Ignore this need at your own risk.
“Daddy, Mommy, look at me, look at me, look at ME!”
You hear this cry from children on the playground from California to Paris you never consider it inappropriate or unhealthy. But if an adult spoke the same words, you might think the adult was suffering from some malady.
We all assume, rightfully so, that children require attention. How many of us as weary parents has arrived home at night, digging deep inside ourselves to find that last drop of energy we aren’t sure we have, in order to give our precious child the affection they so desperately need? But what do you think happens to this need as we grow and become adults?
Nothing changes. The basic human need for attention remains, although sadly for most adults as a society, we ignore this in both ourselves and others. As humans, we have pain and pleasure receptors to remind us to focus us on nearly every natural need we have. In response, we have developed habits to assure that our specific needs are met. We have customs for eating and sleeping, and even a special room for pooping. For the most part, people grow uncomfortable when their routines are changed. At a very primitive level, those changes make us question whether or not our needs will be met. Have you ever been stuck in a traffic jam needing to go to the bathroom? Your bladder very quickly becomes conversational.
The basic human need for attention remains,
although sadly for most adults as a society,
we ignore this in both ourselves and others.
So if pain and pleasure receptors cue us to reliably meet our fundamental needs, where is our receptor for attention?
There isn’t one
There is a best guess from the anthropological side of the room as to why it is that we probably didn’t need one throughout our long history as hunter-gatherers. Most human tribes that crossed the savannah were generally small enough to ensure that everybody knew everyone else, usually from birth. Being in the near constant presence of one another, tribe members could easily determine when another member required some sort of attention. Indeed, help and support were offered naturally to all tribe members in good standing.
In today’s world, we are much more separated from each other, even in our own homes. But tens of thousands of years of tribal and group life didn’t prepare our minds or bodies to live in walled-off rooms where even an unexpected knock on the door can be seen as an intrusion.
What should we use as the definition of attention then? George Bernard Shaw stated:
“The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.”
Said another way, it takes love to give and receive attention from another person. Research on the human need for attention is plentiful and deeply moving. People who feel well-connected to others experience lower rates of cardiac disease and are more likely to survive after a heart attack. Employees who feel appreciated by their supervisors are more productive and healthier.
Attention is not only an essential component for our physical health, it is crucial to all of our closest relationships. John Gottman has investigated predictors of romantic success for over 20 years. What makes his work so very unexpected is that he can predict with over 90 percent accuracy the likelihood that a marriage will last beyond the fourth year based on two key predictors:
- How couples deal with conflict
- How they meet their needs for attention
Attention is not only an essential
component for our physical
health, it is crucial
to all of our closest relationships.
Do you see how attention and conflict might appear in the same model? Challenging issues naturally come up between two people in any close or intimate relationship. Now, if a lot of positive attention is exchanged back and forth, both people will be more eager to resolve their issues and get back to the good stuff once again. On the other hand, if you don’t experience ease in accepting or offering positive attention, conflict will take on an unnecessarily high level of intensity. Your body will try to take advantage of the only opportunity to get its need for attention met. This can occur no matter how painful or toxic the attention may be; the outcome of this kind of attention seeking rarely turns out well.
The second predictor of relationship success is the amount of, and kind of, attention the partners share with together. Successful couples enjoy a daily ratio of positive to negative attention at a rate of about 5:1 on days when the relationship isn’t going well, and 20:1 on the days it thrives. Couples heading for divorce demonstrate a ratio of 1:1. How you might ask, do you achieve the 20:1 ratio in a relationship?
Spoiler Alert: It’s not through a multitude of candlelight dinners, vacations, and gifts, or a series of frequent, hefty raises. That kind of thing is both physically and financially impossible.
What you find is that it is the small moments that count. When your partner calls you during the day, does your voice perk up when you realize who’s on the line, or does your tone of voice imply that they are interrupting you from something more important, tasks more important in the long run than them? When an employee or peer walks through the door, do you put down the phone or pause your computer to give them your full attention?
What you find is that it is
the small moments that count.
If your child had a dentist appointment or was facing a problem with a friend, do you remember to ask how things went? It is these small, non-trivial moments of attention—these positive rituals and routines we establish—that turn out to be the most powerful predictors of relationship success.
So, the next time you hear someone close or important to you asking for your attention, remember that it is the little moments that matter, that you smiled, that you put your keyboard aside and listened. That trip to Paris, or the beach vacation in the Maldives was fun to be sure, but it was the forgotten little moments that made it so wonderful, not the place alone.
How are you feeling like you need a little more personal attention in your life in your life?
Schedule some time and we can talk about how things are going and where you would like to go.