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

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Are you, like milllions of Americans, caught in the happiness trap? Russ Harris explains that the way most of us go about trying to find happiness ends up making us miserable, driving the epidemics of stress, anxiety, and depression. This empowering book presents the insights and techniques of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) a revolutionary new psychotherapy based on cutting-edge research in behavioral psychology. By clarifying your values and developing mindfulness (a technique for living fully in the present moment), ACT helps you escape the happiness trap and find true satisfaction in life.

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

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780834821040
Publisher: Shambhala
Publication date: 06/03/2008
Series: Trumpeter
Sold by: Penguin Random House Publisher Services
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 46,686
File size: 529 KB

About the Author

Dr. Russ Harris is a physician, therapist, and speaker specializing in stress management. He travels nationally and internationally to train individuals and health professionals in the techniques of ACT. Born and educated in England, he now lives in Australia. For more information, visit

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

Foreword    ix

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

Acknowledgments    233
Suggestions for Crisis Times    235
Further Readings and Resources    237
Index    238
About the Author    245

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Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling, Start Living 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 19 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
But what does being happy really mean? Ask different people and you are guaranteed to get a mixture of responses. Even if you are fortunate enough to know what happiness means to you personally, is it possible to always be happy? If you go to the self-help or personal development section of any bookstore or library, you'll find plenty of books that promise to change your life for the better. And whether or not one of those books has been written to help you to lose weight, or to become wealthier, or to find a new career, or whatever, the underlying message is that, by reading that particular book, you will be happier than ever before. But is it really as simple as that? For most people, it's not. That's because life is complex, and lots of challenges are placed in front of all of us that prevent us from always being happy. So what's the solution? If you are currently disillusioned with life in general, or maybe some aspect of it, I would urge you to read a new book titled 'The Happiness Trap'. In the briefest of descriptions, the 'Happiness Trap' involves frantic attempts to run away from negative emotions and desperately strive for positive ones ¿ resulting, of course, in a vicious cycle in which we are trapped with little or no chance of ever being successful long term. This book is refreshingly unlike any other self help book that I have ever read, and I believe that one of its major strengths lies in the fact that it challenges its readers to redefine what it means to be truly happy. The book then presents a number of practical strategies that can be used to live a fulfilling life, despite the ups and downs that all of us encounter sooner or later. Another great strength of 'The Happiness Trap' is that it is both easy and enjoyable to read. And because the content of the book has been organized into short, focused chapters, you can pick up the book and simply read one, two or more chapters at a time and never feel overwhelmed. The book has been written by Dr Russ Harris, a former GP, who now works as a therapist and coach in the field of 'Acceptance and Commitment Therapy' (ACT). ACT, an innovative and creative mindfulness-based behavioural therapy, is the foundation on which 'The Happiness Trap' book solidly sits. Harris explains that 'Acceptance and Commitment Therapy' is 'based upon six core principles which work together to help you achieve two main goals: a) to effectively handle painful thoughts and feelings, and b) to create a rich, full and meaningful life'. Summing up ¿ read 'The Happiness Trap' book to learn how to create a life for yourself that is indeed worth living.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The author elaborates on Acceptance Committment Therapy (ACT) and how it can be used to improve one's life. I have used this in conjunction with a therapist. As a "stand alone" self help book, it probably can help. I don't have experience with that. In conjunction with therapy, I recommend the book and the therapeutic method as it's helped me. That said, not everyone will find this set of "wrenches" helpful for managing life. Accepting what we cannot change doesn't mean we agree with what we cannot change. That's not easy to wrap one's head around. Also, I've learned "defusion" to help myself with unhelpful thoughts that my mind has appear. The human mind is an interesting, complicated place. It does take effort to work through the methods and learn how to use them in the book. Just reading it and hoping for this to improve one's life won't work. Just like any other "self care" tome, this takes work. I'm finding that the effort I put in to this method has helped me. Not all the things in the book help me. Mostly, self care is about finding what works for one's own self. Overal, I'm pleased with the book. And I'm glad I've got a therapist who suggested it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I highly recommed this book. I have panic attack with agoraphobia and this is by far the best book I have ever bought. this book really helps you understand yourself better and allows you to learn how to deal with difficult life situations through acceptance, rather than avoidance, (which is what most "self help" books do these days). If you are looking for a way to improve yourself and alternative ways to deal with difficult life situations, no matter what they meay be, this is definately the way to go. One thing I have to say though is that you MUST do the exercises that are recommended. The author gives you step by step instructions on how to handle a situation through acceptance, and sometimes asks you to write down answers to questions on a paper, these exercises are crucial. If your not willing to do the work, then it will still help, but MUCH less then if you actually did it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A beautifully written, clear, and concise ACT book. 'The Happiness Trap' is not only useful as a self-help book, but it is also a fantastic book for clinicians who want an easy to read, complete summary of ACT. Russ manages to captivate his audience so that you really must keep reading until the end!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very insightful, this is a book that you will want to read and keep referencing it. I am very happy that I purchased this book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Love this book. Very clear and extremely helpful approach to thought work. ACT is a great tool to improve how we live our lives.
bella1080 More than 1 year ago
Very interesting concept, and wonderful if you can make it work for you. However, it would take a long time to retrain your mind to think in this way and learn to turn off the negative thoughts. Several books have tried to accomplish this, so it is not new concept. It does , however, give some new insights and new ways to address this possibility to turn negative into positive. Overall, it is worth reading.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a great book that even people who dont like self help books can enjoy (as well as those who do). The Happiness Trap is based on the latest scientific research. It can be used by anyone to help improve their life - whether they are facing everyday problems, or more complex issues such as anxiety and depression. It offers a sensible and practical approach to dealing with the stressors of modern life. In summary this is an easy to read book, that can be easily applied by anyone who is interested in improving their life. I highly recommend it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Must Have Book!!!! I was diagnosed with advanced panic and anxiety disorder this year. This book and The Worry Trick by David Carbonell and The battlefield of the mind by Joyce Meyer got me their a terrible time in my life!!! This book gives great tips on everything!!! I bought more of these books and gave them out to friends and they are working wonderfully!!!
adamclaxton on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have to confess that I purchased this book simply on the cover alone! Whilst I'm not really into `self-help¿ books the title and snappy tags drew me in and I must say it was a worthwhile read. Russ Harris conveys in an easy to follow approach the thinking and principles behind the Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT). Ostensibly ACT is a mindfulness based technique that encourages us to accept the many negative thoughts that hinder us, better define our personal values, and to act and live our lives in accordance to those values. I found many of the fundamental ideas and lessons closely mirrored those beliefs of Eastern religions - particularly Buddhism. Harris quite clearly states that we are never likely to reach the happiness nirvana purported by much of the self-help establishment but with a few adjustments we can learn to lead far more enlightened lives.
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