The Happiness Trap

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

today’s middle class lives better than did the royalty of not so long ago.

almost one in two people will go through a stage in life when they seriously consider suicide and will struggle with it for a period of two weeks or more. […] the statistical probability that you will suffer from a psychiatric disorder at some stage in your life is almost 30 percent!

our minds did not evolve to make us “feel good” so we could tell jokes, write poems, or say “I love you.” Our minds evolved to help us survive in a world fraught with danger.

Another essential for the survival of any early human is to belong to a group. If your clan boots you out, it won’t be long before the wolves find you. So how does the mind protect you from rejection by the group? By comparing you with other members of the clan: Am I fitting in? Am I doing the right thing? Am I contributing enough? Am I as good as the others? Am I doing anything that might get me rejected?

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.

the things we generally value most in life bring with them a whole range of feelings, both pleasant and unpleasant.

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. […] 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.” […] 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. […] Our silence about what we are really feeling and the false front we put on for the people around us simply add to the powerful illusion of control.

I have to feel good before I can do something that’s important and challenging [versus] I can do something that’s important and challenging even if I’m feeling anxious or depressed.

suppose those attempts to get rid of your bad thoughts and feelings are actually making your life worse? In ACT we have a saying for this: “The solution is the problem!”

because many of the things we avoid are not that important, and because many of our negative thoughts and feelings are not that intense, we find that our control strategies can often make us feel better—at least for a little while. Unfortunately, though, this leads us to believe that we have much more control than we actually do.

Great advice about how to improve your life comes at you from all directions: find a meaningful job, do this great workout, get out in nature, take up a hobby, join a club, contribute to charity, learn new skills, have fun with your friends, and so on. And all these activities can be deeply satisfying if you do them because they are genuinely important and meaningful to you. But if these activities are used mainly to escape from unpleasant thoughts and feelings, chances are, they won’t be very rewarding.

once you fully accept your unpleasant feelings and immerse yourself in valued activities, pleasant feelings will often start to emerge. But as I’ve said countless times before, this is just a bonus, not the main goal. The main goal is to engage in meaningful activities, no matter how you feel.

By continually putting herself last and working so hard to win others’ approval, she merely reinforces her sense of unworthiness. She is truly stuck in the happiness trap.

As you open up and make space for these feelings, you will find they bother you much less, and they “move on” much more rapidly

In ACT, our main interest in a thought is not whether it’s true or false, but whether it’s helpful […] You can waste a lot of time trying to decide whether your thoughts are actually true; again and again your mind will try to suck you into that debate. But although at times this is important, most of the time it is irrelevant and wastes a lot of energy.

Thoughts are never threats

Putting myself down is pointless. […] what I need to do is to take action: brush up on my skills or ask for help.

be wary of holding on to any belief too tightly. We all have beliefs, but the more tightly we hold on to them, the more inflexible we become in our attitudes and behaviors.

The aim of defusion is not to get rid of unpleasant thoughts, but rather to see them for what they are—just words—and to let go of struggling with them. […] The main goal of defusion is to disentangle you from unhelpful thought processes, so you can focus your attention on more important things. So when defusion does make you feel better, by all means enjoy it. But don’t expect it to. And don’t start using it to try to control how you feel; otherwise, you’re stuck right back in the happiness trap.

You’re Human

Remember that you’re human, so there will be plenty of times when you forget to use these new skills. And that’s okay, because the moment you realize you’ve been reeled in by unhelpful thoughts, you can instantly use one of these techniques to unhook yourself. […] There may be times when you try them and defusion doesn’t happen. If so, simply observe what it’s like to be fused with your thoughts. Merely learning to tell the difference between fusion and defusion is useful in its own right.

those demons will keep showing up again and again, as soon as you start to take your life in a valued direction. Why so? Again, it all stems back to evolution. Remember, the mind of our ancestors had one overriding imperative: “Don’t get killed!” And an important factor in not getting yourself killed is to get to know your environment. The better you know the terrain and the local wildlife then, obviously, the safer you are, whereas venturing into unknown territory exposes you to all sorts of exotic dangers. So if one of our ancestors decided to explore a new area, his mind would go into a state of red alert. “Look out!” “Be careful!” “Could be a crocodile in that lake!” And thanks to evolution, our modern minds do the same, only far more extensively. Thus, as soon as we start to do something new, our mind will start warning us: “You might fail,” “You might make a mistake,” “You might get rejected.” It warns us with negative thoughts, disturbing images, bad memories, and a wide range of uncomfortable feelings and sensations. And all too often we let these warnings stop us from taking our lives in the direction we really want. Rather than sail for shore, we drift at sea.

