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Daniel Goleman already enjoys a vast following for his many books, public lectures, and more recently, YouTube videos teaching meditative techniques. His fans will receive the latest book, Focus, as a welcome addition to his corpus, but the work also stands on its own for the new insights it offers in the field of brain research. A reader who knows little of Goleman's long career, highlighted by his science journalist position at the New York Times and his cofounding of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning at the Yale University Child Studies Center, will enjoy and benefit from Focus as much as his seasoned fans, because the book offers to those of us interested in wellness and self-healing a basic mechanics of mental life that explains why it is that mindful practices have profound implications for success in life and career--how mindfulness functions to promote health and happiness. In Focus, Goleman weaves an account of the science of attention that considers not only the objects of attention, such as fast-paced technologies, gaming, and so on, or the value of attention for sound leadership, people management, and the like, but Goleman focuses the beam of attention on the attentive process itself, the spotlight by which we navigate our lives, improve our knowledge and hone our self-knowledge, and cultivate (or sabotage) our relationships, our careers, and ultimately our happiness. This broader focus has profound implications for our understanding of human happiness and wellbeing.
In this latest work, Goleman first unfolds one by one the basics of countless mental functions undertaken by the focused mind: self-awareness, which allows us to recognize how we feel and why, and is vital to self-regulation; empathy, the other-awareness, critical to relationship-building, that enables us to accurately read emotions in other people and interact appropriately and smoothly with them; concentration, which opens us to creative insights and thus imaginative solutions to problems; memory, the identity-solidifier that grounds us in a world of human difference, and many, many more. As he unpacks each mental function, Goleman demonstrates to the reader that focus is the link between momentary attention and excellence in life itself; it is the hidden power that labors silently throughout our waking hours, rippling through everything we do, touching all we seek to accomplish, and shaping our sense of self, others, and the world. Solon told King Croesus that how we end up our lives is the only determinant of whether our lives may be called well-lived and happy (Herodotus, Histories 1.29-33); however, Goleman shows that the end is intimately decided with each step along the path; the path is the destination, and skillful path-treading distills to the quality of attention we afford to every baby step along the way.
Goleman offers us a road map. When we operate with inner, other, and outer focus, we observe ourselves, live and interact meaningfully with others, and act effectively in the world, the quality of our lives is balanced and healthy. Inner focus brings to clarity our intuitions, the values that guide our decisions, and the directional changes we need to make to better our decisions. Other-focus helps us to accurately gauge what those around us are feeling, so we can respond in the most appropriate and thoughtful ways and respect and preserve our connections with others. Outer focus enables us to see the forest for the trees in order to function effectively within the systems that enclose us, but also to change those systems when they no longer serve the good of the whole. As the reader makes her way through this triplicate catalogue of skills, she becomes increasingly aware that these three foci are sadly deficient among modern populations. Goleman, drawing on scientific evidence at every step, unfolds the benefits--and the dangers--of the ever burgeoning technological revolution that has altered the way humans relate to each other. Technology, he explains, captures our attention, while simultaneously undermining our capacity for focus. Its unrelenting barrage of information overloads our minds and distracts us. Adults suffer epidemic rates of attention-decline, but how much more tragic are the effects of this decline in the generations that have grown up wholly in the sway of this revolution.
The constant distractions not only result in mental blurriness and an inability to focus for any length of time on a single thing or person, but lost in their electronic gadgets, young people' social skills are increasingly eroding, leaving them clueless about how to maintain healthy relationships or effectively interact with others for any length of time. Children are increasingly deprived, claims Goleman, of the social and emotional learning that is the key to success in personal life and career. Fleeting sound bites of attention, it seems, do not accrue to attentive focus, nor do they constitute human contact or cultivate conversational skill; they give no opportunity for soul-searching reflection or that sustained joint-attention--mutual focus--that forms the core of meaningful interactions with fellow human beings. Moreover, those flickering images and information blind us to the bigger picture, robbing our lives of meaning and purpose.
