Everywhere you look in modern American culture, you hear people saying they want to be happy. The goal of life is seemingly to maintain a consistent state of happiness. It wasn’t that long ago that I believed staying “happy all the time” was achievable. Then, one of the wisest people I know told me something profound. She said, “I don’t think of happiness as a state I try to stay in. Something happens and it makes me happy. Through Christ, I have joy, peace, love, and hope all the time, but I don’t try to stay happy.” While I couldn’t snap out of my perspective that quickly, for the past few years, this comment has shaped my growth. I wanted to be a person who didn’t try to stay happy all the time.
The next teacher God placed in my path was a lovely counselor in the Midwest named Brenda. She took my call when I reached out for help during a moment of intense anxiety. After I described my struggle with being present in the moment, a hyper focus on planning and control, and generally fighting to regain feeling “happy all the time” she suggested I get a book called The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living. I went straight to the bookstore, bought the only copy on the shelf, and started reading it right away.
This book was utterly transformative for me. I knew that the need to feel happy was at the root of my problem, but I didn’t know to change my mindset. This book, and specifically Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (“ACT” pronounced like the word “act”) literally taught me the skills and techniques to make that transition, and I continue to use them every day.
Dr. Harris argues that happiness is not the normal state for human beings because our brains have evolved to warn us of danger, not to make us feel good. He outlines four myths about happiness that most people believe, the last of which rang most true for me: “You should be able to control what you think and feel”. In fact, we have very little control over our thoughts and feelings. Positive thinking and a lot of popular psychology encourages people to just “think more positively” – which actually helps to set the happiness trap. The trap is set when we believe that the only acceptable feeling is “happy” and then struggle against any of the “negative” emotions that consistently occur in life.
The progression of information and skill development in ACT is brilliant! When I first tried to “be in the moment” when my anxiety was at its worst, it was a complete failure. I knew that I didn’t have the coping strategies to be comfortable in the moment. ACT starts with dealing with your thoughts and teaching you how to minimize the importance of thoughts. Rather than trying to turn negative thoughts into positive thoughts, this therapy teaches you to see them for what they are – a stream of words running through your mind. Whether or not you give your full attention to a particular thought should be dictated by your answer to this question: “Is this thought helpful?” That is, does it help you take effective action in your life? If the answer is no, you can let that thought run in the background and not struggle with it. The goal of this skill, which is called defusion, is to accept your thoughts.
Next up are emotions. Unhelpful and/or painful thoughts can often trigger uncomfortable feelings. By dealing with thoughts first, you are then left with the emotions that are currently occurring in your body. Again, the goal is acceptance of your feelings, instead of fighting them and flipping on your struggle switch. The skill of expansion teaches us to open up and give our feelings as much room as they need to move on. This process involves acknowledging that the moment is as it is and the feelings in your body are only sensations that you can observe, breathe into, and let be. Instead of adding a lot of additional discomfort and anxiety by struggle against what you’re feeling, this state of expansion lets your feelings move, much like the weather that is constantly changing.
Once you’ve learned how to accept your thoughts and feelings, then you’re ready to learn how to connect with the present moment. Connection is all about turning your attention to what is happening around you: what you can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. It enables you to connect with the people you love by truly seeing them, noticing their feelings and readily responding to their needs. There’s no greater joy that being able to be fully present to a loved one, right when they need you most. When I am “in my head” my response is too often, “I’ll be there in a minute.” When I’m connected to the moment, I transition and respond more quickly and joyfully.
There’s a beautiful irony to the process of acceptance and connection. When you break out of the happiness trap and accept your thoughts and feelings without judgment, you’re then able to connect and be present in your life more fully, which tends to result in more happiness and fulfillment! Because, just as my wise friend noted, happiness comes from something happening that makes you feel happy. If you are distracted from the moment by your thoughts, you won’t truly be present to experience those things that make you feel happy. I now recognize that what I once considered being “happy all the time” was actually a feeling of control that made me feel good. Feeling the range of human emotions allows you to recognize when you’re happy, sad, mad, joyful, peaceful, frustrated, and all the rest. You can’t have the highs without the lows.
Then, once you are able to connect to the moment and let your thoughts and feelings come and go, the book focuses on living a life you value. Being intentional about what you believe in, what you’re passionate about, and what truly matters in life, then begins to shape the committed actions you take. Since we ultimately have little control over our thoughts and feelings, but a lot of control over what we actually do, it make sense to focus our attention on valued action. I found that, once I was present in the moment, opportunities to act on my values presented themselves all the time. Sienna wants to talk about her day? Yes, stop everything and listen. Teo wants to go throw the baseball? Yes, let’s do it! Dennis is getting ready to sit in the backyard with coffee and read? I’ll grab my book! A friend or loved one needs to share what they’re going through? Let’s talk. Those moments can easily be missed when your thoughts demand all of your attention.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy isn’t tied to any particular religion, though Dr. Harris does outline his version of the Serenity Prayer in the book. I loved this connection! The Serenity Prayer is so meaningful to me. Through a lot of prayer and God’s guidance plus the skills of ACT provided me with the ability to accept, discern, and trust in God.
This is obviously just a summary, so I’d encourage anyone who’s struggling with anxiety, loss of the moment, or self-defeating habits to check out this therapy.