The objects and events around us exist in an objective world. They are what they are. Yet each of us experiences these objects and events in a different way. What happens outside must pass through the filter of your subjective mind before it enters your consciousness. You control what enters your consciousness (and, thus, what enters your awareness and memory).

You and I go to the movies. We watch the same film in the same theater at the same time. You enjoy it. You’re wrapped up in the story and moved by the performances. I leave the theater unhappy. “The kid in front of us coughed the whole time,” I complain as we walk to the car. “The seats were uncomfortable and the volume too loud. Plus, I don’t like Nicholas Cage.”

We shared the same experience — and yet we didn’t.

“Consciousness corresponds to a subjectively experienced reality,” writes Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. “A person can make himself happy, or miserable, regardless of what actually happens ‘outside’, just by changing the contents of his consciousness.” We choose what we experience, and we choose how we interpret those experiences.

This idea can be challenging to people who possess an external locus of control, those who believe that their decisions and life are controlled by chance or fate or greater environmental factors. (We’ll discuss this in greater detail in the weeks ahead.)

Csíkszentmihályi says that in order to achieve flow and happiness, we must actively create the conditions that lead to it. That means we must learn to direct our focus:

[Happiness] is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control their inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any one of us can come to being happy.

The shape and content of your life depends on how you use your attention. People who master what happens in their heads tend to be happier than those who don’t — or won’t.

“While we are thinking about a problem we cannot truly experience either happiness or sadness,” writes Csíkszentmihályi. “Therefore, the information we allow into consciousness becomes extremely important; it is, in fact, what determines the content and quality of life.”

The bottom line? Garbage in, garbage out. If you allow yourself to think negative thoughts, your experience will be negative. If you want a positive experience, you have to accentuate the positive in all that you see and do.

We can make flow moments more common and become happier people by structuring our focus and attention to bring long-term improvements to the quality of our daily life. There are two primary ways to do this:

  • Change external conditions.
  • Change how you experience external conditions.

Each strategy is sound. But one is generally easier than the other. Which path you choose depends upon the situation. Next week, we’ll look at changing the world; in two weeks, we’ll talk about changing yourself.

9 Replies to “Garbage In, Garbage Out: The Importance of Focus and Attention”

  1. Brian says:

    Great post! I know that I can find myself being to negative at times, and when I do I really try and get out of the situation, analyze what is happening, and correct my own thoughts. More often than not, its not the situation thats at fault, by my own interpretation of the situation. Its hard to do, but vital to long term happiness (especially when you have kids, and situations often get out of your control!)

    Long Term Brian

  2. We can be the best version of ourselves – always! Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes well the process flow, but now I start to go a little further: we can actively control our perception reprogramming our selection filter, also called by the neuroscience of RAS (reticular activating system). In what way? Simply controlling what we see, what we hear and what we feel, in the external world, but mainly in our minds.

  3. Martin says:

    Life really is all about how you react to things. I have a friend who reacts to disaster like nobody else I’ve ever seen. His building flooded in the middle of the night. He woke up, smiled, and just started working on it as if nothing huge happened.

  4. Jenn Limbaugh says:

    I have been interested in the Locus of Control since you first mentioned it in your post, You Are the Boss of You, published on Get Rich Slowly, Aug. 1, 2013.
    I equate this Garbage in, Garbage out, to the same emotional connection…allowing yourself to become your counter part’s “emotional garbage can”. The power of your association can have an in-kind affect. Choose wisely, learn to discern.
    Thanks again, for the thought provoking post JD!

  5. Edward says:

    Interesting recent research has been showing that those with positive thinking routines are actually *unhappier* in their lives. They’ve attributed this to the idea that those who believe if they only think positive thoughts everything will go smoothly. While the slightly pessimistic thinker may study hard for an exam because they’re scared of failing, an optimist may over believe in their abilities, think positively, and therefore not study as hard. The optimist then becomes disappointed with the final result because in their mind they did everything correctly. This leads to hidden depression.
    I also worry about the “cult of positive thinking”–those people who truly believe in things like “The Secret”. It’s suggested that it’s now trendy to hire positive thinkers and team players over the potential best candidate for a position. Critical thinkers can be quickly labelled as “negative” for expressing concern over certain systems or situations. For example, you really, really don’t want a positive thinker in charge of designing car safety systems. It’s also probably best to keep them far away from anything having to do with nuclear reactors. The belief that everything is well and will always end well often does not jibe with the reality around us if you work too hard at framing negatives as positives.
    Good article, JD!

  6. Betty says:

    “Garbage In, Garbage Out” I have always lived by this statement.
    It has served me well. I enjoyed the post. Looking forward to
    the next one.

    JD, do you know what is up with Jim Collins blog? I haven’t been
    able to access it for the last couple of days.

    Thanks, Betty

    • Garbage in, garbage out is an amazing way to look at our external experiences and how we internalize them.

      I have noticed that the people in life who don’t have to “worry” about money seem to have the time to start thinking about higher purposes in life, like flow (and happiness).

      This process in this post is wonderful because it helps us change how we see ourselves and how we see the world. Thanks, JD!

      (Betty, I believe Jim Collins’ site is down – I have had the same problem. Maybe he’s out of town and not checking it, which is always a possibility, and he isn’t aware it’s down. Or he will figure it out when he gets back, since he likes to “unplug” while travelling. I believe it will be back someday!)

  7. Betty says:

    Pura Vida Nick, thanks for the reply.
    Good to know it isn’t my computer.

  8. Luana says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head with the issue of internal vs. external locus of control. When it comes to perspective, I think that generally people who see the world in a positive light are the ones who feel in control of their lives. For these people, life is a series of choices rather than a series of constant pressure from external sources. Your work & career, your spouse, your cost of living, how you spend your time, where you live…the fact is these are all choices, but not everyone realizes it. It’s amazing how much fear & anxiety vanish away forever once you do.

    Also, I love that you’ve been referencing the book Flow. I found it to be incredibly insightful. Another recommendation, if you haven’t already read it, is The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathon Haidt. THH is a book of breadth while Flow is in-depth. Both are great.

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