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Note: This is a guest post from Mike Reeves-McMillan of How to Be Amazing
We try to make ourselves happy by ignoring things.
It doesn’t work, of course. What you ignore becomes invisible, and when you aren’t expecting it, it sneaks up on you out of your blind spot – POW! Financial crisis. BLAM! Climate change. THOK! Failed states.
If you want to be happy, you’re much better off learning to pay attention to things. Specifically, learning to pay attention to the many good things that happen to you and the people around you.
(I don’t recommend doing this mainly by reading the newspaper. There are reasons to do that, but becoming happy isn’t one of them.)
What You Look at Is What You See
Holmes and Watson go camping. In the middle of the night, Holmes wakes Watson up and asks him, “What do you notice?”
Watson looks up at the starry sky and says, “Well, Holmes, meteorologically, it’s a clear night. Chronologically, it’s about two in the morning. And astrologically, the moon is in Pisces.”
“Watson, you fool,” says Holmes, “someone has stolen our tent.”
Holmes was famous for noticing what nobody else noticed. This wasn’t an accident or a coincidence. He trained himself to look beyond the surface of what was going on, to pay attention to little things and to draw conclusions from them. And you can do the same.
How to Pay Attention
I’ve found writing a regular personal development blog a great way to increase my paying-attention skills (and my happiness).
Instead of just experiencing life as “things that happen”, I’m always looking for how I can turn the things that happen into stories – which means I’m always looking for the significance in what happens.
This morning, for example, while I was plugging in my laptop to do some blogging, I found a couple of cat toys behind the TV. One of my cats happened to be in the room, so I tossed them out where she could see them. She’s now happily playing with the toys that were there all along – but that she wasn’t paying attention to.
See what I did there?
Paying Attention for Non-Bloggers
You don’t have to be a blogger to do this. An older, and equally effective, way of cultivating this kind of attention is to keep a journal.
Long before there was such a thing as a blog, I kept a journal – and while it became self-indulgently introspective at times, I did find it a big help in processing my feelings about the things that happened to me. There’s research to show that even a single 20-minute session of writing about how they felt (in a non-ideal setting of a busy waiting room) helped cancer patients improve their quality of life. (Morgan, Graves, Poggi & Cheson, 2008.)
This is because, as you name your emotions and think about them, you start to shift the pattern of activation of your brain away from being caught up in the emotions to being on the outside looking in.
There’s a specific method of increasing happiness by journalling that’s well-supported by research (Seligman, Steen, Park & Peterson, 2005). It’s keeping a gratitude journal. Recording three things that you’re grateful for each night for a week, these researchers found, increased happiness for at least six months afterwards.
Why? Because you’re paying attention to good things. You’re actively looking for something that you can put in your gratitude journal (just like I’m always looking for stories for my blogging).
Generally, you find what you look for. You notice what you pay attention to.
It’s like the “red car” phenomenon. If you buy a red car, you suddenly start noticing how many other people have red cars. They always did, but now you’re paying attention.
You Don’t Have to Ignore Suffering
Just because you’re noticing things that you can be grateful for doesn’t mean you stop noticing your and other people’s sorrows. In fact, you may notice them more. That’s all right. By building a base of happiness through gratitude, you’re better positioned to help someone else with their tough times, and to survive your own.
This isn’t one of those methods of relentless positivity that makes people unhappy and unable to talk about it. It’s just paying attention to, and acknowledging, the things that are going well – without expecting them to go well all the time.
How to Be Happy
There are lots of ways to increase your happiness. But paying attention is one of the most effective and reliable. And you can start right now, with no equipment beyond a pen and a notebook.
Mike Reeves-McMillan trains ordinary people to be heroes by teaching the things school never taught you at How to Be Amazing. He talks about six more ways to be happy in his free ebook How to be Happy.
Photo by Kevin Dooley