How to Be Happy By Paying Attention

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.

Practicing Gratitude

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


  1. Hi Mike and Donald!
    This is such a great insight: “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.”
    That’s so true. I’m also always lifting the hood to poke around in life and the experiences I have. A sense of significance in living is so vital to feeling life matters, which is vital to happiness!
    Awesome post, Mike!

  2. I agree that to be happy in life you need to ‘pay attention’ to the good things in life. I often prefer the word ‘focus’ but I can definitely relate to what this post is about.
    A Gratitude journal is a wonderful idea for cultivating a happy life. Everyday I think about things I am grateful for no matter how small. I’ve never kept it in a journal though so thanks for giving me such a great idea. I will definitely try this in the future.

  3. Great points Mike. Learning how to pay attention is the real meaning of being awake. If not we meander around life in a sort of zombie like state.

  4. Reflection on life is so important because life can get so busy that it will just pass you by without noticing how great it really is… Before you know it, 10 years have gone by and you haven’t had a chance to appreciate it. I love taking time to step back and taking a look at everything that I have and letting myself download it all. Great post!

  5. Hey Mike,
    So true! You notice what you focus on.
    “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.”
    There is a part of the brain responsible for this, it is called the Reticular Activation System:

  6. Journaling is a wonderful catharsis! I think everyone should have a journal. Expressing yourself is healthy and writing out your negative as well as positive feelings encourages your mind’s eye toward a deeper insight.

  7. ‘Stop and smell the roses’ might be easier said than done. We must keep in mind that we are in-charge of our own happiness. Each morning, let’s count our blessings.

  8. Great teachings Mike,
    Sounds like the Power of Now.
    Paying attention to the moment; after all that’s all that we ever have.
    thanks for the share!

  9. It is always easy to ignore those things we do not want to deal with. As stated, we do not want to think about it and maybe it will go away. On the same note, it is hard to remember at times regardless of what our problems are; we are greatly blessed.

    • Sometimes you don’t realise how blessed you are. I was lacking in gratitude, empathy, kindness and all sorts. I took things said to heart in my work, felt controlled and never resolved the issues. Was unhappy before became negative and now my reactions have made my life worse than before. Need to change my story definitely lacked gratitude. Made myself more unhappy than I needed to be. Burning bridges along the way.

  10. This is so true. Happiness is a matter of choice and we so often chose to focus on the negative instead of appreciating the positive. I always suggest people to spend a few minutes every evening to reflect on their day and identify the people and situations that made them happy, and the times and situations that made them feel stressed, unhappy, depressed. By making yourself aware you can then consciously choose to only spend your time doing things that make you happy and content and avoid (as much as possible) the activities, people, environments that cause pain and other negative feelings.

  11. Paying attention will help us to love the things around us.
    Nice post.

  12. I noticed that the equidistant roses on my wallpaper began to group in fours, threes, sixes – in fact whatever number I could visualize, just by doing that – by paying attention to those groupings – aint life just like that!
    Rob Fielding

  13. From psychology strategy , if something was not existence in someone’s structure of intellect, those thing would never as a threat to him, i just heard it from a book .. 🙂

  14. Lesson happiness isn’t found in material possessions but in connection to people. Also it starts from within and having gratitude. I have learned the hard way I was ungrateful, unhappy and didn’t take steps to change this or change my attitude to a more positive one. Gone crazy by realising this way too late. Putting my ego in front creating misery. Make connections and laugh a lot.

Comments are closed.