On Tuesday, 42% of registered voters took time out of their day to travel to their assigned polling location, wait in line, exchange niceties with a grumpy volunteer, and fill in some bubbles with a Sharpie. What did they receive in return?: a sticker and a 0% chance of changing the results of the election…. Americans vastly overestimate the chances that their vote will make a difference…. However, this dramatic overestimation does not explain the prevalence of turnout, because those who actually vote know that this probability is low. Over 40% of regular voters know that the chances of a pivotal vote are less than 1 in a million. Amazingly, turnout is negatively correlated with the perceived chances that one vote will make a difference—meaning the less likely you are to think your vote will actually matter, the more likely you are to vote.
In English, attention is something we are asked to pay, as if it were a scarce resource, like money. ‘Pay attention!’ is also a negative injunction, like paying your taxes. But attention is not really scarce, and when practised, rather than paid, it is positive and rewarding. As positive psychologist, Czikzsentmihalyi once said: ‘Where attention goes, energy flows.’
The challenge is that we live in an increasingly distracting world, and need a method to make our attention, the touchstone of consciousness, more readily available to us. The challenge is that the speed of the world and the nature of our technology makes it difficult to make best use of this precious resource, which is a core component of mindfulness. John Teasdale captured the centrality of this point as follows: “Mindfulness is a habit, it’s something the more one does, the more likely one is to be in that mode with less and less effort… it’s a skill that can be learned. It’s accessing something we already have."
This, in turn, led to the great irony of Churchill's life. In resisting the Nazis, he produced some of the richest prose-poetry in defence of freedom and democracy ever written. It was a cheque he didn't want black or Asian people to cash – but they refused to accept that the Bank of Justice was empty. As the Ghanaian nationalist Kwame Nkrumah wrote: "All the fair, brave words spoken about freedom that had been broadcast to the four corners of the earth took seed and grew where they had not been intended." Churchill lived to see democrats across Britain's dominions and colonies – from nationalist leader Aung San in Burma to Jawarlal Nehru in India – use his own intoxicating words against him.