Goleman's study increasingly exposes the direct link between the skill of focused attention and the skyrocketing rates not only of ADD and ADHD--autism is now plotted on a spectrum!--but of chronic anxiety, depression, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, panicked catastrophizing, and the full gamut of addictions (food, drink, porn, gaming, gambling, etc.) by which distracted, disconnected, moderns strive to self-medicate their feelings of isolation and emotional turbulence arising from their total immersion in the technological world. Just as the diagnosis seems hopeless, however, Goleman offers us the remedy, complete with the science that explains how the remedy works to foster healing and wellbeing. Total focus has the immediate effect of rendering pleasurable the activities of our work and personal lives. Regaining our focus by giving our full attention to the person, place, and thing at hand, promises Goleman, will give to our lives the meaningful "flow" that we need to make sense of our lives in the midst of the chaos of emotions and landslide of random information.
The science behind the remedy (focus) is fascinating! Goleman explains that the vast majority of our mental functions take place "back stage" or in the neural wiring of the lower brain or subcortical circuitry, the more ancient part of the brain. We are in the constant pull of an undertow of ancient whims and drives we do not and cannot understand. Focused attention derives from giving the upper part of the brain the reins, which has a calming effect on the amygdala, soothing the savage beast of the primeval fear-based brain. However, the trick is a balanced concert between the upper and lower regions of the brain. Too much attention can cause us to trip up, much as a golfer loses her swing or an ice skater's step falters, when they think too much about their next move. Too much "executive control" from the top of the brain makes us too analytical, overly self-focused, negative, and self-critical. However, too little executive control, such as when our minds wander as a result of cognition overload through technological distractions, wears out our reason, erodes our self-control, and mobilizes the lower brain, leaving us vulnerable to the subconscious drives of the amygdala circuitry, the brain's sentinel for emotional meaning. When lower brain drives the upper, then emotions, rather than reason, force our decision making in the direction of panicked catastrophizing, focused (negatively) on me!
Thus has Goleman unfolded for the reader the secret to a happy life: we must cultivate the brain balance that is evidenced in emotional resilience, the ability us to recover from the emotional hijacking that inevitably occurs when the lower brain kicks in and sends us into me-obsessing panic. People's moods, on the whole, tend to be skewed toward the negative and we are all too ready to interpret the new as unpleasant, as our ancient lower brain constantly scours the horizon for threats to our safety and wellbeing, Goleman explains. When the mind wanders, as it so often does under the constant barrage of distractions--flickering adds on our screens and dings from our email and messages--our minds are rendered less and less stable and we are made less and less well and happy. The cure is focused attention on the moment, an increasingly lost art. But meditation and other mindful practices can train our minds to keep coming back from the distractions to the solid calm of the moment.
We should hardly be surprised to find this scientist, renowned for his pioneering work in mindful practices, leading us, scientific study by scientific study, back to the place of rebalance and healing that he has been promoting all along in his work. Goleman's science of the brain's functioning turns out to validate the cure that philosopher and psychologist William James had recommended a century ago: "The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will." If unhappiness is rooted in the wanderings between the all-about-me obsessing of the conscious mind and the emotional chaos of the subconscious drives, then happiness issues from cultivating through mindful practices the emotional resilience and mental stability that keeps us sane, mentally balanced, and compassionate of others. The happy, focused mind weaves together a coherent sense of self from the random bits of life that our momentary experiences serve up to our attention, and the solid sense of self frees us from the constant ruminations and emotional reactivity for compassionate relations with others and effective functioning in the world. On an even emotional keel, I have the capacity to avoid the minutiae of the trees and to open in panoramic awareness of the forest, in order to attend, attentively and with equanimity, to self and others.
One may be tempted to think that an author as prolific as Daniel Goleman has little new to say to his broad audiences. However, this book will prove that assumption to be wrong. It will be a welcome fresh read to fan and novice investigator alike, giving us new reasons to begin today our mindful practice rituals. But perhaps the most valuable implication of this new book is Goleman's highlighting of the importance of teaching our youngsters to focus for the sake of delaying their gratification, a fast-disappearing ability among today's youth. It turns out that the ability to delay gratification is a bigger indicator of success in life and career than all those factors we think so critical--IQ, wealthy parents, best schools, and so on. Furnishing our kids, at home and in school, with a toolbox of mindful practices will help them live happier, more meaningful lives and survive their immersion in the technological world.
© 2015 Wendy C. Hamblet
Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D., Professor, North Carolina A&T State University.