB. But guess what will happen once you get there? The one bedroom is 10x nicer than in the photos and now you have to tell yourself that it’s okay for your friend to get that room, of course you don’t mind, etc. Or you go to the super swanky resort, and they put you in the wrong suite.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. – Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Right now, I argue, isn’t the worst time to be alive. If you don’t believe me, let’s take a step back and think about what you were doing two years ago, in the fall of 2019. Show me your tweets, photos, and texts from 2019 that say THIS IS AMAZING AND I WOULDN’T CHANGE A THING?

They probably don’t exist, because of one simple reason: real life is always a mixed bag. True, we’re stressed and tired of the pandemic. There are a lot of things to be annoyed about:

Counterpoint: logistics, families, and travel are always annoying because they’re complicated systems; all it takes is one piece of the puzzle to become slightly askew, and the whole day is out of order.

What COVID is doing is exposing fragilities that already existed in our systems. A year ago, consulting companies were writing this about the global supply chain. Considering the fact that I haven’t lost those stubborn 5 pounds this past year, can we really be surprised that the entire global fleet of logistics, operations, and transportation is still trying to get its shit together? Families have always been politically divided; now that we’re dealing with health issues, vaccinations, contact tracing—things we feel compelled to discuss before we get together at Thanksgiving—they’re coming to the surface. When it comes to travel, there are so many individual moving parts that have to come together that it’s frankly a miracle that we don’t spontaneously combust whenever we say the word plane.

Life and society are complex, dynamic systems that are only as good as their weakest links. The big difference between now and The Before Time is that we can link a lot of our current woes to one salient event.


How you pay attention to anything is how you view everything

Intentional activities (like practicing gratitude) are what dictate our happiness—not our actual circumstances. It’s easy to be excited about the new car, job, home, etc. at first. Over time, you get acclimated to the moon roof; you start doubting whether the pay raise is worth having to dealing with H.R. on the reg; you learn that your model-beautiful new spouse is rather unpleasant when tired and not in the mood to go out.

Practicing gratitude is an intentional activity that has a profound effect on our happiness because of two fundamental truths:

  1. Everything in life is a mixed bag.
  2. Our attention is like a magnifying glass. Daniel Kahneman called this the focusing illusion, our tendency to believe that “What you see is all there is.”

We’re never happy because of how good/perfect things are. We’re happy because of our attention.


Interestingly, people who are depressed, miserable, and perfectionists all have the same amazing skill of focusing on the shitty stuff:


It’s easy to lose perspective of the larger picture if you have an attentional bias towards the negative. I have a tendency towards feeling depressed, meaning that it’s one of my “steady states” (what system dynamics would refer to as an attractor). It’s a bit like having a white couch: unless I’m a stickler for keeping it clean, it can look dirty really quickly. Spiraling, for me, means that I start watching the news more; I start binge-watching bad TV; I stop exercising. Circling the drain of depression means that everything just feels like it takes a little more work and recovering from a bad mood takes longer, because the world looks bleak.


Optimism is a super power

Gratitude and optimism are linked by this focus on the joy and benefit of wherever we’re standing, a way of retraining your brain to focus on the rewards around you. Resilience is the art of harnessing our resources to overcome life’s demands, and life makes demands on us until we die. To have this tool ready to go when you need it, you’ve got to practice gratitude when it feels superfluous.

Practicing optimism and gratitude also help us focus on the positive aspects of a situation, which is important because of Life Truth #3:

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” – William Shakespeare, Hamlet

When you make gratitude and optimism habits, you start seeing the positive aspects of neutral situations more easily. Life is not only a mixed bag—it’s an amorphous, ambiguous one at best.

In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert artfully explained the folly of counterfactual thoughts, like regret or the idea that my life would have been better if X would have happened. I used to think that my life would have been so much better if I would have been accepted to my first-choice school, but the truth is that I have absolutely no idea how my life would have turned out in that alternate universe. I might have been run over by a bus on my first day; accrued enough debt to create decades of anxiety-provoking financial instability; been discouraged from following my dreams because I would have focused on the genius of my classmates.

It’s nice to think that my life would have been better if I would have been accepted to a more competitive school because it’s an automatic handicap, a self-imposed glass ceiling on what I expect to be able to accomplish in my current set of circumstances. It’s a self-limiting belief that turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The truth is that the severely entitled, “woe is me” attitude that I had when I was 18 would have followed me around wherever I went to school. I would have focused on all the reasons why I thought it sucked (I feel so poor here! Everyone’s parents are rich!) instead of the corollary: ha! These rich suckers are paying for my scholarship to be here! And I went to a public high school! Positive emotions are the building blocks of resilience.

Attitudes are contagious

By now, I know that there’s truth to the idea “how you see anything is how you see everything.” There will be ants at the picnic—it’s what happens when you bring food outside. It’ll always be hard to find parking at the beach on a nice day—that’s where people flock when it’s sunny. There will always be people who seem to have it easier than you—but you’re also not using your social media accounts to advertise why your life is difficult, right? There will be slight disruptions to travel plans, or today’s schedule—but that’s never an excuse to declare the trip or day to be a disaster.

Gratitude has been my saving grace during COVID. I got a dog! I’m reading lots of books! I’m learning that I genuinely love my own company! Gratitude has helped eliminate FOMO: I’m missing out on everything in the world except for where I am, right now—and I’m okay with that. The older I get, the easier it becomes to avoid chronically negative people—and to avoid becoming one. I’m stuck right here, with myself—so I’m making sure it’s a fun ride.

What if this all sounds like privileged bullshit

In almost every article I’ve read on mental health issues during the pandemic, inevitably there comes a comment like: Even if I had access to the sort of nature you experience, I don’t think, for me, that taking pictures of it would help. Or Meditation or mindfulness is not for everyone. And a one size fits all solution is deceptive. Or This is great, but it doesn’t get at the larger societal issues at work, like a government that won’t help us. Until we address those, it’s like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound.

In short, many arguments are a variant of this advice isn’t enough to cure me. (For the record, I agree: we could all benefit from a stronger social safety net; Jesus Christ of course I want better health care; access to nature helps, but isn’t everything.)

I don’t think that directing your attention elsewhere is enough to cure everything, but I find that people underestimate how much your attention influences your mental health.

Think about your physical health: good genes helps, but is bolstered by reducing stress, getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, regular exercise, not smoking, and strong social support.

Likewise, mental health requires a lot of things coming together, and reducing stress is a key factor. Stress is an imbalance of the demands of a situation and the resources we have to deal with them:

This entire formula is moot if you pay less attention to the thing that is stressing you out.

Here are a few helpful tricks I’ve learned from recovery:

  • If you feel like you can’t escape or stop thinking about your stressor, pay attention to fewer things. Turn off the news and take a break from emotional vampires.
  • It’s never simply enough to say “don’t think of a white elephant!” You need something to replace intrusive thoughts. Here are some free suggestions: Download a book! Watch a video on YouTube! Recover from your dysfunctional family! Recover from anything else! Take a free online class from Skillshare!
  • Get out of your head by giving back and being present for others. It’s one of those paradoxes that we can often improve the self by forgetting the self.1Wayment, Heidi A., and Jack J. Bauer. Transcending Self-Interest: Psychological Explorations of the Quiet Ego. American Psychological Association, 2008.
  • Personally, I feel like the most productive use of my time is to do something that I think could help the situation. Whenever I start feeling helpless and powerless in the face of the world’s woes, Helping others helps restore a sense of personal agency that feels dwindling That is why I am writing this post.

tl;dr

  • What you pay attention to, and how you interpret it, determines your happiness

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