Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.”
And but so this is a continuation of a series of dispatches where I think I may have actually stumbled upon the secret to life. It first came to my attention in a little bookshop-cum-cafe in Kathmandu, hanging out and reading Daniel Goleman and the Dalai Lama. And now it kind of seems to keep popping up everywhere.
As the old folk wisdom has it, Life is all how you look at it. The psychological evidence on that one seems to just about be in. A decent rubric for this whole thing is Attentional Control. As His Holiness reminds us, for every event that occurs, there are a myriad of aspects to it maybe an infinite number. Some are good and some bad it's rare or impossible that any event has only good or bad in it and we get to choose which aspects to attend to. And, I now believe (and evidently a lot of other smart people do as well), that decision will be absolutely controlling of our happiness, our success, our relationships, and the overall quality of our lives. Another pithily way it was put is, “Life is what you pay attention to.”
Anyway, here's another take on the same (probably critically and centrally important) terrain, from David Brooks.
Human decision making has three basic steps. First, we perceive a situation. Second, we use the power of reason to calculate whether taking this or that action is in our long-term interest. Third, we use the power of will to execute our decision. Over the centuries, different theories of character have emerged… In the nineteenth century, most character-building models focused on Step 3 willpower. The Victorian moralists [believed] the passions are a wild torrent and upstanding people use the iron force of will to dam it, repress it, and control it.
In the twentieth century, [it was] Step 2 the use of reason to calculate interests. [They] emphasized consciousness-raising techniques to remind people of the long-term risks of bad behavior… unsafe sex leads to disease… smoking can lead to cancer. The assumption was that, once you reminded people of the foolishness of their behavior, they would be motivated to stop.
But neither of these models has proven very effective.
The evidence suggests reason and will are like muscles, and not particularly powerful muscles.
[These] models were limited because they shared one assumption: that Step 1 in the decision-making process the act of perception is a relatively simple matter of taking in a scene.
But as should be clear by now, that's wrong. The first step is actually the most important one… The research of the past thirty years suggests that some people have taught themselves to perceive more skillfully than others… to see situations in the right way. When we see something in the right way, we've rigged the game.
William James was among the first to understand the stakes involved in these sorts of decisions: “The whole drama of voluntary life hinges on the amount of attention, slightly more or slightly less, which rival motor ideas might receive. Effort of attention is thus the essential phenomenon of the will.”
Those who have habits and strategies to control their attention can control their lives.