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How to Thrive in the Attention Economy Work life has changed drastically over the past two decades. We have gone from working with single information objects such as typewriters to working with constant digital distractions like emails, text messages, social media, and more. In this 24/7 distracted environment our attention comes under siege—and that has detrimental consequences for our productivity and well-being. Researchers like Edward Hallowell have documented our declining ability to manage our attention. “Modern office life and an increasingly common condition called attention deficit trait, are turning steady executives into frenzied underachievers,” he writes in his Harvard Business Review article, “Overloaded circuits: Why smart people underperform.” Our minds are wandering from what we are doing 46.9 percent of the time, as research by Paul Gilbert and Matt Killingworth reveals. In a work context, this means that almost half of our time we are not truly present with our tasks. In fact, other businesses are making money from our wandering attention. Facebook makes it from ads, while Google sells our clicks. We are facing an Attention Economy where one of the most valuable currencies is a clear, calm, and focused attention. But how can that be achieved? More and more companies and individuals are looking to mindfulness to help us thrive in the attention economy. Getting one second ahead Everybody talks about mindfulness and praises its many benefits. But what is the DNA of mindfulness? And why does it seem to be a foundational key to surviving and thriving in an attention economy? Jacob was a senior manager in a large financial services company. Like most of his counterparts, he was always “on”—connected to the office in one way or another, all day, every day. Day in, day out, he dealt with a steady stream of e-mails and an overloaded calendar of meetings. Jacob was facing the attention economy. When I first met Jacob, he told me that he didn’t feel in control of his life. He felt like he was always trying to catch up, always overloaded with external forces—people and tasks—dictating his day-to-day reality. He felt he was living on autopilot, merely reacting to what was thrown at him. Sound familiar? In our first meeting, Jacob committed to undertake a four-month training program. During that time, we met for ten one-hour sessions and he dedicated ten minutes a day to mindfulness training. It was a significant investment of time considering his already busy work schedule. After the four months had gone by, I asked Jacob what he’d gained from the program. His answer: “One second.” At first, his response took me by surprise. Four months of effort and daily training to gain only one second? That seemed like a meager return. But then he explained: Previously, when something happened, I reacted automatically. Every time an e-mail came in, I read it. Every time I received a text, I answered it. Whenever a thought or emotion popped into my head, I paid attention to it and allowed it to take my focus away from what I was doing. I was a victim of my own automatic reactions. The four months of training have given me a one-second mental gap between what happens and my own response. It feels like I’m one second ahead, so that I can choose my response rather than being a victim of my automatic reactions. I can’t always control what happens in life, but I’ve developed the freedom to choose my response to it. Jacob’s story clearly describes what millions of busy people experience every day. But one second? What can change in one second? Everything. In our low-latency world, speed is a factor in any competition—sports, politics, and especially business. This is truer now than ever before. With today’s high-frequency trading, millions of dollars can change hands in a millisecond. That’s one-tenth the time it takes to blink. As the speed of business approaches the speed of light, one second is the difference between performance and high performance. For Jacob, one second gave him the freedom to control his thoughts, his actions, and, more profoundly, his life. The one second of mental space provided him the mental capacity to make better choices, moment by moment, in business as well as in life. Mindfulness, in this way, can be a game changer in an attention economy, because of its direct impact on how the brain functions. It can change our entire mental operating system and enhance not only individual but, if applied collectively, also organizational performance. Training for the attention economy Training our mind is possible. Decades of research show that our brains are changeable. It’s called neuroplasticity. Any action we do or thought we think is creating neural pathways in our brain, whereby it is easier to repeat. The brain is changing according to how we use it. This means we are not predefined by what we are now, but rather we are recreating ourselves by what we do now. This means that every moment we spend with a focused and clear mind, focus and clarity becomes a trait of our brain. In the context of the attention economy, this means we are not destined to have a wandering mind. We