The techniques presented in The Happiness Trap will help readers to:
• Reduce stress and worry
• Handle painful feelings and thoughts more effectively
• Break self-defeating habits
• Overcome insecurity and self-doubt
• Create a rich, full, and meaningful life
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
From Chapter 1: Fairytales
What’s the last line of every fairy tale? You got it: “. . . and they lived happily every after.” And it’s not just fairy tales that have happy endings. How about Hollywood movies? Don’t they nearly always have some sort of feel-good ending where good triumphs over evil, love conquers all, and the hero defeats the bad guy? And doesn’t the same hold true for most popular novels and television programs? We love happy endings because society tells us that’s how life should be: all joy and fun, peace and contentment, living happily ever after. But does that sound realistic? Does it fit in with your experience of life? This is one of four major myths that make up the basic blueprint for the happiness trap. Let’s take a look at these myths, one by one.
Myth 1: Happiness Is the Natural State for All Human Beings
Our culture insists that humans are naturally happy. But the statistics quoted in the introduction clearly disprove this. Remember, one in ten adults will attempt suicide, and one in five will suffer from depression. What’s more, the statistical probability that you will suffer from a psychiatric disorder at some stage in your life is almost 30 percent!
And when you add in all the misery caused by problems that are not classified as psychiatric disorders—loneliness, divorce, work stress, midlife crisis, relationship issues, social isolation, prejudice, and lack of meaning or purpose—you start to get some idea of just how rare true happiness really is. Unfortunately, many people walk around with the belief that everyone else is happy except them. And—you guessed it—this belief creates even more unhappiness.
Myth 2: If You’re Not Happy, You’re Defective
Following logically from Myth 1, Western society assumes that mental suffering is abnormal. It is seen as a weakness or illness, a product of a mind that is somehow faulty or defective. This means that when we do inevitably experience painful thoughts and feelings, we often criticize ourselves for being weak or stupid.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is based on a dramatically different assumption: the normal thinking processes of a healthy human mind will naturally lead to psychological suffering. You’re not defective; your mind’s just doing what it evolved to do. Fortunately, ACT will teach you to handle your mind more effectively, in ways which can dramatically improve your life.
Myth 3: To Create a Better Life, We Must Get Rid of Negative Feelings
We live in a feel-good society, a culture thoroughly obsessed with finding happiness. And what does that society tell us to do? To eliminate “negative” feelings and accumulate “positive” ones in their place. It’s a nice theory, and on the surface it seems to make sense. After all, who wants to have unpleasant feelings? But here’s the catch: the things we generally value most in life bring with them a whole range of feelings, both pleasant and unpleasant. For example, in an intimate long-term relationship, although you will experience wonderful feelings such as love and joy, you will also inevitably experience disappointment and frustration. There is no such thing as the perfect partner, and sooner or later conflicts of interest will arise.
The same holds true for just about every meaningful project we embark on. Although they often bring feelings of excitement and enthusiasm, they also generally bring stress, fear, and anxiety. So if you believe Myth 3, you’re in big trouble because it’s pretty well impossible to create a better life if you’re not prepared to have some uncomfortable feelings. However, in part 2 of this book you will learn how to handle such feelings altogether differently, to experience them in such a way that they have much less impact on you.
Myth 4: You Should Be Able to Control What You Think and Feel
The fact is, we have much less control over our thoughts and feelings than we would like. It’s not that we have no control; it’s just that we have much less than the “experts” would have us believe. However, we do have a huge amount of control over our actions. And it’s through taking action that we create a rich, full, and meaningful life.
The overwhelming majority of self-help programs subscribe to Myth 4. The basic claim is: if you challenge your negative thoughts or images and, instead, repeatedly fill your head with positive thoughts and images, you will find happiness. If only life were that simple!
I’m willing to bet that you’ve already tried countless times to think more positively about things, and yet those negative thoughts keep coming back, don’t they? As we saw in the introduction, our minds have evolved over a hundred thousand years to think the way they do, so it’s not likely that a few positive thoughts will change them much. It’s not that these techniques have no effect; they can often make you feel better temporarily. But they will not get rid of negative thoughts over the long term.
The same holds true for “negative” feelings such as anger, fear, sadness, insecurity, and guilt. There are multitudes of psychological strategies to “get rid of” such feelings. But you’ve undoubtedly discovered that even if they go away, after awhile they’re back. And then they go away again. And then they come back again. And so on and so on. The likelihood is, if you’re like most other humans on the planet, you’ve already spent a lot of time and effort trying to have “good” feelings instead of “bad” ones, and you’ve probably found that as long as you’re not too distressed, you can, to some degree, pull it off. But you’ve probably also discovered that as your level of distress increases, your ability to control your feelings progressively lessens. Sadly, Myth 4 is so widely believed that we tend to feel inadequate when our attempts to control our thoughts and feelings fail.
These four powerful myths provide the basic blueprint for the happiness trap. They set us up for a struggle we can never win: the struggle against our own human nature. It is this struggle that builds the trap. In the next chapter we will look at this struggle in detail, but first let’s consider why these myths are so entrenched in our culture.
