A is for Attention

This week I discovered that according to the Statistic Brain Research Institute, the average attention span of web users in 2015 is just 8.25 seconds. The average attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds. This is something I find alarming considering that we are the most evolved and technologically advanced species on earth.

How can this be? Perhaps one reason for this is our culture of distraction where a constant bombardment of “infotainment” scatters and weakens our ability to concentrate on one thing at a time.

Not only might our multitasking lifestyle be having a negative impact upon the quality of our attention, but we are becoming more forgetful too. According to the same institute 25% of teens regularly forget the major details of close friends and relatives.

It’s not just that we are unable to pay attention, we’re forgetting whatever information we thought we knew.

This lack of mindfulness means that we find ourselves living in a blur, never really absorbing our experiences, never really being here. No wonder so many of us feel lost and disconnected from life.

A recent Harvard study revealed that the average American spends almost half of their lives not paying attention to their present moment experience. The same study also linked a distracted or wandering mind to being unhappy.

When we try to pay attention to many things at once, we feel stressed, pressured, overwhelmed, unable to sleep, resentful and moody. Living each day in a state of distraction is not good for our mental health and statistics given by The Mental Health Foundation, show that 1 in 4 people will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year, with anxiety and depression being the most common in the UK.

Perhaps poor attention is costing us our health?

There is however good news. If a wandering attention makes us unhappy then the ability to concentrate on one thing at a time, consciously absorbing the details of each experience, leads to happiness.

In fact, this is the practice of Mindfulness; being fully present to each moment of life, as it happens. Focussing the mind on the task at hand puts us in a state of ‘flow’ in which happiness, contentment, creativity and mental alertness are all present.

By training ourselves to access this optimum state daily, we become happier, healthier people. But we don’t need to wait until people experience stress or anxiety before teaching them Mindfulness, we can be preemptive, teaching them the basic tools for their own happiness at a young age.

Mindfulness is currently having a huge impact in education as schools all over the world (and on the Isle of Man) are teaching their pupils how to concentrate and cultivate skills such as emotional resilience, patience and kindness. And it’s not just pupils who are benefitting, but their teachers too.

Teachers regularly experience high levels of stress with 50% of new teachers leaving the profession after 5 years. This is due to the heavy demands made on them and the resulting pressure they feel, but it’s also because teachers are trying to manage pupils who come to school already experiencing poor attention and behavioural issues.

How can we successfully teach anything if our pupils cannot pay attention?
By training Teachers and their pupils to be more mindful we can not only improve their academic skills, but also their emotional lives and their relationships outside the classroom.

There is now a host of accessible Mindfulness programmes offering training for schools such as the Mindfulness in Schools Project, the Oxford Mindfulness Centre’s MYRIAD Project which trains adolescents in Mindfulness and resilience, and the Mindfulness in Schools Campaign, to name but a few.

If we can teach our children to use their attention more effectively we can give them the tools to shape their brains, minds, and lives in ways which give them mental and emotional wellbeing, not only benefitting themselves, but everyone around them.

Within a few generations of teaching Mindfulness to our children we may even experience a sea-change in our culture as we begin to discover that happiness and wellbeing don’t rely on luck or chance, but are trainable and maintainable skills which everyone has access to.

This is something worth paying attention to.

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