Naturally, at times those demons will steer you off course. (Why “naturally”? Because you’re a normal human being, not a saint, guru, or superhero.) But here’s the exciting thing: the moment you realize your boat is headed in the wrong direction, you can instantly turn it back around.

“I’m so far away from achieving what I want in my life, what’s the point in even trying?” Well, the point is, the instant you turn that boat toward shore, you’re heading in the direction that you want, and that’s so much more rewarding than drifting at sea!

Acceptance is like finding that firm foothold. It’s a realistic appraisal of where your feet are and what condition the ground is in. It doesn’t mean that you like being in that spot, or that you intend to stay there. Once you have a firm foothold, you can take the next step more effectively.

“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”

wanting to get rid of something is quite different from actively struggling with it. For example, suppose you have an old car that you no longer want. And suppose you won’t have an opportunity to sell it for at least another month. You can want to get rid of the car and simultaneously accept that you still have the car. You don’t have to try to smash the car up, make yourself miserable, or get drunk every night just because you still have that old car.

Have you ever had a radio playing in the background, but you were so intent on what you were doing that you didn’t really listen to it? You could hear the radio playing, but you weren’t paying attention to it. In practicing defusion skills, we are ultimately aiming to do precisely that with our thoughts.

isn’t it interesting that many people judge fear a “bad” emotion, yet they will pay good money to watch a horror movie or read a thriller, precisely to experience that very feeling! So no emotion is in itself “bad.” “Bad” is just a thought; a judgment made by our thinking self.

what you are feeling is what you are feeling! So if you can learn how to accept your feelings without having to analyze them, you’ll save yourself a lot of time and effort.

In ACT, we’re concerned only with urges that get in the way of living a meaningful life. For example, I act on my chocolate urges fairly regularly, and it’s not a problem. But if I acted on them all the time, I’d be the size of an elephant, and that would not be in line with my values on health. On the other hand, if I never acted on them, I’d be unnecessarily depriving myself of a simple but satisfying pleasure.

Our thinking self tells us that things shouldn’t be as they are, that we shouldn’t be as we are, that reality is in the wrong and our ideas in the right. It tells us that life would be better somewhere else or we would be happier if only we were different.


The more we focus on unpleasant thoughts and feelings, the more we disconnect from the present moment. This particularly tends to happen with depression and anxiety. […] To truly appreciate the richness and fullness of life, you have to be here while it’s happening!

I figured I had a choice: I could spend that time stressed and irritable, disconnected from my experience, pressuring myself to finish as quickly as possible, while thinking about all the things I had to do afterward. Or I could connect with my experience and make the most of it. Either way, it would still take half an hour.

Firstly, mindfulness is a conscious process; something we do deliberately. Secondly, it’s not a thinking process; it’s about awareness. Thirdly, it’s about bringing our awareness to the present moment; in other words, paying attention to what’s happening here and now. Fourthly, it’s about doing this with a particular attitude: one of openness, interest, and receptiveness to our experience, rather than one of struggle, resistance, and avoidance.

ACT is about creating a life, not becoming “enlightened.”

No matter how bad the situation you’re in, no matter how much pain you may be suffering, start by taking a few deep breaths. If you’re breathing, you know you’re alive. And as long as you’re alive, there’s hope.

The goal is to control your breathing, not your feelings.


self-esteem is not a fact; it’s just an opinion.

if we can really believe that last bit about being a “good person,” then we have “high” self-esteem. The problem is, with this approach you constantly have to prove that you’re a good person.

The reality is, we can find an infinite number of good and bad stories to tell about ourselves and, as long as we’re invested in self-esteem, we’re going to waste a lot of time in this chess game, fighting an endless battle against our own limitless supply of negative thoughts.

Let’s suppose a black piece appears saying, “How could you be such a bloody idiot?” and you rally the white pieces for help: “Of course you’re not an idiot. You just made a mistake. You’re human.” But another black piece appears saying, “Who are you kidding? Look at how you messed it up last time!” And you counterattack with another white piece: “Yeah, but this time I’ve learned my lesson.” Another black piece says, “You’re such an idiot, you’ll never get it right!” The battle’s heating up with more and more pieces getting involved. And guess what? While all your attention is on this chess game, it’s pretty hard to connect with anything else.

what would life be like if you were to let go of self-esteem altogether; if you completely let go of judging yourself as a person?

Because of the way the human mind has evolved, the “not good enough” story will always return in one form or another. Do you want to spend the rest of your life battling it? […] to lead a rich, full, and meaningful life doesn’t depend on self-esteem in the slightest. […] Don’t try to prove yourself. Don’t try to think of yourself as a “good person.” Don’t try to justify your self-worth.


there will be times that you have to focus more on some domains of life than others. This calls for soul-searching, for asking yourself, “What’s most important at this moment in my life, given all my conflicting concerns?” Then choose to act on that value, rather than wasting your time uselessly worrying about what you might be giving up or missing out on.