The Illusion of Control
The human mind has given us an enormous advantage as a species. It enables us to make plans, invent things, coordinate actions, analyze problems, share knowledge, learn from our experiences, and imagine new futures. The clothes on your body, the chair beneath you, the roof over your head, the book in your hands—none of these things would exist but for the ingenuity of the human mind. The mind enables us to shape the world around us and conform it to our wishes, to provide ourselves with warmth, shelter, food, water, protection, sanitation, and medicine. Not surprisingly, this amazing ability to control our environment gives us high expectations of control in other arenas as well.
Now, in the material world, control strategies generally work well. If we don’t like something, we figure out how to avoid it or get rid of it, and then we do so. A wolf outside your door? Get rid of it! Throw rocks at it, or spears, or shoot it. Snow, rain, or hail? Well you can’t get rid of those things, but you can avoid them by hiding in a cave or building a shelter. Dry, arid soil? You can get rid of it by irrigation and fertilization, or you can avoid it by moving to fertile ground.
But how much control do we have in our internal world; the world of thoughts, memories, emotions, urges, and sensations? Can we simply avoid or get rid of the ones we don’t like? Well, let’s see. Here’s a little experiment. As you keep reading this paragraph, try not to think about your favorite flavor of ice cream. Don’t think about the color or the texture. Don’t think about how it tastes on a hot summer day. Don’t think about how good it feels as it melts inside your mouth.
How’d you do? Exactly! You couldn’t stop thinking about ice cream.
Now here’s another little experiment. Bring to mind your earliest childhood memory. Get a picture of it in your head. Got it? Good. Now delete it. Totally obliterate that memory so it can never come back to you again.
How did it go? (If you think you succeeded, just check again and see if you can still remember it.)
Next, tune in to your left leg and notice how it feels. Feeling it? Good. Now make it go completely numb—so numb, that we could cut it off with a hacksaw and you wouldn’t feel a thing.
Did you succeed?
Okay, now here’s another little thought experiment. Imagine someone puts a loaded gun to your head and tells you that you must not feel afraid; that if you feel even the slightest trace of anxiety, then they will shoot you. Could you stop yourself feeling anxious in that situation, even though your life depends on it? (Sure you could pretend to be calm, but could you truly feel calm?)
Hopefully by now you’re getting the point that thoughts, feelings, sensations, and memories are just not that easy to control. It’s not that you don’t have any control over these things; it’s just that you have much less control than you thought. Let’s face it, if these things were that easy to control, wouldn’t we all just live in perpetual bliss?
How We Learn about Control
From a young age, we are taught that we should be able to control our feelings. When you were growing up, you probably heard a number of expressions like, “Don’t cry,” “Don’t be so gloomy,” “Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
With words such as these, the adults around us sent out the message again and again that we ought to be able to control our feelings. And certainly it appeared to us as if they controlled theirs. But what was going on behind closed doors? In all likelihood, many of those adults weren’t coping too well with their own painful feelings. They may have been drinking too much, taking tranquilizers, crying themselves to sleep every night, having affairs, throwing themselves into their work, or suffering in silence while slowly developing stomach ulcers. However they were coping, they probably didn’t share those experiences with you.
And on those rare occasions when you did get to witness their loss of control, they probably never said anything like, “Okay, these tears are because I’m feeling something called sadness. It’s a normal feeling, and you can learn how to handle it effectively.” But then, that’s not too surprising; they couldn’t show you how to handle your emotions because they didn’t know how to handle theirs!
The idea that you should be able to control your feelings was undoubtedly reinforced in your school years. For example, kids who cried at school were probably teased for being “crybabies” or “sissies”—especially if they were boys. Then, as you grew older, you probably heard phrases (or even used them yourself ) such as, “Get over it!” “Shit happens!” “Move on!” “Chill out!” “Don’t be a chicken!” “Snap out of it!” and so on.
These phrases imply that you should be able to turn your feelings on and off at will, like flicking a switch. And why is this myth so compelling? Because the people around us seem, on the surface, to be happy. They seem to be in control of their thoughts and feelings. But “seem” is the key word here. The fact is that most people are not open or honest about the struggle they go through with their own thoughts and feelings. They “put on a brave face” and “keep a stiff upper lip.” They are like the proverbial clown crying on the inside; the bright face paint and chirpy antics are all we see.
Table of Contents
I Just Want to Be Happy! 1
How You Set the Happiness Trap
1. Fairy Tales 9
2. Vicious Cycles 19
Transforming Your Inner World
3. The Six Core Principles of ACT 33
4. The Great Storyteller 36
5. True Blues 46
6. Troubleshooting Defusion 56
7. Look Who’s Talking 63
8. Scary Pictures 70
9. Demons on the Boat 76
10. How Do You Feel? 80
11. The Struggle Switch 86
12. How the Struggle Switch Developed 90
13. Staring Down Demons 97
14. Troubleshooting Expansion 106
15. Urge Surfing 115
16. Back to the Demons 120
17. The Time Machine 122
18. The Dirty Dog 130
19. A Confusing Word 135
20. If You’re Breathing, You’re Alive 139
21. Tell It Like It Is 146
22. The Big Story 149
23. You’re Not Who You Think You Are 157
Creating a Life Worth Living
24. Follow Your Heart 167
25. The Big Question 173
26. Troubleshooting Values 180
27. The Thousand-Mile Journey 183
28. Finding Fulfillment 191
29. A Life of Plenty 199
30. Facing FEAR 203
31. Willingness 211
32. Onward and Upward 219
33. A Meaningful Life 227
Suggestions for Crisis Times 235
Further Readings and Resources 237
About the Author 245