Abundant research shows that most of the rich and famous, brainy and beautiful are little or no happier than individuals of ordinary means and gifts, because no matter who you are, your joie de vivre mostly derives from paying attention to someone or something that interests you. Even in the hell of the Nazi death camps, many inmates avoided depression because they took charge of and concentrated on the one thing that was left to them: their inner experience. The rates of psychological problems as well as mortality among people in extreme situations such as shipwrecks and plane crashes in remote areas are surprisingly low—often lower than in normal settings. Vicissitudes notwithstanding, these people are not sitting around brooding about the past or killing time by channel surfing but are living the focused life.
It’s not a coincidence that the term distracted once referred not just to a loss or dilution of attention but also to confusion, mental imbalance, and even madness. It’s all too easy to spend much of your life in such an unfocused, mixed-up condition, rushing toward the chimera of a better time and place to tune in and, well, be alive. It’s the fashion to blame the Internet and computers, cell phones and cable TV for this diffused, fragmented state of mind, but our seductive machines are not at fault. The real problem is that we don’t appreciate our own ability to use attention to select and create truly satisfying experience. Instead of exercising this potential, we too often take the lazy way out, settle for less, and squander our mental money and precious time on whatever captures our awareness willy-nilly, no matter how disappointing the consequences.
Where the quality of your life is concerned, focus is not everything, but it is a great deal. The question is: If all the world’s a stage, as Shakespeare puts it, where do you shine the spotlight of your attention?