I have been savoring a fascinating book for the past month. It’s called Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life by Winifred Gallagher. I know that it’s been a month, since it’s due back at the library tomorrow with 100 pages still unread, and the proof that I’m savoring is that I can see all my little post-its protruding from pages with quotes I want to remember.
First, the book’s big ideas, starting with 1.) We are what we attend to. Our identities grow out of our experiences of paying attention to some things and ignoring others. 2.) Our sense of reality will differ from that of others who attend to different things. 3.) Research in a variety of scientific fields shows that, “You cannot always be happy, but you can be focused, which is the next best thing.” 4.) To get the most from life, not only do you have to pay attention, but you have to know what to pay attention to today, next week, next year and for the remainder of your life. 5.) It’s best to direct your attention to activities that are both challenging and satisfying.
Ms. Gallagher suggests that meditation is our best hope for learning how to pay attention, but that anything we engage in with undistracted focus, for example, playing the piano or fly fishing, will help. Despite our wish to blame computers, cell phones, television, and video games for our living a distracted life, she says, “the real problem is that we don’t appreciate our own ability to use attention to select and create truly satisfying experience.” Instead we respond to whatever stimuli we encounter, including the pull of our electronic toys, “settle for less, and squander our mental money and precious time on whatever captures our awareness will-nilly, no matter how disappointing the consequences.”
The author agrees with psychologists who say that our feelings affect what we attend to, and unpleasant experiences cause us to focus more on the negative than the positive. This may provide some survival advantages, but also causes us to ignore the fact that we’re feeling good much of the time. The book also offers research about how culture influences where people place their focus, and about attention as it relates to relations within the family and in the workplace.
As a retiree, a topic I found interesting was research on leisure time by psychologist Míhály Csikszentmihályi. Ms. Gallagher says, “Despite the lip service we pay to our treasured leisure, however, it’s often unsatisfying, largely because we don’t devote it to activities that demand focus and skill.” Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s work shows that when it comes to leisure time, “we often…end up misusing our limited supply.” He argues for more productivity on evenings and weekends to avoid lapsing into worry about trivial things or watching television.
This advice works not just for working people, but for the retired or the soon-to-be-retired. I don’t subscribe to the view that you can never collapse on the couch to watch a movie or your favorite television show, but I do know that I have to feel productive, whatever that might look like for me. It obviously looks different than it did when I was working and may just involve curling up with a good book, ideally one that I finish before I have to start paying library fines.