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Christy Matta, M.A.Christy Matta, M.A.
A Blog on Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Mindfulness and Stress Reduction

Can you Improve Life Satisfaction by Changing Your Focus?

Christy Matta, M.A. Updated: Jul 18th 2011

Emotions, such as anxiety, have evolved to help us focus our attention on the most important information in the environment around us. If we're anxious, we must in some way be threatened, so we pay attention to potential threats around us. If you were anxious about walking alone along a dark city street, paying attention to potential threats can keep you safe.

thinking positiveHowever, when this attention to threat is exaggerated, your anxiety levels and symptoms of anxiety increase and are present even when you are not in danger. In one study, people trained to attend to threats, experienced anxiety in response to stressors, while people trained to avoid paying attention to threats had reduced symptoms over time (MacLeod & Bridle, 2009).

So what has all this got to do with life satisfaction? In a recent study in Emotion, Sarah Cavanagh and colleagues asked the question: if increased attention to threats leads to anxiety, then does increased attention to positive information lead to greater life satisfaction (2011)? Previous studies had found that when you feel happy, you tend to notice more positive things around you, such as rewarding words and positive images. Cavanagh and her colleagues explored whether this increased attention to positive things in your environment lead to positive changes in life satisfaction over time.

The study found that the focus on positive information does tend to accompany happy moods and is likely to lead to increases in life satisfaction over time.

In order to improve your own life satisfaction, consider some of the following strategies, based on skills in Marsha Linehan's DBT skills workbook:

1. Do things that prompt feelings of happiness. If happy mood, makes you more likely to attend to positive information, which leads to longer term life satisfaction, then it makes sense to do things that make you feel happy. So soak in a bathtub, go on a date, laugh, eat good food, go swimming, exercise or do other things that make you happy.

2. Focus attention on positive events. Make a conscious effort to focus on positive events. When you notice yourself stuck in the negative, refocus on the positive.

3. Distract yourself from worries about negative things in life.

A few changes in what you attend to can make positive emotions linger, rather than quickly disappear.


Christy Matta, M.A.

Christy Matta M.A. is a trainer, consultant and writer. She is the author of “The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free You from Needless Anxiety, Worry, Anger, and Other Symptoms of Stress.” She is intensively trained in DBT and has designed and provided clinical supervision to treatment programs, including a winner of the American Psychiatric Association Gold Award. Matta has a Master of Arts in counseling psychology from Boston College. For more on her consultation and trainings visit her web site For more tips and mindfulness tips and strategies visit her blog

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Compassion For Others - - Jul 19th 2011

I read last night that people who show more compassion for others are happier than those that don't.  Maybe a key ingredient to happiness is not focusing on every little detail of your own life and maybe thinking about others?

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