The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT

The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT

by Russ Harris

The Happiness Trap debunks the myths about happiness that causes us to deal with negative thoughts and emotions inappropriately. It explains why and how our constant battle of trying to hide and avoid negative thoughts only makes us feel worse. To overcome this, the book presents the fundamental principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which helps us manage our negative thoughts and emotions properly, leading to a healthier and improved life.

Summary Notes

About The Happiness Trap

“We lead our lives ruled by many unhelpful and inaccurate beliefs about happiness—ideas widely accepted by society.”

We often believe myths about happiness: 

  • Happiness is a natural state. It's not. Our minds did not evolve to make us feel happy; rather, they evolved to help us survive in a dangerous world. Our ancestors lived longer lives because they became better at predicting and avoiding danger. Today, our brains still function in this manner, continually scanning for potential problems and trying to avoid them.
  • If we’re not happy, something is wrong with us. We tend to believe that feeling unpleasant emotions are abnormal and that being unhappy is a flaw resulting from a defective mind—which is simply not true. Every time you feel unpleasant emotions, remind yourself that there is nothing wrong with you; your mind is simply doing the job it evolved to do.
  • We have to get rid of negative emotions to live better. Nobody likes negative emotions. However, the things that matter most to us also come with a wide range of emotions, and they all have a purpose. For example, fear exists to protect us from potentially dangerous situations. To live better, we must learn to accept negative emotions as a normal part of life.
  • We should control our thoughts and emotions. We shouldn't, as it leads to more unpleasant feelings. We have much less influence over our thoughts and emotions than we would like to admit. Therefore, we shouldn't fight and resist negative thoughts and feelings. Instead, we should learn to look at them with an open mind.

Because of these wrong assumptions, we constantly fight unpleasant emotions and thoughts, attempting to control, suppress, or avoid them. We try hard to deny or repress our own feelings, argue with our thoughts, force ourselves to calm down, avoid situations that might make us feel bad, and so on, hoping we can finally feel in control of our emotions. However, these control strategies just make us fall into the happiness trap. 

When we’re in this trap, we find ourselves experiencing more unpleasant emotions after constantly trying to avoid them. To escape this trap, we need to realize that unpleasant emotions serve a purpose; they teach us what we need to alter in our lives, and suppressing them does not make them go away; instead, they accumulate and cause an even bigger problem. 

Remember that our emotions and thoughts want to be noticed. However, we run away from them when we use control strategies. The best way to overcome this is by undergoing Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a type of psychotherapy that focuses on acceptance as a way to deal with negative emotions. 

One of ACT’s basic pillars is to observe our unpleasant thoughts and emotions consciously, to give them space, but not to experience them as absolute facts that overwhelm or paralyze us.

Actions to take

Escaping The Happiness Trap Through Acceptance

“Instead of teaching new techniques to pursue happiness, ACT teaches ways to undermine struggle, avoidance, and loss of the moment.”

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can help us escape the happiness trap. Instead of trying to control and avoid unpleasant feelings and thoughts, ACT helps us change how we relate to them. Instead of seeing our negative thoughts as absolute truths about ourselves, ACT allows us to accept them as normal parts of our lives. 

We can use specific techniques to help us deal with negative thoughts and feelings and change how we think about them. These techniques are:

  • Cognitive defusion - we learn to reduce the impact of our unpleasant ideas and feelings rather than experience them as absolute truths. We begin to see thoughts are just stories we tell ourselves, and each of them is neither true nor false; they just exist. In the ACT, we only focus on whether or not the thought is helpful to us.
  • Expansion - instead of suppressing our thoughts and feelings, we learn to make room for them, to let them be and pass without resentment.
  • The observing self - we learn to observe ourselves, our thoughts, and emotions consciously and objectively. There are two parts of the “self”—the thinking self and the observing self.
    1. The thinking self produces our thoughts, judgments, images, fancies, and memories. For example, the thought "I'm afraid, so I'm a coward. This is an unfamiliar situation to me, but I'm not brave enough to face it, as brave people would face it," comes from the thinking self.
    2. The observing self, on the other hand, is the part of your mind that pays attention and awareness. It can detect thoughts but not make them. The observing self perceives things as they are, without judging, criticizing, or doing other things that cause us to struggle with reality. It's true, pure acceptance. For example, thoughts like, “I notice that I feel fear. My chest feels tight, and I can feel my heart beating quickly. I'm afraid because I've never been in this situation. People naturally fear the unknown" comes from the observing self.

When we use these three techniques every time we experience unpleasant emotions or thoughts, we begin to accept them instead of resisting and repressing them. Moreover, mastering these acceptance techniques will enable us to deal with unpleasant experiences efficiently and focus on the pleasant and valuable things in life.

Actions to take

Creating a Meaningful Life Thought Commitment

“When you go through life guided by your values, not only do you gain a sense of vitality and joyfulness, but you also experience that life can be rich, full, and meaningful, even when bad things happen.”

Life is more than just dealing with negative emotions and thoughts. If we want to make space for positive experiences that can make more fulfilled in life, we must learn to accept discomfort and manage our negative thoughts and feelings.

ACT teaches us to live a meaningful life while dealing with unavoidable pain. This approach equips us with the tools to commit to life's positive and joyful aspects. To live fulfilling lives, we must first identify our life values, which fill our hearts and souls, and then set goals and align our behavior around those values.

The "Commitment" component in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy includes the following elements:

  • Life values - are truly important things that make you happy and help you feel the purpose of life.
  • Meaningful goals - refer to specific goals that help you get closer to your values.
  • Committed actions - an action plan that helps you put your goals into action. It’s a behavior that allows you to act according to your values and live a better, more satisfying life. You can accept unpleasant emotions and thoughts and connect with your values, but you won't be able to create a rich and meaningful life unless you commit to taking effective action. Effective actions are the ones connected to your life values and goals.

When we live according to our values, we experience more pleasant emotions such as happiness, joy, contentment, and fulfillment.

Actions to take

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