Pay Attention! How Being Less Distracted Will Make You Happy

Researchers say we’re distracted 47 percent of our lives. Increasing our focus could help us—and the people around us—feel happier.
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Photo by monkeybusinessimages / iStock.

This article was originally published in Greater Good.

Well-being is a skill.

All of the work that my colleagues and I have been doing leads inevitably to this central conclusion. Well-being is fundamentally no different than learning to play the cello. If one practices the skills of well-being, one will get better at it.

We can change the way we respond.

Based on our research, well-being has four constituents that have each received serious scientific attention. Each of these four is rooted in neural circuits, and each of these neural circuits exhibits plasticity—so we know that if we exercise these circuits, they will strengthen. Practicing these four skills can provide the substrate for enduring change, which can help to promote higher levels of well-being in our lives.

1. Resilience

To paraphrase the bumper sticker, stuff happens. We cannot buffer ourselves from that stuff, but we can change the way we respond to it.

Resilience is the rapidity with which we recover from adversity; some people recover slowly and other people recover more quickly. We know that individuals who show a more rapid recovery in certain key neural circuits have higher levels of well-being. They are protected in many ways from the adverse consequences of life’s slings and arrows.

It takes a while to improve your resilience.

Recent research that we’ve conducted in our lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—very new work that’s not yet published—asked whether these specific brain circuits can be altered by regular practice in simple mindfulness meditation.

The answer is yes—but you need several thousand hours of practice before you see real change. Unlike the other constituents of well-being, it takes a while to improve your resilience. It’s not something that is going to happen quickly—but this insight can still motivate and inspire us to keep meditating.

2. Outlook

The second key to well-being—outlook—is in many ways the flip-side of the first one. I use outlook to refer to the ability to see the positive in others, the ability to savor positive experiences, the ability to see another human being as a human being who has innate basic goodness.

Even individuals who suffer from depression show activation in the brain circuit underlying outlook, but in them, it doesn’t last—it’s very transient. Here, unlike with resilience, research indicates that simple practices of loving kindness and compassion meditation may alter this circuitry quite quickly, after a very, very modest dose of practice.

Practices of loving kindness and compassion meditation may alter this circuitry.

We published a study in 2013 where individuals who had never meditated before were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group received a secular form of compassion training and the other received cognitive reappraisal training, an emotion-regulation strategy that comes from cognitive therapy. We scanned people’s brains before and after two weeks of training, and we found that in the compassion group, brain circuits that are important for this positive outlook were strengthened. After just seven hours—30 minutes of practice a day for two weeks—we not only saw changes in the brain, but these changes also predicted kind and helpful behavior.

3. Attention

The third building-block of well-being may surprise you. It’s attention.