Here’s a quick quiz! Answer true or false to the following:
- Happiness is the natural state for all human beings
- If you’re not happy, you’re defective
- To create a better life, you must get rid of negative feelings
- You should be able to control what you think and feel
What do you think?
According to Dr. Harris, these are all false. They are the four myths that setup our illusion of control over our thoughts and feelings, therefore setting up the happiness trap.
It works like this: we believe that happiness is normal and that we can control our thoughts and feelings (therefore avoiding negative thoughts and feelings). Harris explains that buying into these myths sets “us up for a struggle we can never win: the struggle against our own human nature. It’s this struggle that builds the trap.”
A thorough questionnaire follows. It lays out 15 sets of statements, asking readers to choose which they identify with more. In reviewing my answers from the summer, I can see how very strongly I’d bought into the illusion of control over my thoughts and feelings. A few of the statements I chose were:
- I must have good control of my feelings in order to be successful in life.
- Anxiety is bad.
- Negative thoughts and feelings will harm you if you don’t control or get rid of them.
- The best method of managing negative thoughts and feelings is to analyze them; then utilize that knowledge to get rid of them.
By buying into the illusion of control, we can easily begin a vicious cycle of using control strategies that do not work, and in fact only increase the negative thoughts and feelings. Dr. Harris provides examples of some classic feelings that people try to control, such as: you avoid confronting a deteriorating marriage (which then causes the distance between you and your spouse to grow), avoiding social situations when you have anxiety about them (which makes you feel more alone and isolated), or you feel badly about being overweight and use food to ease the pain (thereby making the weight problem worse). There are endless ways that people use strategies to control the way they feel.
Dr. Harris asks readers to take the first step to increase their self-awareness by noticing all the things you do each day to avoid or get rid of unpleasant thoughts and feelings; and also notice the consequences. Here were my thoughts this past summer:
|Avoid watching/reading upsetting news, stories||Keeps me from connecting with others, having empathy and praying for victims|
|Avoid sadness that my kids are growing up||Don’t take as many videos or do projects to capture the sentiments of this stage of life|
|Avoid disappointment and frustration of Dennis and kids not liking the meals I prepare by making everyone their own dinner||Spend WAY too much time preparing food and miss out on playing and having fun with my family|
|Avoid judgmental feelings about my blood sugar control by extremely limiting my diet||Food prep and planning takes up a lot of my mental space and free time; don’t deal with the emotional strain of diabetes|
|Avoid feeling anything unexpected by planning excessively||I’m not authentically in the moment with my family and friends|
Clearly some of these control strategies are more harmful than others. The last one is what really pushed my personal happiness trap to an unhealthy level.
In this section, Dr. Harris addresses the potential argument that some of the control strategies may actually be positive. Such as exercising to get rid of stress or immersing yourself in a hobby to avoid sadness, anxiety, or depression. He explains that the issue is one of motivation. If your main purpose for engaging in an activity is to avoid or get rid of unpleasant feelings, it won’t feel very rewarding. However, “activities can be deeply satisfying if you do them because they are genuinely important and meaningful to you.”
This distinction is important for him to make early on because ACT is built around the idea that you have a lot of control over your actions (and much less control over your thoughts and feelings). Therefore, taking actions that align with your values is a main component in this therapy. The point here is that these activities must be done from a place of acceptance of thoughts and feelings, rather than as a distraction or avoidance technique.