Your Attention, Your Reality

Someone told me recently that they have a complete grasp on reality and they call it as they see it. The inference is that others don’t have an accurate perception of reality. And thus the beginning of endless disagreements and arguments.

In fact, there are thousands of things that we can focus on at any given moment, including what we see, smell, touch, hear or taste. We can also focus on something that’s in our mind, past, present or future. So at any given point in time, what we choose to focus on is a choice. If I’m focusing on how loudly the clock is ticking, someone else watching TV may say the clock is not loud at all. We have different realities, and we’re both right.

We also have different realities when it comes to interpreting others’ behavior. I sometimes get this weird habit of noticing how wet or dry someone’s mouth is while talking. I’m not proud of it. It doesn’t happen that often. But when it does happen, I have a hard time not focusing on it. Just like if I said, “Don’t think of white polar bears.” What are you going to do?

Likewise, if I get fixated on someone else’s positive qualities, say how smart or clever they are, then I will just marvel at how wonderful and talented they are. I will have positive emotion (admiration, inspiration, enjoyment) and will share that emotion with others vicariously.

Or I can choose to get fixated on some negative quality. It might be that they incorrectly conjugate their verbs, have their bra strap showing, or that they’re somewhat clueless to social cues.   I might even decide they are narcissistic or self-absorbed. Confirmation bias says that I will notice cues that support my theory  and ignore those that refute it.  Pretty soon, I’m digging deeper and deeper into my negative and critical belief to where pretty soon I’ve decided that person is just not a worthy human being. Contempt, disgust, resentment abound. Now what am I sharing?

Others may be completely unaware of this person’s shortcomings. Well, I have a firm grasp on reality. They do not.

So here I am, frustrated and contemptuous of someone else’s narcissism, smug in the knowledge that I know reality but others don’t. How’m I doin’?

Does this sound familiar? I’ll bet we’ve all been here at one time or another.

It’s a natural tendency. But we don’t have to be a slave to our tendencies. Instead, beware of what you notice and focus on in others. That belief and focus defines you, not them. When you find yourself focusing on someone else’s shortcomings, just catch yourself in the act and switch your perspective. Find something to admire and love in that person.  Now your reality includes people that are good, talented, kind and loving.   And that’s a much nicer world to live in.

What You Doin’?

How much of your day is spent mindlessly doing what we always do?  Granted, much of our day has to be just that; having to consciously do every task as if we have never done it before would take all of our effort and attention.  But perhaps a few of the things we believe to be necessary tasks, are really not necessary at all.  Perhaps they’re even harmful or counterproductive. I challenge each of you to re-examine your day as you go about it.  Just one day.  Pay close attention to what you do and why you’re doing it.  Are you acting out of habit, necessity, desire, or because of someone else’s (or your own) expectations?  What are those expectations? I would suspect a significant part of our day is spent without deliberate intention.  We may find that once we carefully examine our motivation for each task, that most of our tasks are consistent with our authentic goals and desires. But likely, some fraction will not.  Some of our tasks are done out of habit of what we tend to notice or believe.  For example, if I only notice what makes me tired, then I will feel tired and find ways to rest.  If I notice things that give me energy, I will feel energized and continue to pursue those tasks.  If I notice things that make me feel sad, I’ll feel depressed and need to find ways to soothe myself.  These beliefs and habits tend focus our intentions, and thus our actions.   That is fine, as long as the task and beliefs are consistent with our authentic goals and desires. What would happen if you gave up those observations, tasks, beliefs, and assumptions that divert you from your life’s plan?  Or just modified them?  What if you then took that increasingly precious time and energy and did something that would feed or nourish your spirit? I think it’s easy as a parent or spouse to get into habits of doing things for other people, even if it’s not good for them or they’ve outgrown it.  I recall a conversation a long time ago when we discussed asking our six year old to start getting his own breakfast.  At first it felt like we had suggested we amputate a good leg.  But guess what?  He did a great job (except for the one time when he tried to put a chicken thigh in the toaster). If you can identify one thing that you have been doing out of habit that you now realize you should change, consider adding this new perspective to your daily outlook.  Remember, what we notice is habit, how we tend to think about what we notice is usually habit, and what we do as a response is often habit.  We can change our habits if they are not serving us well. Go on.  Change something.  Create new habits, perspectives and beliefs that nourish your spirit.    

Optimism 101

Are you annoyed by those pesky folk who always think things are going to come out OK? If so, then maybe you are a pessimist, a person who tends to view the glass as half empty.   Perhaps you also like to argue with optimists that you are right, that we should all take a more cynical view of the world and our future.

Actually, it’s a pointless argument. The glass half full analogy illustrates the concept nicely. Both parties are right. So it’s merely a matter of which way you choose to view it.

And yes, it is a choice. You may have an inherent tendency to go one way or another, but you do not have to be a slave to your tendencies.   That choice is both a blessing and a curse, because it means you can change but it also means it will take effort.

“Why should I change? It’s worked well for me all my life,” you might ask. I’m so glad you did (even if maybe you didn’t)!

Optimists do better in life. They’re more successful (with the exception of lawyers), more resilient, they have a longer life and better health, especially with regard to depression. They make more money than pessimists. I also suspect that people would prefer to work with and be with optimists. I would also add on a personal level that I feel much better in general when I choose an optimistic perspective. Feeling negative makes me feel pretty lousy.

So if you’re a life-long pessimist, how do you change?

  • Challenge catastrophic thoughts – Treat those thoughts as if they were coming from someone else and challenge them. Not landing the job does not mean I’m a failure. It may mean that the job market is competitive and/or I need to beef up my resume or interviewing skills.
  • Use your strengths – Using your strengths also decreases depressive symptoms. A free strengths test is at authentichappiness.com or workuno.com, or you can pay for the Clifton StrengthsFinders which provides a detailed report and analysis. Once you get your strengths assessment, commit to using them intentionally every day.
  • Challenge your perspective – Pessimists think good events are temporary and local but bad things are permanent and pervasive; optimists are the opposite.   If you’re not sure where you stand, take the optimism test at authentichappiness.com. It’s free! Then pay attention to how you interpret yourself and your world view and challenge those pessimistic thoughts. Keep doing it, and you may see a shift in your pessimistic tendencies.
  • Read a book – The book on the subject is Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman.   He says it so much better than I ever can.

Those of you who are still skeptical about the value of being more optimistic can also consider the degree of optimism that you may wish to achieve. Scientists also advocate that optimism stays within the zone of realistic, as opposed to endorsing the extreme that may result in passivity and unrealistic thinking (as in: this warrant for my arrest will turn out fine so I won’t do anything about it).   So more is better, but only to a point.

I contend there should also be room for dreamers and out-of-box thinkers. We need to be able to dream to make big changes, but do so responsibly. So you are the judge of how you walk that line. Dream big and then take a realistic optimistic approach to achieving it. The odds are in your favor.