The Happiness Project

“Without Attention, We Cannot Go Deeply in Thought or Relations”

For years, I’ve done a lot of my writing at the wonderful New York Society Library (though lately I’ve been tethered to the Internet and my three monitors at home). Because the rule of silence in the study room there is so strictly enforced, for a long time I saw but never spoke to one of my fellow writers—but finally, I actually did meet Maggie Jackson .

She’s the author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age , which comes out in paperback today. It’s a fascinating examination of the consequences of all the technology we use—on learning, relationships, and our inner lives. Maggie Jackson emphasizes the importance of the ability to pay attention .

Because the issues she discusses have such clear consequences for happiness, I was curious to hear her answers to these questions.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Maggie: Being alone with my books and thoughts. Pursuing the trail of a thorny research question. Being with my family and friends: sharing a meal, swimming or walking at the ocean, exploring a new place. Many, many simple things make me content—tea time, museum-hopping, bicycling, reading in an old library, playing in the snow.

What do you know now about happiness that you didn’t when you were 18?
My dad was the king of simple pleasures. He was not a tormented soul. I, on the other hand, was a moody, impatient kid who tried to do too much and move too fast. I could see but not really appreciate my dad’s view of the world when I was young. But he must have left his mark on me, because I’ve come to realize that life isn’t all about the tallest peaks or fastest races, and it’s certainly not about our possessions, titles, or money. Life’s meaning unfolds in both the “big moments” and the detours and pauses and tiny moments of serendipity. Being in the present, along with being present for others, is crucial. I used to have one gear: high. But now I realize that happiness comes from complicated rhythms. And it comes and goes. It’s not a state of being that once reached, sticks.

Is there a link between attention and happiness?
Yes. Being able to focus is something that most people value instinctively. I can’t recall a great thinker or creator or leader—from Marie Curie to Picasso to Barack Obama—who doesn’t have enormous powers of concentration. As a young adult, I understood unthinkingly that attention is the key to getting things done. But until I began researching the fate of attention in our distracted society, I didn’t really realize the complexity or importance of this human faculty. Attention is a key to learning, memory, problem-solving, engagement, intimacy and creativity—all that we strive for today. Attention is now considered a tripartite capacity made up of focus, or the spotlight of the mind; alerting or wakefulness; and executive attention, or the ability to plan, envision, judge. Without attention—which derives from the Latin for ‘stretch toward’ – we cannot go deeply in thought and relations. As a result, attention is our most essential stepping stone to happiness. And controlling our powers of attention is crucial to steering our fate.

Is there anything that people often do or say that adds or detracts from their happiness?
Throughout history, humans have been programmed to take the easy way out, as a means of conserving energy and lowering risks. Take the short-cut to the fishing hole. Sow the plants that need less care. Set a trap rather than track an animal. Our ability to plan ahead and use technology allows us to survive, with less physical effort. But this instinct does us a disservice in a digital, cognitive age. Television, fast food, quick transport and even instant social connectivity give us a world built on the quick and the instant. The pendulum begins to swing too far in the direction of ease and passivity. The result is all too often anxiety, depression, poor health. The trick is not to forget our physicality, our limitations and the beauty of effort, both in the biological and cognitive realms. A life too easy or escapable quickly becomes meaningless.

Do you work at being happy?
No, I work on pursuing my dreams and battling my demons. Happiness follows.

* Lisa Takeuchi Cullen’s Wasabi Mama is a “sinus-clearing rant on parenting, work, media, and entertainment” – many of my favorite subjects, so I love a visit there.

* If you’re in a book group and think you might choose The Happiness Project as a reading selection, please let me know. I’ll send you a discussion guide, plus I plan to give away some free advance copies of the book, and I’ll choose addreses from these emails.
–Email me at gretchenrubin1[at] (don’t forget the “1”) with the message “book group”
–include your name and address if you’d like to be eligible for a free book
–if you’re willing, I’d love to know a little about your group: how many members, what you read, etc. No particular reason, I’m just curious about book groups!