can train ourselves and gain high levels of attention, focus, and clarity of mind—and thereby become better leaders of our own lives and the people we lead. Mindfulness is about entering the attention economy and being able to manage your wandering mind and external distractions. But the practice has an impressive list of research-proven side effects including stronger immune system, lower blood pressure, reduced stress, better sleep, improved cognitive function, enhanced focus and awareness, increased job satisfaction, better work-life balance, enhanced creativity, and better overall quality of life. Realizing benefits from mindfulness requires formal training, which can be viewed as going to the gym for the mind. Our approach to mindfulness training includes helping individuals enhance focus and awareness. Focus is about training the mind to put the mind’s spotlight on a particular task, with minimal distraction, for a long as you want, with minimal effort. Awareness involves being open and seeing clearly what is happening internally and externally—and making wise choices about where to focus your attention. The opposite of open awareness is to be on autopilot, not having awareness of where you direct your sharp focus, which is the opposite of distraction.   In the first quadrant of the illustration to the left, you are focused but on autopilot. Your state of mind can be described as being in “flow.” That often happens spontaneously when we do routine tasks or engage in a repetitious activity like running. The risk of the flow state is that we lack awareness. In leadership, lack of awareness can mean the difference between picking up on an employee’s stress signals and pushing too far. Or not noticing your own stress, for that matter. In the fourth quadrant, you are aware but easily distracted. There can be benefits to loosening focus and allowing random thoughts to bubble up. Some people find that they come up with more creative ideas in this quadrant. But if your mind is too distracted, you’ll have difficulty retaining any good ideas. Good ideas only become innovative solutions when you have the focus to retain and execute them in the second quadrant. In the third quadrant, you’re neither focused nor aware. You are mindless. And it is not even a relaxing state to be in because your mind is constantly engaged in random activities and thoughts. Not much good can be said about it. In the second quadrant you are mindful. This is where you are performing at your best. It is the sweet spot for clarity, presence, attention, and many other qualities of effectiveness and wellbeing. In the second quadrant you are one second ahead and better able to survive and thrive in the attention economy. But mindfulness is not really about the bottom line. It’s a way of being. It’s a way of showing up in life with kindness, openness, and presence. The best way to make others see the benefits of these qualities is to be them yourself. Of course, I know this is much easier said than done in our world of constant disruption and instant gratification. But it is worth the effort. Because mindfulness makes us happier and kinder. And happy, kind people make for happier and kinder societies.
Want to Be Happy? Make Your Relationships Exceptional If you asked a friend to rate the quality of your relationship on a scale of 1-7, would it get high marks? If you asked them to rate your attitude—how cheerful, compassionate, irritable, or self-critical you’ve been recently—what would they say? Finally, do you think what they say aligns with what you think about yourself? This is exactly what we asked students of The Science of Happiness to do: find a “peer” who would (anonymously) answer questions about them and their relationship. The purpose? To explore whether our relationships with others and the way they see us predicts how we see our own happiness. We got responses from just over 2,500 peers—a majority of them spouses (33%), friends (26%), or romantic partners (16%), with a smaller proportion of family members and a sprinkling of coworkers. Many peers had known the student for “more than 15 years” (45%), with “1 to 5 years” being the second runner-up (23%). Nearly all of the peers (87%) said that they interacted with the student “daily” or “a few times a week.” The results are now in, and they show that when our friends see us as “pro-social”—kind, compassionate, cooperative, and forgiving—they also rate our relationships as higher-quality, and these both predict our own greater happiness. The three personas In our survey, peers rated students on 32 characteristics organized into 16 thematically-matched pairs (e.g., dissatisfied/complaining, optimistic/hopeful). We ran what’s called a factor analysis to see if certain characteristics tended to show up together, and we discovered three different patterns, which we’ll call personas: The positive persona: Peers tended to rate some students high on personally positive characteristics (happy/cheerful, content/satisfied, optimistic/hopeful, calm/relaxed) and low on personally negative characteristics (dissatisfied/complaining, sad/somber, anxious/stressed, self-critical/hopeless). The pro-social persona: Peers tended to rate some students high on pro-social characteristics (compassionate/nurturing, kind/friendly, cooperative/harmonious, forgiving/generous, grateful/appreciative) and moderately high on positive characteristics. The anti-social persona: Peers tended to rate some students high on anti-social characteristics (irritable/agitated, hostile/argumentative, distracted/absent-minded) and moderate on personally negative characteristics. When peers gave more positive and pro-social ratings, the students were more likely to have rated themselves as happier and less stressed (in a survey conducted before the course began), particularly those with high positive personas. Meanwhile, the students rated more anti-social by their peers showed systematically lower happiness scores.  