I recently stumbled upon the work of behavioral scientist Winfred Gallagher, author of Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, which made the New York Times Bestseller list a few years back. I found the basic premise of the book quite interesting in that through her research Gallagher has validated something which the New Testament has been teaching for almost 2000 years.
For Gallagher, it was an unexpected event in her personal life which set her on this journey: she was diagnosed with an aggressive and advanced form of cancer. Going into her treatment, she had expected it to be a miserable time, but instead found it to be a surprisingly pleasant period of her life. Although physically uncomfortable, she enjoyed many things during this time, including going on walks, and her personal favorite: an evening martini. This led her to later pursue investigating the role that attention plays in a person’s happiness.
After 5 years of studying this topic, she came away with what she called “a grand theory of the mind:”
Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience, from mood to productivity to relationships.
If you could look backward at your years thus far, you’d see that your life has been fashioned from what you’ve paid attention to and what you haven’t. You’d observe that of the myriad sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings that you could have focused on, you selected a relative few, which became what you’ve confidently called “reality.” You’d also be struck by the fact that if you had paid attention to other things, your reality and your life would be very different.
The biggest factor which leads to happiness, in other words, is what you choose to focus your attention on.
Author Cal Newport, in reference to this says:
This concept upends the way that most people tend to think about their subjective experience of this life. We tend to focus on our circumstances: assuming that what happens to us, or fails to happen, determines how we feel. From this perspective, the small-scale details of how you spend your day aren’t that important, because what matters are the large-scale outcomes: whether you get a promotion or move to that nicer apartment. According to Gallagher, decades of research contradict this understanding.¹
In other words: our perception of the world and of ourselves is shaped less by our circumstances, and more by what we choose to focus on and pay attention to.
For readers of the Bible, this only serves to confirm what we already know and believe. This is the reason why the Bible says things like:
whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things…and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)
This is the reason why Paul the Apostle could write a letter from jail about being full of joy in Jesus; because he took his own advice to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Colossians 3:1-2)
This is the reason why to those suffering pressure and persecution as a result of their Christian faith, Paul’s advice was to “fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2-3)
As Winfred Gallagher rightly discerned: two people can be facing the same exact circumstances, but what they focus on will determine how they feel about it and deal with it. This has been a trademark of Christianity from its inception. However, as Christians, our focus is not on shallow pleasures and momentary distractions, but we draw from the deep well of hope that is found in Jesus Christ alone! For this reason:
we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
Whatever you are going through today, may you fix your eyes on Jesus, and may the hope you find in Him define your reality, giving you joy in the face of anything life brings your way.