Quick Summary: “The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living” explains how we fall into a trap of never-ending pain when we chase happiness the wrong way. And how we may use Acceptance And Commitment Therapy (ACT) to avoid that trap and live a meaningful, values-driven life.
This summary of Russ Harris’s “The Happiness Trap” will tell you how to free yourself from depression, anxiety, and self-doubt, and build a meaningful life.
Did you know there is an equation that says our happiness depends on our expectations during decision-making tasks?
“This is the happiness trap: people will do anything to be happy, even if it ruins their lives.”
The Happiness Myths
Harris explores happiness myths and misbeliefs, pointing out that many of us have an unrealistic and constricted definition of happiness.
Many self-help books are based on the premise that you should try to be happy all the time. But the truth is that happiness comes in blips and those positive emotions do not last forever.
The temporary nature of happiness is an evolutionary design. Humans would have died out if our ancestors were constantly happy because they would have missed the dangers and forgotten to care for others in pain.
When we fail to savor the fleeting moments of joy, and ignore them in the hope of eternal happiness, we set ourselves up for disappointment.
Another widely held misconception about happiness is that it is all about smiling, laughing, and having a good time.
That flawed notion of happiness is the doing of advertisements, social media, and consumer culture. They created and perpetuated it, and we fell for it hook, line, and sinker.
Sadly, that narrow idea of happiness actually imprisons us in feelings of failure.
When we are unable to attain the happiness that others have, by buying stuff, faking smiles, and forcing ourselves to look joyful, we feel frustrated.
Actually, happiness is not something that we can force to come to us or can obtain through material possessions.
The Happiness Trap
When we pursue happiness, the author says, we stumble into the happiness trap.
When you try very hard to find happiness, you fall into a happiness trap. You keep feeling awful instead of happy because you are trying to be happy in a way that is not actually attainable.
Pursuing happiness puts us under pressure to be happy. This makes us miserable when we fail to feel as happy as we wanted.
Their failure to be happy stems from the realization that they cannot be happy all of the time, or that they are not as happy as they expected after a pleasurable activity.
The resulting despair ushers negative thoughts and worries into our conscious mind, worsening our unhappiness.
People commonly get caught in a “happiness trap” while trying to live up to societal expectations and pursue the illusion of “perfect happiness that others have.”
This trying to keep up with the Joneses’ happiness causes them to become more stressed, anxious, and unhappy.
Many people associate happiness with the quest for perfection. This might make them feel inadequate, lead to disappointment, and keep them stuck in discontent.
Once we discard this narrow view of happiness and stop idealizing the social-media-filtered version of people’s lives, we can stop comparing our happiness to that of theirs.
Once we accomplish that, and ACT helps us achieve it, we can release ourselves from the “happiness trap” and see happiness as more than just smiling and laughing.
So, the happiness trap is a condition in which a person becomes imprisoned in a loop of striving for an extremely limited and unrealistic concept of happiness, which often leads to feelings of inadequacy and sadness.
The author says that the only way to be happy is to stop pursuing happiness.
The Struggle Switch
The pursuit of happiness can often backfire, leading to more stress, anxiety, and unhappiness.
This is because of the “struggle switch,” a psychological mechanism that gets activated when people try hard to avoid or suppress negative thoughts and feelings.
When the “struggle switch” remains turned on, many of us turn to external sources to relieve our distress about our unpleasant thoughts, emotions, and memories. These sources include alcohol and drugs, shopping, video games, and so on.
According to Harris (2008), “most of these…strategies are no big deal, as long as they’re used in moderation” (p. 87).
But when these “struggle switch” strategies are used to avoid or offload undesired, unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and memories, new problems can arise, like alcoholism and financial troubles.
This struggle switch can lead to a vicious cycle of avoidance and suffering,
The good news is that we can turn off the struggle switch. When the struggle switch is turned off, our emotional experiences are no longer amplified.
We still feel the full spectrum of emotions, from happiness to sadness, rage, fear, worry, and others, but the emotions are free to rise and fall as the situation requires.
The struggle switch can be turned off using the principles and practices of ACT.
The author calls the negative thoughts inner demons. The basic idea of cognitive defusion is to distance yourself from your negative thoughts.
When people want to try to control their thoughts and feelings, which is nearly impossible, they magnify them and make them stronger than they actually are.
Thoughts, on the other hand, are powerless by themselves. They may seem threatening, yet they cannot harm you on their own.
They can only harm you if you take them too seriously.
But if you view your inner demons as powerless and helpless to hurt you, they lose most of their power.
The trick is not to try to get rid of or wish away your negative thoughts. Instead, accept that you are having negative thoughts when they appear, rather than fighting to deny their presence.
When we accept their presence, we realize that they are impotent visitors who cannot harm us unless we focus on and magnify them.
A helpful idea at this point is Cognitive defusion or Deliteralization. It is a technique used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to help people cope with uncomfortable or unhelpful thoughts and feelings.
A person with depression may have the thought “I’m such a loser,” while someone with anxiety may think “I’m always so worried.” Thinking these thoughts repeatedly reinforce them as truths and feeds feelings of depression and anxiety. This is cognitive fusion when we take our thoughts as truths.
Cognitive defusion is the opposite of cognitive fusion. This is how it works.
It encourages those people to reframe their thoughts as “Right now, I am having a thought that I’m a loser,” and “I’m only experiencing anxiety at this moment.”
Rephrasing those thoughts in this way helps them recognize they have a choice in what they think and that their feelings are just temporary.
The ACT Approach
The book is based on the principles of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy that focuses on embracing difficult thoughts and feelings and committing to value-based actions.
The key principles of ACT include accepting difficult thoughts and feelings, committing to valued actions, and taking mindful and present-focused action.
The author presents ACT as a way to break free from the happiness trap and find a more authentic, achievable, and sustainable sense of well-being. They use scientific research, personal anecdotes, and practical exercises to provide an engaging guide to ACT.
We can use a variety of exercises and strategies to put ACT into practice in our daily lives and improve our well-being and quality of life.
How can you know which thoughts are useful and which are not? The author has described an excellent way to do this. Ask yourself:
“Does this help me live a life I want to live?”
If the answer is “yes,” consider that possibility. And if the answer is “no,” do not bother paying attention to it.
Adopting the ACT approach can be challenging, and we may encounter obstacles along the way. Some of these are self-doubt, resistance to change, and perfectionism. The author suggests self-compassion and self-acceptance in the process of changing ourselves.
Benefits of ACT
ACT has been shown in numerous studies to improve well-being and quality of life. ACT can benefit across a wide range of conditions, including anxiety, depression, stress, chronic pain, and addiction.
Some of the broader benefits of ACT include increased resilience, creativity, and meaningfulness in life.
Happiness is a state that gives you pleasant feelings. But those feelings do not last. You cannot always keep them.
If it is a joyful moment, be happy now. If difficult thoughts replace them, don’t get too worried. Because your thoughts are fleeting. They’ll be gone shortly, good or bad. And the others will take their position.
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy — a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher, who writes on mental well-being, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).
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