TEDxUCLA 2017: Gravity
Are you here right now? The surprising power of paying attention
So there is a simple question that’s completely changed the way I live my life.
“Are you here right now?”
Think about it. Are you really here? Because there’s a Harvard study that says for about half of you, your body is in your seat but your mind is elsewhere.
Maybe you’re thinking about all the things you need to do, or what you’re going to have for lunch. In other words, your mind is probably wandering.
So is that a bad thing?
As a health psychologist, I used to think it was. But it turns out I was wrong. Mind wandering can be good, it’s kind of like a mental time travel where you get to imagine an unknown future or revisit old memories, explore new ideas.
But sometimes our mind wandering can get a bit stuck. I know for me, I can think about the same thought over and over, go on autopilot and zone out, like when I drive home from work and don’t remember how I got to my, into my driveway. Has that ever happened to you?
Yeah, I’m from LA and we think about driving. A lot. The last time I was at a concert, instead of listening to the music, I spent half the show thinking about how I was going to get out of the parking lot. My body was in the seat, but my mind was already out the door.
And you see, that’s the thing: when our minds are habitually elsewhere, lost in thought, we stop noticing. And I’ve come to believe that being able to see the life that is right in front of us can change the way that we live it.
Artist Georgia O’Keeffe was so convinced that people had lost the ability to see that she intentionally painted flowers that were giant-sized just so people could notice what was right in front of them.
I became drawn to this idea of paying attention a few years before I lost my father, mostly because I was so bad at it. I mean, how many moments had I missed living in my head, lost in my thoughts, thinking always about my future?
Now when I was a kid, I noticed everything. The people walking down the street, the birds in the trees, the color of my soup. Wait a minute, you might be thinking, my life is very complicated. So what does it matter if I don’t notice the color of my soup?
Okay, maybe it doesn’t matter. But then again, is it possible that paying attention is a mindset that can change the course of our lives? Because that’s what happened for Betty Nesmith Graham.
Betty was a bank secretary in the early 1950s and mother to a little boy named Michael — who, as an aside, would later grow up to become a member of the singing group The Monkees. But back then, Betty was a single mother and she was struggling.
And at the bank, they had just switched from the old manual typewriters to the new electric kind. They don’t allow you to a race without smearing the whole paper, so every time Betty made a mistake, she had to start all over again.
So one day Betty was watching the artists as they were painting the bank windows for the holidays, and she noticed something. When the artists made a mistake, they didn’t start over. They just covered it up with another layer of paint.
So she brought a small jar of white paint to work. And when she made a typo, she just covered it up with a little layer of paint and it worked like a charm. That idea led to Mistake-Out, later renamed Liquid Paper, and sold to the Gillette corporation for 47 million dollars.
Betty paid attention. And that mindset led not only to a successful company, but to a foundation to help women in need, as she once was.
I was so inspired when I read about Betty’s story because, despite the many challenges that she faced, she never lost sight of the life that was right in front of her.
But is it possible to pay attention and still not really see? That’s what Richard Wiseman wanted to know. He was a professional magician who later became a psychologist and he wondered, “Why do some people describe themselves as lucky and some unlucky?”
He had a hunch. So what he did is he asked people to look at a newspaper and count all of the photographs inside. Those people who described themselves as unlucky took about two minutes to do it. The ones who described themselves as lucky did it in just a couple of seconds.
So why were they so much faster? Were they smarter? Did they have some kind of a system? Well it turns out that on the second page of the newspaper, Wiseman placed a very large message that read, “Stop counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” So the lucky people stopped.
So how come the unlucky people didn’t see a message that was so large? Because their attention was so limited to finding photographs that they didn’t see what was right in front of them: the answer.
How many times do we do that? We’re so intent on finding that one thing, the perfect job, the perfect situation, that we don’t see all the possibilities in our lives. But lucky people pay attention, so they notice the possibilities and that leads to good luck.
So if paying attention can create more possibilities in our lives, maybe it would be helpful if we develop this mindset of paying attention. As a matter of fact, let’s give it a try right now.
I’d like all of you to look around the room and silently name all of the colors that you see. And now notice all of the shapes that surround you. Become aware of the feeling of your back against the chair, and notice where your hands are placed. This is what paying attention looks like.
When I first started to develop this mindset of paying attention, I noticed that I became surprised, I noticed a surprising change in me. I started to see things that were always there that I just had simply overlooked, like the sweetness of a strawberry or a body that moves, or the beauty that was all around me. And I found myself becoming unexpectedly happier.
And then I wondered, if paying attention can change the way we see our lives, can it change the way we see each other?
Ellen Langer wondered this too. She’s a social psychologist and she asked people to look through a one-way mirror at strangers and really pay attention to them. What qualities might they have? What would it be like to talk to them, to work with them? And when the people finally met the strangers, the ones who really paid attention to them liked them more than the people who hadn’t paid attention. And Langer concluded that taking notice of things expands our appreciation for them.
And can appreciation lead to caring, to kindness, to empathy? What would our world be like if we cared about each other more simply because we paid attention?
For me, my real lesson in paying attention came from watching my father battle his many chronic illnesses, like heart disease and cancer. His conditions were serious, and there was always a question in my mind of how long we would have him in our lives. Would he be here to see me graduate? To have a baby? My mind often wandered to this unknown future with a sad ending.
But then I realized that by allowing myself to drift to an imaginary place, I was missing the life that was right in front of me. My father was here, now, with me. And seeing this moment was a way to honor him.
And I came to understand that each and every moment in our lives is worthy of being honored and noticed and paid attention to. What possibilities could paying attention reveal for each of us, for our families, for our communities?
Picture a world where we could really see — not only our own lives, but each other. Would it change the way we treat each other? Could it lead to more compassion, even peace? Could paying attention change the world?
To see and be seen. Isn’t that one of the greatest gifts in life? And it all starts with each one of us and one simple question: are you here right now? Thank you.