It seems natural to pursue happiness. Everyone wants to be happy, or at least happier than they are at any given moment.
But the relentless pursuit of happiness may be pushing it farther out of reach, says Russ Harris in his book The Happiness Trap.
Harris describes a common definition of happiness as “a sense of pleasure, gladness or gratification.” It’s tempting to chase those feelings. But that chasing is exactly what leads people to fall into “the happiness trap,” says Harris.
“Like all our other feelings, feelings of happiness don’t last,” Harris says in the introduction to The Happiness Trap. No matter how hard we try to hold on to those feelings, “they slip away every time,” he says.
“So a life spent in pursuit of those feelings is, in the main, unsatisfying,” says Harris. “In fact, the harder we pursue pleasurable feelings, the more we are likely to suffer from anxiety and depression.”
The constant focus on beauty, youth, material possessions, the latest technology, athletic achievements, and many other things advertisers try to convince us we “must have” – all this can create a pervasive sense of always needing more in order to be happy. But that one more thing, always leads to the next “must have.”
Looking from a different perspective, Harris defines another meaning of happiness as “a rich, full and meaningful life.”
The path to achieving that more balanced and lasting happiness is by “taking action on the things that truly matter deep in our hearts,” says Harris.
That balanced approach to happiness is presented in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, called ACT, which is the core of the book The Happiness Trap.
The core message of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is: Accept what is out of your personal control.
The second part that foundation is: Commit to actions that will improve your quality of life.
“When we move in directions that we consider valuable and worthy, when we clarify what we stand for in life and act accordingly, then our lives become rich and full and meaningful, and we experience a powerful sense of vitality,’ says Harris. ”This is not some fleeting feeling — it is a profound sense of a life well lived.”
That meaningful life isn’t simply one easy pleasure after another.
It’s a life that also comes with feelings such as sadness, fear and anger.
“This is only to be expected,” says Harris. “If we live a full life, we will feel the full range of human emotions.”
Harris says that ACT has proven helpful in issues ranging from depression and anxiety to chronic pain, and even drug addiction. ACT has also proven to be highly effective for helping people quit smoking or reduce workplace stress.
Harris is an Australian physician whose medical practice evolved into working with psychological issues, and he now works as a therapist and executive coach. Harris’ expertise in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is built upon the work of Steven Hayes, the creator of ACT.
Hayes is a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Nevada who developed Acceptance and Commitment Therapy on the basic foundation that happiness that works in the long-term, through the ups and downs of life, begins by accepting what is out of our personal control.
The next step is committing to actions that improve the quality of daily life. That means a more lasting quality, not a fleeting feeling in your heart and muscles that can’t be maintained.
Relationships that aren’t working, sex without real intimacy, alcohol, drugs, the right car, the right house, the right job, enough praise – those things are encouraged by commercial culture, especially things we can buy. Hayes calls that “the cheap thrill version” of happiness.
A good feeling that comes from that kind of “cheap thrill” experience is “a butterfly that flies away,” Hayes says in a Big Think video called “Happiness is An Empty Promise.”
Hayes says a better definition of happiness is, “Living in accord with your values, a life of integrity and fidelity to yourself.” That perspective can sustain people over the longer-term.
Even with difficult life experiences or depression, Hayes says therapy, such as ACT, can teach people skills that aren’t just a quick fix, but a longer-term way to deal with what life brings.
One of the main elements that makes ACT a route to keeping life in perspective is “mindfulness,” a mental state of awareness, focus and openness that helps difficult thoughts and feelings to have less impact, or less influence, over a person.
Mindfulness can allow a person to accept difficult thoughts or feelings. Mindfulness skills can help make room for painful feelings, urges and sensations, and allow them to come and go without a struggle.
A growing body of research is showing that cultivating acceptance, mindfulness, and openness to experience can be a highly effective for the treatment of depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, chronic pain, PTSD, anorexia, and even schizophrenia.
“In general, we don’t want to stick around with psychological pain a second longer than necessary to get it excised from our life,” says Ryan Howes in his article, “The Power of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy,” in the May 1, 2015 issue of Psychotherapy Networker.
“The problem is, according to Steven Hayes, developer of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, we’ve got it backwards,” says Howes. “In fact, it’s suffering and struggle that are normal, and not the reverse. Furthermore, dealing with our inevitable psychic struggles by trying to get rid of them doesn’t work and may actually make them worse. Instead of countering and correcting our negative thoughts, Hayes believes we should acknowledge those thoughts, accept them rather than challenge them, and then get on with living as full and worthwhile a life as we can. That’s the commitment part of ACT, and the tough-minded part as well.”
In the Psychotherapy Networker article, Hayes says that as of the end of 2014, there have been more than 110 controlled studies with ACT in areas such as depression, anxiety, substance use and pain control.
In a broader use, Hayes says that ACT has been shown to help international chess players and professional hockey players by showing them skills to help disentangle themselves from distracting thoughts and emotions.
ACT has a wider promise than just helping individuals.
“By increasing people’s ability to purposefully attend to the present, and their ability to link their actions to their deepest values, you can put them on a path to positive growth,” says Hayes. “That will likely echo for a long time, not just in their lives, but in the lives of those they love.”
Harris, Russ, “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy,” The Happiness Trap: Stop Struggling, Start Living
Harris, Russ, The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living, Trumpeter Books, Boston, 2008
Hayes, Steven, “Happiness is an Empty Promise,” The Big Think video, 2009
Howes, Ryan, “The Power of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy,” Psychotherapy Networker, May 1, 2015.