Improve Your Life by Paying Attention

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Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life
By Winifred Gallagher
244 pages; The Penguin Press

The Gist:

"Few things are as important to your quality of life as your choices about how to spend the precious resource of your free time," writes Winifred Gallagher, author of the new book Rapt. There are things you can't control: the family you are born into or your genes, for example. But that's not important. What is important is what you attend to, those things or people you consciously choose to set your mind on. Defined in the broadest sense of the word, "attention" and focus" can extend to anything. Are you focused on living in the now and not chewing on your sad past? Can you attend to the feelings of others, even if it means rising above your own? Can you be a fully engaged person in your short time on Earth? It's a rather large task, but the rewards, Gallagher suggests, are boundless. ("See Michelle Obama's Fashion Diplomacy.")

Highlight Reel:

1. On how therapy may actually be making us miserable: "Since Freud, most forms of therapy have maintained that the best way to deal with a problem or trauma is to concentrate on it. Through this 'processing,' the theory goes, you'll eventually gain insight and feel wiser, and hopefully better. Accordingly, most people ... think they're more or less obliged to chew over a breakup or career reversal ... [Yet], directing your attention away from a negative experience ... can be a superior coping strategy."

2. On why big purchases aren't always the best purchases: "Despite your initial excitement and a high price tag, adaptation guarantees that your focus will soon stray from the wondrous pleasures of your new computer or larger apartment, consigning them to mere comfort status. Rather than binging on such big, costly amenities, a better — and cheaper — strategy for boosting your daily satisfaction quotient would be to add many more simple, inexpensive ones ... After all, on any given Monday morning, your comfortable bank balance pales beside a good cup of coffee."

3. On the road to a meaningful life: "Deciding what to pay attention to for this hour, day, week, or year, much less a lifetime, is a peculiarly human predicament, and your quality of life largely depends on how you handle it ... We must resist the temptation to drift along, reacting to whatever happens to us next, and deliberately select targets, from activities to relationships, that are worthy of our finite supplies of time and attention."

The Lowdown:

It's a simple point, but one that is easily lost in our post-modern, hyper-modern, super-modern age: pay attention. Do this — in everything you do, with everyone you encounter — and you will reap the benefits. Think you're a great multi-tasker? You're not. No one is. Step away from the computer. Did you just break up with the love of your life? Don't be fooled into thinking that overanalyzing past hurts is a good thing. It isn't. You're bringing yourself down, dude. Attend to something new.

Gallagher does an admirable job of getting attention's attention from every angle — relationships, work, play — using both science and philosophy. Yet underneath it all is that hippie dippy mantra, "Be here now." And while Gallagher's theme may ultimately be nothing more than a familiar '70s message repacked in prestigious new millennial clothes, it bears repeating. Now stop reading this and go pay attention to something important!

The Verdict: Skim

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