By Peng Kate Gao
A few years ago, my friend and I took a road trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was a typical mid-fall afternoon, when warm autumn colors began to paint the pastoral landscape of the Appalachian Highlands. The drive was not a difficult one; we had little fear of tumbling over the few cliffs we encountered. Nevertheless, the road was often winding and tortuous with plenty of unexpected curves. As the drive and the scenery captured our full attention, all our worries and work issues faded away. Suddenly, the vibrant foliage became much more lively, the afternoon sun shone more brightly than usual, and the air was sweet with the smell of fall. Years later, the colors, sounds and smells of this experience still play vividly in our minds.
Looking back, my memory of that distant afternoon seems so much clearer to me than many more recent Saturday afternoons I’ve spent aimlessly roaming the streets or watching TV. Recent psychology and neuroscience research helps to explain why this is so: our experience and memory is shaped by what we attend to. It is thus tempting to think that if we can consciously tune our attention and focus on the right things, life will feel less like a series of random acts but more like a work of art that we create.
Unfortunately, tuning attention is not always easy. Do you remember a time when you knew you were supposed to be working on a project or assignment, but somehow your mind started to wander and you felt the urge to check e-mail or Facebook? Focus slips, time melts away, and work is left undone. If this lack of focus becomes a habit, we face the real danger of drifting along in life—passively reacting to circumstances or whatever happens to us. This is certainly a life that most of us try to avoid.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his widely influential book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience argued, “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… the best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” He named this fully engaged state as flow, during which the person feels “strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities.” We usually associate flow with creative endeavors of scientists and artists, but Csikszentmihalyi argued that in fact it could be achieved in everyday life too, such as reading a book or tending a garden. Those moments lift our spirits and make us feel that life is worth living. The key to living an engaged life, then, is to find a way to maximize our time in flow and minimize drifting.
Is it possible to reign in our attention? Writer Winifred Gallagher in her book RAPT: Attention and the Focused Life proposed that we can deliberately train our ability to concentrate and focus, “like physical fitness, the mental sort that sustains the focused life can be cultivated.” In other words, attention is like a muscle, the more we use it, the stronger it becomes. Gallagher referred to work by mid-twentieth century psychologist Nicholas Hobbs, who stated that the way to ensure calm but heightened attention and focus is to choose activities that push you close to the edge of your competence that they demand your absolute focus. “If an activity is too easy, you lose focus and get bored. If it’s too hard, you become anxious, overwhelmed, and unable to concentrate.”
This theory is supported by many subjects in Csikszentmihalyi’s research, who reported least happy when they were at leisure, such as watching TV. This seems counterintuitive, but the fact is that our mind only comes alive when it is engaged in the activity at hand, and at those moments we feel more fulfilled and happier. When we lose focus and the mind wanders, it often turns inward. Before long, we find ourselves ruminating about our worries, troubles, and other negative thoughts. To avoid this trap, Csikszentmihalyi suggested spending leisure time on a challenging and engaging hobby, such as playing a musical instrument, which simultaneously expands our horizon and exercises the mental muscle of focusing.
On the other end of the spectrum, when the task is too difficult, we feel anxious and frustrated, and also have a hard time focusing. In these cases, we may try to break down the overall task into smaller, more manageable parts and focus on solving one at a time. In accomplishing each smaller part, our brain is energized and we start to think, “I can do this,” and thus start a positive feedback loop that propels us to go further. In a way, it is like climbing a mountain: if the summit seems daunting and out of reach, it helps to have intermediate goals along the way, which eases our worry and makes us focus on the climbing business under our feet. The ability to tune attention and focus on the work itself, rather than being consumed by anxiety and frustration, seems to be the key in these situations, and is certainly a capability worth cultivating.
In a world overflowing with stimulations and filled with uncertainty, sometimes life can feel out of our control. In those moments, please remember that attention is a muscle that each of us possesses, and by tuning our attention, we can choose to focus on things that are worthwhile and valuable. What we attend to becomes the thin slice of our universe, which shapes our experience and imprints in our memory.
I often think of this quote by botanist Liberty Hyde Bailey, “A garden requires patient labor and attention. Plants do not grow merely to satisfy ambitions or to fulfill good intentions. They thrive because someone expended effort on them.” Our life is a garden; let’s take very good care of what we choose to grow there.