When I started this blog, writing a series on The Happiness Trap was very motivating and exciting! I couldn’t wait to share the lessons of this book with my readers, because it had helped me so much. Then, as the weeks turned into months, my inspiration fell off – for two reasons, I think. First, I noted that people weren’t reading or seemingly connecting with posts on The Happiness Trap as deeply as other types of posts. I suppose the lack of enthusiasm was contagious. At the same time, I started feeling less anxiety and didn’t rely on the strategies of the book as frequently. In some way I felt like I was “moving on”.
But, then a funny thing happened. My struggle switch got turned on again. I started to be hyperaware of my thoughts again and began striving to maintain a sense of contentment. In Dr. Harris’s words, I fused with the thoughts that told me I needed to control my thoughts and feelings.
It started gradually. As I’ve mentioned, since the end of college, my attitude toward sleep has been the benchmark by which my level of anxiety has been measured. For the past couple months, I’d been consistently falling immediately to sleep at night. I’d finally gotten to a place of acceptance about the sleep issue and that took the power out of my anxiety over it. But, then I started having passing thoughts about how nice it was not to have that source of anxiety and worry in my life. That’s the first step, making a judgment about thoughts and feelings – which are “good” and to be sought after versus those that are “bad” and should be avoided. The switch was flipped.
It was clear to me that I’d been using some of the acceptance techniques I’d learned as control strategies. In other words, instead of defusing my thoughts in order to accept them, I’d been expecting to get rid of anxiety and improve feelings of contentment through defusion. Although I felt that my inner world had dramatically changed, perhaps it hadn’t been so extreme. If my newfound approach to life: defusing negative thoughts, being in the moment, and not planning and controlling were really just a new way to maintain a certain level of contentment (and therefore avoid anxiety) – I’d largely missed the point.
So, I’ve recently been revisiting The Happiness Trap strategies, partially to get back on track with my blog series, but mostly for my own use. The thing that stands out to me during this reading is how frequently Dr. Harris cautions readers not to use acceptance techniques as control strategies. It’s a thin line. Typically accepting thoughts and feelings will lessen anxiety and other negative feelings, but if we start using these strategies in order to get rid of negative feelings, we’re right back in the happiness trap.
Even as I write this, I’m noticing that this “problem” really isn’t a problem at all. What I’ve really been experiencing lately is just a normal, healthy level of emotional ups and downs. I realized that feeling anxiety is acceptable to me, as long as I’m not currently feeling it. I can mentally agree that experiencing negative emotions is a normal part of life and should be expected. But, when those feelings inevitably come, I struggle and try to get rid of them.
This morning I continued reading an edition of Modern Reformation, a publication of the White Horse Inn, which focused on the problem of suffering for Christians. I came to an article entitled “When Happiness Comes” by Rick Ritchie. Ritchie writes about how Christians will seek to understand their feelings of suffering while they’re experiencing pain or evil in the world, but then cease the inquiry when happiness comes: “When we’re happy, we stop questioning – or at least our questions recede to the background. The question may still exist, and it may still exist unanswered for us. But we don’t need the answer as badly.”
Along those lines, he writes “Healthy people imagine they can live without their health.” Can’t we all relate to that? We take health for granted until we face the loss of it. Come down with a bad cold or a case of food poising, and nothing else matters until your health is restored. Same with feelings, I’d argue. This seems to me to be a different way of saying that you can embrace the idea of suffering as long as you’re not actively suffering.
The article points the way to an answer that is more fulfilling than a secular concept of acceptance of feelings:
In some ways, happiness as an “answer” to the problem is fitting. Ultimately, the answer to evil will be that God abolishes it. So in the short run, having evil fade when happiness comes is a sign of the shape of the final answer. When God wipes away every tear on the last day, we will be satisfied. While I think all will be explained, I think many of us would be happy at the restoration of all things, even without an answer. And our current experience seems to suggest this.
As I sit here pondering how to conclude this post, I’m back at acceptance. Life in our fallen world includes evil and goodness. We’re going to experience all types of emotions and the painful ones will hurt. While we can’t avoid the pain, we can accept it when it comes. Likewise, we can be open and accepting of happiness when it comes. All we can do is hold onto feelings lightly and know that God is with us regardless of how we feel.