Almost nine hundred people came to hear the famous author Daniel Goleman speak in London last night as part of a series of inspirational lectures organised by Action for Happiness, the movement which seeks to promote a generally happier society.
The talk was entitled ‘See Life as it is but Focus on the Good Bits‘ which sounded straightforward enough. As a warm up exercise, Daniel asked each person to turn to their neighbour and relate one good thing that had happened in the last 24 hours. The room exploded into chatter and laughter, as you can see in the video clip below.
But it soon became clear that Focussing is one of the things we find hardest to do! We have evolved and survived for thousands of years on our ability to be constantly alert to danger, and any distraction represents a potential threat and therefore require our immediate attention.
So if we are to stay focussed on things which are positive and rewarding, we need emotional intelligence, something we can cultivate if we don’t have it already. This is Goleman’s specialist subject. His best-selling book ‘Emotional Intelligence: why it can matter more than IQ’ came out in 1996 and it defined this form of intelligence as being a mixture of Self Awareness, Self Management, Empathy and Social Skills.
It’s vital to be self-aware, agues Goleman. If you don’t know your own state of mind, if you cannot stand aloof from yourself and look at your mood objectively, you will not realise when you are witnessing or experiencing the Good Bits in Life, nor will you notice when your mind is being distracted by negative thoughts and starting to focus on the Bad Bits.
But self-awareness is just one part of our toolkit, since on top of this we also need to practice Self-Management which is all about focus and concentration. Basically, it’s all about the ability to focus on the task in hand without being constantly distracted.
‘Gross National Product would increase if we all studied Self Management because cognitive control is a better predictor of success than either IQ or social background’. This is surely an interesting fact, suggesting that ‘success’ has all to do with focus, determination and the will to succeed, but does it have anything to do with Happiness?
Yes, Goleman argues, the art of being able to focus has everything to do with being happy and by way of proof he asked us ‘Have you heard of Flow?’ Many nodded while others looked mystified. In short, Flow is the state of mind we experience when we are thoroughly engaged upon the task in hand.
‘It’s when we feel our best skills are being put to use, when we exercise our flexibility of mind, it’s when we are doing something we enjoy and something we feel is of ethical value at the same time.’ When we are in a state of Flow we are totally focussed as well as being very happy in doing something we love, are good at and also deem to be worthwhile.
A few of us experience Flow everyday at work, others find it in their spare time activities. Even a chore as mundane as doing the ironing can bring on a state of Flow if you enjoy it, are good at it and deem it to be worthwhile.
What worries Goleman is that many of us are not experiencing Flow at all since the distractions of modern media and technology make it difficult for us to focus on anything at all. To put it simply, we are constantly being interrupted by emails, text messages, and Facebook posts.
Not only do these interruptions stop our state of Flow, we also have a tendency to focus on negative possibilities of the incoming information. This is because the part of our brain that is constantly alert to new sensory information is also the part of the brain that alerts us to danger, it’s the survivalist ‘Caveman’ side of the brain. So we tend to see incoming information as a threat, first and foremost. So all this technology is not good for focus, it tends to interrupt our Flow and it clouds our happiness.
However all is not lost. We can learn to ignore incoming emails but in addition the art of focussing is something that can be learned and to this end Goleman got the audeience to participate in a breathing exercise which is one those familiar with Mindfulness will probably know about. Breath in whilst watching each breath go in and out in your mind. Concentrate on each breath as it goes all the way in and all the way out.
It’s hard enough to play the breathing game with the help of 900 people who are all trying really hard to concentrate too, but the idea of doing by choice, alone, is practically impossible but we are assured that this can be done for 20 – 30 mins per day and those who do so report being happier as a result.
A fun version of the game is part of the curriculum for some five year olds since the art of concentration is at such an all-time low that it’s now being taught in the classroom. They lie on their backs with a favourite teddy bear, their ‘breathing buddy’, on their tummies. Then they watch the rise and fall of the teddy bear as they breathe. Gradually each day the period of concentration increases, and the mental muscle which controls concentration improves, as their academic results show.
So by conclusion it would seem that if we are to learn the art of happiness we must first learn the art of Focus! Not only because focussing is in itself enjoyable, but also because we need to be able to Focus if we are going to See Life as it is but Focus on the Good Bits.
However Goleman made it clear that although many of the techniques he had described relate to individuals and the pursuit of personal happiness, that his message is not about getting lost in a bubble of self-contentment. Far from it. ‘It’s about having awareness and management of your own being to the extent that when you see others are in trouble or need help, you are able to empathise and do what you can to improve their situation too.’
The very embodiment of Action for Happiness!