The More I Think About It, The Bigger It Gets. This evocative phrase is the bright red text of an artwork 1 adorning the underpass between Brisbane’s Storey Bridge and Fortitude Valley. So what’s ‘It’?
While a lot of people’s answers may reflect their love of a bit of innuendo, your ‘it’ could be almost anything. And no matter what your ‘it’ is, the statement is a true one, because of the power of attention. You’ve probably never thought about it this way, but what you pay attention to is your whole world. It is your experience of life for the time you pay attention to it.
Imagine you’ve got a dreaded upcoming event looming in the near future. You can be sitting at home on your couch, when all of a sudden, someone mentions this ‘IT’. Your mind focuses in on the unpleasant event. You start to imagine just how bad it’s going to be. What people will say (or won’t). What you’ll say or do (or forget to). And just like that, your heart is beating faster, your mind is whirling, your stomach is churning, and when someone asks you a question, you answer in a rather snappy manner for someone who, to the untrained observer, looks like they’re relaxing on the couch. While your attention is focused on the ‘it’, you feel fear. Your mind is full of worry and ‘what ifs’. You are living that event and its associated unpleasantness, even though it’s not physically happening. Your attention is there and so you are there. There is a great quote2 which sums this up: ‘I‘ve been through terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.’
Where we place our attention determines the quality of our life. While most people feel like their happiness and enjoyment of life would be substantially reduced if they were to lose a limb, in truth research has shown3 that after a period of adjustment (the period where your attention is focused on the loss of the limb), your overall life satisfaction would return to the level it was previously. This is because once you adjusted, your focus falls back to the stuff of everyday life, such as your job and your relationships. You get used to the loss, and get on with it. Similarly, the types of suffering which are insistent and constantly call on our attention, such as chronic pain and symptoms of mental illness, are much harder to adjust to and do affect life quality.
The effects of positive life events are also impacted by the power of attention. We can make ourselves excited during our otherwise boring job by anticipating and imagining an upcoming birthday party. But just like the person who adjusts to losing a limb, we adjust to positive life events too. When people first get married, it is new and different and so commands a lot of attention. Just thinking about being married makes you feel happier. But after a time, you ‘get used’ to marriage, and the fact of being married loses its power to hold your attention and affect your mood in the same way.
How can we best harness the power of attention? To return to the innuendo at the beginning of this piece, one solution is to ‘re-virginise’ yourself to the positive things in life. There are two aspects to this. The first is to seek out new experiences. New things command our attention because we are not yet used to them. We have no ‘automatic pilot’ to fall back on and so end up enjoying a new place/event/person more because of our extra attention – regardless of whether the new thing is objectively better than the usual one (within reason, of course) .
The second aspect is to focus on what is already good in your life and see it through new eyes. Spend some time remembering what is was like before you had this great partner/ awesome job/ lived in a great city, or think about what attracted you to these things in the first place.
Then, when you next encounter your family, or go to work, or step outside, pay attention to what it is that attracted you to them/it. Focus your attention on remembering how you felt when you first encountered this valued aspect of your life, and put your attention on those things again.
Remember, the strategy works in reverse too. Dwelling on what we don’t like in our lives (unless doing so is bringing about concrete action to change it) will only cause it to loom bigger and make us unhappy. Use the power of attention to increase your positive emotions by focusing on the ‘it’ you want, not the ‘it’ you don’t.
Notes on this post:
1 The artwork is by Sebastian Moody: http://sebastianmoody.com/
2 The quote is often attributed to Mark Twain, but probably not actually said by him http://freakonomics.com/2011/04/25/quotes-uncovered-twain-or-not-twain/
3 Research on amputees and the ‘re-virginising’ solution are from Paul Dolan and his book, Happiness by Design.
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.