Attention Lurking in the News, #1: Keeping Love Alive

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There will be more of these, so I’ll number them.

Quite often I find myself reading something supposedly about something else, only to find that it’s actually about attention.

The first to catch my eye recently was an article on page one of the New York Times Sunday Review, 12/2/12, fetchingly titled “New Love: A Short Shelf Life.”  It was written by Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor from U. Cal. Riverside, author of a forthcoming book, “The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does.”

(Jane E. Brody, the NYT’s Personal Health columnist, further comments on this piece in her January 15th column, “That Loving Feeling Takes a Lot of Work.”)

Lyubomirsky bases her essay on studies of couples married for 15 years.  First comes the unshocking observation that newlyweds tend to enjoy a burst of happiness—given the technical term “passionate love”—for about two years.  During this phase, she writes, one can “experience great happiness while being stuck in traffic or getting our teeth cleaned” because we are on a cloud held aloft by intense longing and attraction.  Not all of us recall being blissed out by dental sessions and snarled traffic when we were smitten.  We might relate more to Lyubomirsky’s reference to the 2004 movie “Before Sunset.”  In it, two former lovers meet up a decade after their intense romance, and agree that if they had stayed so in love they would have made nothing of the rest of their lives.

Nature, it appears, helps even things out a bit so the organism can survive.  Viewing passion from the angle of attention, we have to admit that when passion rules so much attention gets channeled toward the beloved that the basic things that sustain us—like eating, sleeping, and accomplishing things so we feel we are contributing something of value to the world—lose out on the invisible energy that keeps them, and us, going.

Humans (and probably most other complex organisms) are geared for routinization—technically called “hedonic adaptation.” Interestingly, this adaptation cuts many ways, negative and positive.  It enables us to endure the suffering of poverty, illness, failure, and loss of loved ones.  But it also draws our attention away from the pleasures of luxury, success, and gratified passion.

Attention, though capable of intense concentration, likes to roam free of fetters, including the fetters of suffering and wonderful pleasures.

From an attending metaphysician’s viewpoint, it becomes obvious why material possessions lose their luster more quickly than people.  Which is the more moving target, therefore the greater challenge, to one’s attention?  How long, usually, can an elegant new car, a designer gown, or even the latest coolest electronic device command one’s interest, compared to a human being, whose interests and moods can change, and whose thoughts can explore and mature?  The former are products of human skill, and do not change unless reproduced or modified by the latter.  And human skill is ever changeable.

So people usually win out when it comes to commanding our attention longterm.  Nevertheless, those we become familiar with tend to lose that exciting mystery of the unknown.  Guess who loses it first.  This truly was a surprise.  According to the research, women lose interest in sex first, “because women’s idea of passionate sex depends far more centrally on novelty than does men’s.”

Hmmm.  This puts a whole new light on men who dump their middle-aged wives to marry younger women.   Could they actually be the failed lovers of women closer to their own age whom they couldn’t keep interested?

But many women do stay committed to their husbands, even if their sexual ardor has receded.  What keeps them interested?  Could it be that they are frequently involved with children, who are always changing, growing, and surprising them?  Maybe the men they’re with also manage to grow?  It’s not impossible, as some might suspect.

Back to Lyubomirsky.  We learn that longterm happy couples adapt to the routines of life together by means of a less impassioned but comfortable “blend of deep affection and connection,” described as “companionate love.” During this longlasting  phase, research suggests that what keeps happy marriages most pleasurable is the element of surprise.

Experiments have been conducted in which couples rated activities as “pleasant” (e.g. seeing movies, visiting friends, creative cooking) or “exciting” (e.g. skiing, dancing, concert-going).  Couples who selected the exciting stuff and spent 90 minutes doing these activities each week for ten weeks reported greater satisfaction with their marriages than those who did the merely “pleasant.”

But what, we ask, makes one activity “pleasant” rather than “exciting”?  The author doesn’t explain, but does say this: “Surprise is a potent force.  When something novel occurs, we tend to pay attention, to appreciate the experience or circumstance, and to remember it. (My emphasis.)  We are less likely to take our marriage for granted when it continues to deliver strong emotional reactions in us.”

But if we can’t arrange to hit the ski slopes or go to a dance or a rock concert, maybe we could choose to pay a better quality of attention to those around us?  It might make us happier to listen more fully when someone is offering an opinion, or describing something that happened, and respond just to that?  Rather than—as so often happens—waiting to give our own opinion or our turn to describe an event in our life?  (Not to say that our opinions and experiences should always be squelched in response to those of others.  It’s just that, if we’re really listening to someone, is it always relevant?)

Smartphones and earbuds seem to divert an awful lot of people’s attention away from the persons they are with.  I suspect many of us have seen young couples seated across from one another in restaurants, engrossed in their devices rather than each other.  To an older person, it looks like a recipe for breakup.  Social pundits bemoan the loss of conversational skill amongst the young.  It seems that they don’t know how to pay attention to one another long enough to exchange real thoughts and ideas, but they’re adept at texting others where they’re shopping or eating, or whether they like a particular movie. Young folks call it sharing. Whether actual conversation emerges is unclear, but not impossible.

For me, the most intriguing idea arrives when Lyubomirsky refers to a series of studies showing that people had longer spells of happiness “when they were at the receiving end of an unexpected act of kindness and remained uncertain about where and why it had originated.”

Wow.  The power of dark energy, of invisible attention.  For me it begs the question, Where can one get the chance to deliver an unexpected act of kindness, or a moment of surprising care?

Offhand it’s impossible to say, but I’ll offer a few modest examples.  One comes from a man I know who called a friend, an older man who’d been married over 35 years.  His friend answered the phone, but told him he’d call back later, because he did not want to interrupt the conversation he was having with his wife.  The caller was so impressed he told me about it as an item of stunning import.  You’d think this man, married so long, would have found it more than easy to take a friend’s phone call, not having to excuse himself.  But like the caller, you’d be brought up short by the quality of attention being protected by the man’s response.

Another comes from a shopkeeper who sold my husband of 13 years a pair of earrings for my birthday.  The pair he chose were unusual in color, so I took them back to see if I could exchange them for a similar pair in a color that would go with more of my wardrobe.  As soon as the proprietor saw the earrings, he remembered my husband.  “He took a long time deciding on those,” he told me in a respectful tone–the respect directed toward my husband. “I think they meant a lot to him.”  That did it.  I’m wearing them.

Then there was the time an old friend came to visit from Europe, arriving jetlagged and exhausted.  She placed her well worn shoes in the hallway next to ours, and took a much needed nap.  While she slept I took pity on her scuffed-up flats, stealthily giving them a thick coat of polish and a shine to last.  I had zero interest in having my handiwork admired, least of all to be thanked.  I just hoped, when my friend was ready to set forth, that she’d put on her comfortable old shoes and be vaguely surprised that they looked good.  Of all the fun things we did during her visit, to be able to create that minor mystery was the most delightful for me.

Would you share a moment of intriguing attention from your perspective?  Views of other attending metaphysicians are most welcome.