Research shows that you’re far likelier to take action if you write your goals down than if you just think about them.

Never set as your goal something that a dead person can do better than you. For example, to stop eating chocolate—that’s something a dead person can do better than you because, no matter what, they’ll definitely never, ever eat chocolate again.

When we move in a valued direction, every moment of our journey becomes meaningful. So engage fully in everything you do along the way. […] The values-focused life will always be more fulfilling than the goal-focused life because you get to appreciate the journey even as you’re moving toward your goals.

Jeff: What if I’m genuine and people don’t like me? Russ: Do you want to spend your life building friendships with people who only like you because you’re rich? Jeff: No. Russ: What sort of friendships do you want to build? Jeff: Ones where I can be myself; where I can be accepted for who I am. Russ: Okay. So if you value being genuine, why not start right now in the relationships you already have? Ask yourself, “What’s one small thing I could say or do that would be truer to the real me?”

if you’re feeling miserable because you haven’t yet achieved a particular goal, here’s what to do. First find the values underlying your goal and then ask yourself, “What’s a small action I can take right now that’s consistent with those values?” Next go ahead and take action (and do it mindfully).

Let go of aiming for perfection. It’s much more satisfying and fulfilling to be human.

this goal really is something you value, then you are faced with a choice: either act in accordance with what you value or let yourself be pushed around by your own thoughts. […] You’re willing to endure the discomfort not because you want it or enjoy it, but because it gets between you and where you’re going.

I recommend that you write out an action plan, following the steps below, to help you achieve any goal that you’re currently procrastinating on. […] My goal is to . . . 2. The values underlying my goal are . . . 3. The thoughts, feelings, sensations, and urges I’m willing to have in order to achieve this goal are . . . 4. It would be useful to remind myself that . . . 5. I can break this goal down into smaller steps, such as . . . 6. The smallest, easiest step I can begin with is . . . 7. The time, day, and date that I will take that first step, is.

Commitment isn’t about being perfect, always following through, or never going astray. “Commitment” means that when you do (inevitably) stumble or get off track, you pick yourself up, find your bearings, and carry on in the direction you want to go.

Whether we’re talking of artists, doctors, athletes, businesspeople, rock stars, politicians, or police officers, “successful people” are typically defined in terms of the goals they’ve achieved. If we buy into this woefully limited definition, then we’re condemned to a goal-focused life: chronic frustration punctuated by fleeting moments of gratification. So I invite you now to consider a new definition: success in life means living by your values.

You don’t need someone to confirm that you’re “doing the right thing.” You know when you’re acting on your values and that’s enough.

Donna learned quickly that there’s no point in beating yourself up when you screw up or fail to follow through. Guilt trips and self-criticism don’t motivate you to make meaningful changes; they just keep you stuck, dwelling on the past. […] once you’ve gone off track, is to recognize it consciously, to be fully present with what’s happening. At the same time, you need to accept that once this has happened, you can’t change it; there is no way you can possibly alter the past. And while it may be valuable to reflect on the past and think about what you might do differently next time around, there’s no point in dwelling on it and crucifying yourself for being imperfect. So accept that you went off track, accept that it’s in the past and is now unchangeable, and accept that you’re human and therefore imperfect. The second step is to ask yourself, “What do I want to do now?

She defused from her story that “life is worthless without a partner,” and she chose to connect with the present (instead of stewing pointlessly over the past).

FEAR: Fusion. Excessive expectations. Avoidance of discomfort. Remoteness from values. So if you’re feeling stuck or you’re putting off taking action, take a few moments to identify what’s getting in your way and think about how to resolve it. If you’re fusing with unhelpful thoughts such as, “It’s too hard,” “I can’t do it,” “It won’t work,” “I can’t be bothered,” “I’ll do it later,” then practice defusion skills. If your expectations are unrealistic, break your goals down into smaller steps, give yourself more time, and allow yourself to make mistakes. If you’re avoiding uncomfortable feelings such as fear or anxiety, practice your expansion skills and develop willingness. If you’re remote from your values, then keep asking yourself, “What do I really care about?” “What really matters deep in my heart?” “What sort of person do I want to be?” “Deep down inside, what do I really want?” […] Whatever you’re doing, engage yourself fully in it. Whoever you’re with, be present. When unhelpful thoughts arise, defuse them. When unpleasant feelings arise, make room for them. And whatever your values are, be faithful to them. […] No matter what sort of problematic situation you encounter in life, there are only ever two sensible courses of action: 1. Accept it. 2. Take effective action to improve it.

Find the most painful feeling, observe it, breathe into it, expand around it, and allow it to be.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s