By Julia Mossbridge, MA, Ph.D., “Dr. Julia”
Science Director, Focus@Will labs
Unsurprisingly, my son, who is an only child and just started his junior year at a new high school, was wanting my attention a lot the other day. I know he needed my attention, but I was distracted by my need to relax. I said to him desperately, “Please, don’t interrupt me while I analyze my dataset. That’ll make me happy.” After it came out of my mouth, we both laughed at how geeky that seemed — examining relationships between columns of numbers could make me happy? But we both knew it was true — for him it’s his music, for me, my data. We’re both happier when we take uninterrupted time to focus on working with what we love.
While there are not a lot of people out there discussing the relationship between focus and well-being, the relationship has become clear to me recently — in fact, it has become clear as a result of doing focused analysis like the kind that made my son and me laugh the other day.
The dataset was from new Focus@Will users, who twice rated themselves on several well-being questionnaires as well as reported their ability to focus while doing cognitive tasks. These two sessions were separated by about 2 months. There were four well-being questionnaires, which assessed positive mood, symptoms of physical stress, general self-efficacy (i.e., the ability to cope with difficulty), and self-transcendence (the ability to have a perspective beyond the self). High positive mood, fewer symptoms of physical stress, high general self-efficacy, and high self-transcendence are usually related to feeling good. However, with this group, the change in self-efficacy over the 2 month period was not associated with the change in positive mood, although it should have been (van der Bijl & Shortridge-Baggett, 2001). Meanwhile, fewer symptoms of physical stress and increased self-transcendence were appropriately directly associated with positive mood. As a result of this anomaly, I dropped the self-efficacy scores from the analysis.
Changes over the two month period in the remaining three well-being scales (mood, symptoms of physical stress, and self-transcendence) were independently significantly correlated with changes over the same period in the ability to focus. But to make the data easier to understand and because the three scales are related, I normalized the data and averaged them so you can see the relationship between changes in these three aspects of well-being and changes in focus (see Figure). To make it really clear: as focus improves, so does well-being.
If you’ve ever taken a statistics class from a good teacher, you’ve been taught that “correlation does not imply causation.” This means that just because two things are correlated does not mean that one causes the other. But the relationship is suggestive — and we ought to wonder about whether either is causal. Fortunately, not all measures were correlated, so we can assume participants weren’t just more or less likely to be biased towards a particular end of the response spectrum (all high- or low-ratings).
So let’s look at the possibilities. Does it make sense that feeling better can increase focus on our work? If I feel more positive about things in general, I’ll likely be better able to focus on my work as I won’t be distracted by negative life events. What about physical symptoms of stress? If two months ago I had chronic pain and now I don’t, you bet I’ll be more focused on my work than two months ago. And what about self-transcendence? If I am able to place myself in perspective and connect with something larger than myself, will I be more focused on my work? Sure — because my work is larger than myself.
Okay, but does causality make sense in the opposite direction? Can increased focus on cognitive tasks help us feel better in all these ways? Absolutely. If I’m more focused on cognitive tasks, I can immerse myself in my work and as a result I do not have my work hanging over my head — and I accomplish something. Accomplishment directly leads to a feeling of reward, which boosts positive mood. What about physical symptoms of stress? If I’m more focused on my work, I’m going to be less focused on physical symptoms (see: Attention Garden post), and I’ll be giving myself a chance to enter into a state of flow, a state in which I lose track of all sorts of things including physical symptoms of stress. What about self-transcendence? If I’m more focused on my work, I’m investing in something larger than myself, so increased self-transcendence reasonably follows.
The upshot is, focus and well-being are intimately related in some way, perhaps even mutually supporting each other. This idea reminds me of psychologist Adam Crabtree’s ideas about trance states (Crabtree, 2014). He spent decades putting people into trance states, and he came to believe that focus and flow are essentially trance states, because the object of focus takes center ground, while the “fringe” (anything not in focus) fades away. In this focused state, we have access to inner resources that we cannot access when we are not focused. Like a gymnast executing a perfectly-timed routine or a scientist having a central insight, abilities that seem beyond normal can be gained by a skilled person in focus. Could these abilities include self-healing and self-improvement? Crabtree thinks so. Makes sense to me. After all, what I need to relax is a good hour with some numbers.
NOTE: While writing this blog post, I kept focused on my work via the scientifically designed and relaxing Acoustic audio channel, one of many diverse focusing channels created by Focus@Will labs.
About Julia Mossbridge:
I am a parent of a 16-year old composer and a partner to a wonderful human being. I study the science of consciousness, and I give talks about work engagement, authenticity, and aliveness. I am working on changing the culture of Silicon Valley to move it toward a greater appreciation of the gifts of being human (watch a video of me giving an hour-long talk on this topic). I am the author of Unfolding: The Science of Your Soul’s Work, and I co-authored a textbook with Imants Baruss, Transcendent Mind: Re-thinking the Science of Consciousness, published in August 2016 by the American Psychological Association. I am also the Science Director at Focus@Will Labs, Director of the Innovation Lab and a Staff Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and a Visiting Scholar in Psychology at Northwestern University.