Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Human Flourishing via Meditation: More True Happiness, Less Suffering

     "What is wisdom? Aristotle wrote about wisdom … as practical decision making that leads to human flourishing. And human flourishing comes from practicing the virtues, so making decisions that are virtuous is wiser than not. Decisions that involve generosity, honesty, humility, and courage are more virtuous and thus wiser than decisions that are self-interested, stingy, duplicitous, or cowardly. We can practice making our decisions based on virtues. We can practice making better decisions by learning from experience, but to do so we need to change the way we pay attention to our decisions. How do we change the way we pay attention? It is important to develop the skill of attention.
     A gunshot will grab your attention without any effort on your part. And you can pay attention to a task you have to do and you can try harder to focus on it when it gets tedious, but we all know the limits on our ability to do that. These experiences suggest that attention is just a part of us like any other part of us (number of eyes or fingers) and there is not much we can do to change the way we use attention.
     But there is good evidence to suggest that attention and our use of attention can change and improve with practice. To develop the skills of attention means to increase the capacity for holding things in mind while thinking (working memory), to improve noticing, and to increase our control of attention. For example, some research has demonstrated that practice in playing certain video games can increase your ability to use attention practice in meditation can as well. While the effects of video game playing on increasing attention may be controversial, there is good reason to think of attention as a skill of selecting information, shifting your mind among relevant information, holding information in mind while thinking, and avoiding distraction.
     How does attention help make decisions wiser? We make a lot of our decisions without a lot of thought. Deciding what to have for lunch does not involve the same kind of thinking as deciding to change jobs. But even when we think we are thinking hard about a decision, we can be limited by habits of previous decisions. We often skim the mental surface of a problem, not stopping to be curious about what lies beneath. Some research has suggested that this might be good -- fast and unreflective decisions seem to lead to better decisions sometimes. Looking at problems and decisions through a narrow and shallow focus of past habits may work for some things, but it will not develop the skill of wisdom. If you do not see the virtuous options because you have not thought about them in the past, you may miss them. If you cannot think about a problem from someone else’s perspective, you may not consider everything necessary for a wiser decision. When we are distracted, we miss bits of information we should use in helping us decide, and improving the skill of attention, reduces such distraction. Increased attention allows us to consider more aspects of a complex problem leading to a wiser decision. Practicing the skills of attention over time, resisting distraction, holding goals in mind, and controlling what we attend to, can help all of us make wiser decisions."
       Howard C. Nusbaum "Thinking About Wisdom as a Skill"
Howard C. Nusbaum
Shutterstock / Dirk Ercken

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