What does this mean? When friends have positive things to say about us, we’re also more likely to consider ourselves happy. Overall, peers’ assessments of who we are, from absent-minded to appreciative, correlated with the students’ self-ratings. In other words, our friends’ views of us seem to be fairly accurate. Positive and pro-social peer ratings of students predicted greater self-reported happiness scores. Peer anti-social ratings predicted lower self-reported happiness. Pro-social people have better relationships Not only did positive and pro-social students tend to be happier, but they also had more highly rated relationships. The greater the peer’s positive or pro-social ratings about a student, the more likely that peer was to say that their relationship with the student was exceptional (7 on a scale of 1-7). Conversely, the more anti-social the student’s peer rating was, the further that peer’s relationship-quality rating drifted towards a 1. Students with greater peer scores for positive and pro-social characteristics were more likely to have peers who rated their relationship as exceptional; this effect is strongest for pro-social. Students with greater anti-social scores were less likely to have peers who rated their relationships as exceptional. Exceptional relationships make us happier A basic tenet of happiness science is that supportive relationships are essential to well-being. High happiness, to paraphrase Ed Diener’s formative 2002 study of Very Happy People, does not occur without social relationships. Here, we looked at how peer ratings of relationship quality related to students’ well-being. Very systematically, the data reveal increasing benefits to well-being in harmony with better-quality relationships. Wherever we looked, students who were in exceptional relationships with their nominated peers were doing better. Students’ self-reported measures of well-being increasingly improve with better ratings of relationship quality from peers. Can introverts have exceptional relationships? A common question that we get from students is: “Sure, this is all fine and good…but what about introverts?” The sentiment behind this tends to be a lighthearted skepticism around the idea that introverts get the same benefits from relationships as extraverts. To tackle this issue, we explored whether extraversion predicted a lesser or greater likelihood of being in an exceptional relationship. In the end, extraversion (the inverse of introversion) was not linked to higher or lower relationship ratings; introverts are just as good at exceptional relationships as extraverts. And because exceptional relationships make us happy, this suggests that introverts can find fulfillment through them. Striving towards exceptional…relationships The good news? The foundational aim of GG101x: The Science of Happiness is to provide the scientific basis for better recognizing and tapping into our innate pro-social capacities, and supporting the real-life development of pro-social skills through the weekly happiness practices. A recent article based on GGSC fellow Brett Ford’s research suggests that this kind of striving may be a good thing. Based on our analysis of what happens to people who previously completed The Science of Happiness, which showed immediate and sustained boosts on all the well-being metrics that we surveyed, it’s very possible to boost your own happiness. Here, with the addition of a third person’s perspective, we’ve been able to show that being seen as pro-social may be the most important factor in how others feel about our relationships, and that being involved in relationships judged by others as exceptional in and of itself bolsters happiness. Together, this suggests that cultivating these pro-social characteristics within ourselves—kindness, compassion, forgiveness—is a promising and worthwhile route to increasing happiness. In the process, we’ll also improve the quality of our relationships, which is yet another route to increasing happiness. This “upward spiral” pattern is consistent with published findings from Bethany Kok and Barbara Fredrickson, which show that positive emotions benefit physiological systems that promote pro-social engagement, which in turn leads to more positive emotions. Feeling happy encourages us to connect, which makes us feel happier and deepens our relationships, and onward and upward.
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