There is a clip on YouTube called The Monkey Business Illusion. Take a look:
Attention is one of our brain’s superpowers. When we pay attention to something, we are often blind or deaf to other things in the environment. Think about when you are watching TV and someone talks to you, but you just don’t hear them. Or when you are racing or competing, and you don’t hear the sound the crowd is making. Or when you are thinking about something and walk straight past someone you know without seeing them (this happens a lot to me as I tend to live in my head…so I apologise if you have ever been ‘ignored’!).
The concept is called Attentional Blindness.
What makes it a superpower is that what we pay attention to creates our reality. This is very good, and very bad. Focus on the correct things, and we perform better and feel better. But focus on the incorrect things, its like all the good disappears and we perform or feel worse. Now we cannot trick ourselves into thinking there is no bad stuff – there is. Like at the moment, these are difficult times with devastating consequences to many. We don’t want to ignore that. But we also don’t want to get stuck there. We have to shift our focus back onto things that help us to cope and get through.
This ability is re-focus is actually one of the hallmarks of elite performers. As someone once said to me, it’s not being able to focus that counts, what really matters is the ability to quickly re-focus on what is important.
So what is the correct thing?
Gratitude is a thankful appreciation of what we have and has been consistently linked to better mental health. You can and must acknowledge difficulties, but gratitude helps you not get mental stuck on these things. Interestingly, what we are grateful for is often things outside of our selves -family, friends, a delicious meal, a beautiful sunrise – so practicing gratitude helps us feel connected to something greater than ourselves, also an important part of maintaining good mental health. Counting your blessings actually has a lot of science behind it!
One of the simplest gratitude exercises which has also ben linked to increased happiness, is the 3 Good Things exercise. Here so what you do:
- At the end of every day write down 3 things that that went well that day (yes, write them down, don’t just say them in your head).
- Reflect on why these things went well
- Repeat this everyday for at least 6 weeks
As Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, says:
For sound evolutionary reasons, most of us are not nearly as good at dwelling on good events as we are at analyzing bad events. Those of our ancestors who spent a lot of time basking in the sunshine of good events, when they should have been preparing for disaster, did not survive the Ice Age. So, to overcome our brains’ natural catastrophic bent, we need to work on and practice this skill of thinking about what went well.*
This is not a magic trick where you will immediately feel happier and more thankful. As Seligman says, you need to practice this mental skill, so try to add this to your night-time routine. Coping with the uncertainty of the coming weeks will require all of us to focus on what we have, rather than on what we lack.
- Martin Seligman (2011) Flourish