"What You Focus on Expands"


I've been working with a national radio station recently, and one day one of my colleagues turned to me and asked "do you ever feel like the world is just going to implode?" I have felt like that. In fact I felt that way for most of my life, and people who are perhaps a bit more empathic and compassionate may suffer from this feeling more than others.

Because when you care, when you give a shit, it can feel that way most of the time. When we read the news or turn on the television we see forest fires, famine, floods, politicians actively working against the common good, riots, corruption, and disease. We see tragedy, unhappiness, and the cruelty of man against man.

Our inboxes fill up with appeals for help from charities and organisations that need our help now to end injustice and save the world. For just £5 a month we can feed a starving family, restore sight to a blind child, help end suffering, pollution and save democracy. We need to act now otherwise it will be too late.

But we can't save the world. We don't have the money to help all those charities. We don't have the time to respond to every plea for help. And we are wracked with guilt because it's all our fault. Every time we turn to social media there are more things to make us despair, enrage us, fill us with negative energy and make us want to give up on mankind and ourselves.

And it makes us feel anxious, depressed and insecure. We are impotent. Powerless to save the world. Powerless to do anything.

The problem is that we're suffering from a negative attention bias. Everywhere we turn we see negativity, so we assume that negativity is all there is. We see a world falling apart, and we see ourselves as useless, pathetic, and unable to do anything about it. But if you think about what newspapers report, and what people want to read, you'll realise that bad news sells more papers than good news. That newspapers focus on the negative because that's what people want to read. They want to feel enraged, disgusted, offended. It's a national pastime. How boring would every news story be if all it reported on was "Prime Minister had a lovely quiet day - everybody agreed about everything"?

A negative attention bias forces us to focus on the negative, and as a result we think that's all there is. But it's a distortion of reality and, if we really want to, we can use the idea of an attention bias to our own benefit and literally change our world by changing our perspective.

There's a phrase that positivity bloggers talk about a lot - "what you focus on expands", and it highlights this point exactly. It's hard to say where this phrase comes from - it's been used so many time you could probably attribute it to anyone, but it's a good quote because it highlights the  simple power of attention bias and how we can use it as a tool for positive thinking.

I'm going to use skateboarding to illustrate the point, as it's something I have no experience with and rarely features in my life unless I drive past a skate park, or see a kid doing ollies in the street. If I decided to get into skateboarding, bought myself a skateboard, started hanging around at the skatepark, wearing skater clothes, reading skater magazines, travelling to work by skateboard, and generally embracing skateboarding wholesale, suddenly my life would be transformed and skateboarding would feature quite prominently where it hadn't before. I'd be much more tuned into skateboarding. It notice it much more on television, and as I went about my day. The actual amount of skateboarding in the world hadn't changed, it would just seem that way. I would see skateboard references everywhere. They'd always been there, I just hadn't been aware of them. I hadn't been tuned in.

We can use this same idea to tune out of negativity, and tune in to positivity. We can actively seek out things that bring us joy, that make us feel good. We can focus on the news stories and the news sites about people making positive change in the world, rather than all the things that make us angry, and despair. We can choose to see the beauty in a ray of sunshine or the birds singing outside our window.

Whatever we focus on expands, and if we focus on the positive aspects of life, we'll start seeing them everywhere - even within ourselves.

So why not make an effort to turn away from those things that trigger feelings of negativity and seek out the things that bring us joy? Lets exercise a positive muscle and use attention bias to turn our world into a flourishing garden of positivity. It's already there, right under our nose, all the time. We just have to tune in.