Happiness is typically defined by people as “feeling good”. Sensations of well being, positive thoughts, and the lack of pain are inferred by this definition. However, the fact is that life involves pain and discomfort. Therefore, the cultural obsession with staying happy or feeling good is in opposition to your real thoughts and feelings.
Most self-help books are a twist on the same theme – positive thinking. The Happiness Trap argues that, instead of struggling with your thoughts or feelings, you should accept the thoughts and feelings that run through your mind and body all the time. More importantly, come to grips with the fact that thoughts are just words and feelings are just sensations. You don’t have to fear them or give them a lot of power.
The trap, therefore, is thinking that you have to stay happy and avoid or control the negative thoughts and feelings that inevitably enter your life. Dr. Harris explains that, from an evolutionary standpoint, human brains are wired for survival rather than happiness. The mind constantly provides a list of dangers that one should avoid and compares oneself to others within the social group – things that allowed early humans to survive but are not conducive to happiness in the modern world.
At the heart of it, ACT therapy is about acceptance of one’s thoughts and feelings rather than struggling with or trying to change them. This concept has been radical for me! It also aligns very well with the Christian idea of surrendering my life to Christ and His will.
The introduction closes with a roadmap to the rest of the book. Part One is entitled “How you set the Happiness Trap” – it’s relatively short and details how we become fixated on happiness and then start to fear and avoid negative feelings. The second part is where Dr. Harris details the Six Core Principles of ACT – providing all of the practices that allow you to gain “psychological flexibility”. Finally, the third part is about “Creating a Life Worth Living”. Here, Dr. Harris provides guidance on living in accordance with your values and troubleshoots living the ACT principles in your everyday life.
The idea that I really embraced within the introduction was that “happiness” is an emotion, and like all emotions, it’s fleeting. Later, Dr. Harris will liken feelings to the weather. There’s always some weather condition in our lives, but it changes all the time. In contrast to seeking this fleeting type of happiness, this book encourages us to seek the less common happiness definition of “living a rich, full, and meaningful life.” Dr. Harris goes on to explain that “… such a life will undoubtedly give us many pleasurable feelings, it will also give us uncomfortable ones, such as sadness, fear, and anger. This is only to be expected. If we life a full life, we will feel the full range of human emotions.”
When I began reading this book for the first time, the idea of feeling the full range of human emotions was very foreign. I’d spent several years convincing myself that “happy” was the only safe and comfortable emotion. But, as the months unfolded, I came to realize what I was calling “happy” was really just contentment. By turning off all the negative, low emotions, I’d also dulled my ability to feel high or truly happy.
Life is so much fuller when you allow yourself to feel the entire spectrum of emotions.