Our emotions are often less complex than we imagine. Most people think that the things that have hurt you are what cause you to experience emotional pain, and that in order to heal and experience real happiness you must resolve those old wounds. The reality, however, is somewhat different.
You can only feel emotions, including the painful ones, in the present moment. And what you feel in the present moment is determined by what you give your attention to. Nothing can hurt you unless you give it your attention. Most people can make themselves cry in just a few minutes by simply pulling up a vivid memory of something that was, at that time, painful. So why would you give your attention to things that cause pain? Some negative events can hold your attention if you perceive them to be a threat, but most people who ruminate on a negative past are simply unaware that they are doing it or that there is any choice in the matter. Things you are unaware of are outside your control. Learning how to become aware of what you are paying attention to, and more important, how to shift your attention to something that makes you feel better, is one of the most powerful tools there is for improving emotional well-being.
As far back as the 1890s, William James wrote extensively about the relationship between selective attention and experience, making the profound observation that “my experience is what I agree to attend to.” Modern cognitive psychologists have demonstrated through research that we are active participants in our process of perception, confirming that what we think and feel is determined by what we pay attention to. Not only do we have the ability to shift our attention away from painful things and give our attention to more pleasant thoughts or memories — but as we do this, it inhibits our ability to think about the unpleasant painful things. This happens because attention works on an activation/inhibition model: When you give attention to negative things, it literally inhibits your ability to see positive things; that’s why psychologists often say that people with depression see a more depressed world. The more you start to give your attention to things that feel good, over time, the more you will start to see a more positive world, and find yourself noticing fewer of the negatives in life.
Once you are aware you can do it, shifting your attention is something over which you can exert complete control. You can choose what you want to pay attention to, and as a result, how you want to feel. The results are almost immediate. Try this with a friend: The next time you are talking with someone who is telling you about something negative happening to them, ask them to tell you about some positive experience instead. Then, notice the change in their facial expressions. When people start to talk about positive events that feel good, they start to smile; it is an almost involuntary reaction.
Does that sound too easy? Here is a tip that will make it even easier. There are only two things in life that you can pay attention to that cause you to experience emotion: Things you want and things you don’t want. Every single thing that you can think of that causes any type of significant emotion can be sorted into one of those two categories. Breakups, job loss, betrayal, death of a loved one — all things you don’t want. Pets, best friends, birthday parties, getting a raise — all things you do want.
You will always know when you are giving your attention to things that you don’t want in life; your emotions will tell you. Paying attention to things you don’t want generates negative emotions, while paying attention to things you do want generates positive ones. When you realize that you are experiencing a negative emotion, recognize in that moment that you are giving your attention to something unwanted and consciously choose to shift your attention to something you want instead. You will start to feel better almost immediately.
This type of proactive avoidance isn't unhealthy: Joseph Ledoux, an NYU neuroscientist and expert on Emotional Intelligence, refers to it as a positive coping strategy that can give you greater control over your life. Attentional control training has been shown effective in the treatment of depression and anxiety. One way to shift your attention to the positive that we know works very well is to practice gratitude: Things that you are thankful for are all wanted things.
One of the most self-sabotaging things that people can give their attention to is an unwanted future. Nothing in the future has actually happened, yet many people spend a good deal of their time experiencing negative emotions like anxiety, fear, and self-doubt, because they are giving their attention to things they don’t want to occur. Doing this not only robs them of their present-moment happiness, but also prevents them from thinking about the positive experiences they could be creating in their future instead.
Our attention is the gateway to what we experience in life. Learning to notice what you are paying attention to, and how to redirect your attention to things you want, can change not only your current experience, but also the life you create for yourself going forward.
Jennice Vilhauer is director of the Outpatient Psychotherapy Treatment Program at Emory Healthcare and the author of Think Forward to Thrive: How to Use the Mind’s Power of Anticipation to Transcend Your Past and Transform Your Life.
1. James, W. The Priniciples of Psychology, Volume 1. Holt and Company: New York. 1890.
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3. Pribram, K.H. and D. McGuinness, Arousal, activation, and effort in the control of attention. Psychol Rev, 1975. 82(2): p. 116-49.
4. Ledoux, J. For the Anxious Avoidance Can Have an Upside. New York Times. April 7, 2013.
5. Browning, M. et al. Using Attentional Bias Modification Training as a Cognitive Vaccine Against Depression. Biological Psychiatry, 2012. 72(1): p. 572-579.