I first starting reading “self-help” books way back in college when Maxwell Maltz wrote Psycho-Cybernetics. (I also got to meet Maltz and interview him for my college newspaper. During the talk he gave at my school he called me onto the stage to answer some of the questions from the students!) Anyway over the years I’ve read dozens of books by Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, Tony Robbins, Dwayne Dyer, Stephen Covey and others. Almost all of these books offered some value to varying degrees. Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is one of my all time favorites. Earlier this year I read The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living by Russ Harris which joined Covey’s book as one of my favorite self-help books. While the other books I’ve read were good almost all of them offer variations on one of several themes. Think positively. Repeat affirmations to counter negative thoughts. Bolster your self-esteem. All of them, according to Harris, share the same trap. “To find happiness, we try to avoid or get rid of bad feelings, but the harder we try, the more bad feelings we create.” This trap comes from the shared definition of happiness as feeling good. The Happiness Trap adheres to a different definition of happiness: living a rich and meaningful life.
Living such a life doesn’t automatically mean we’re feeling good all the time. We will still have negative feelings and challenges to overcome. The goal of The Happiness Trap then is to give us strategies to deal with negative feelings without denying them. Harris offers six core principles.
1. Defusion. Painful or unpleasant thoughts are defused by various techniques such as labeling them. When one notices such a thought instead of suppressing or denying it we create some distance by saying “I’m having the thought that …” In doing so we put some distance between the thought and us. In other words, we strive for objectivity.
2. Expansion: consists of making room for unpleasant thoughts and feelings.
3. Connection: being fully aware of your here and now.
4. Distinguishing between your thinking self and observing self. The various techniques in The Happiness Trap get us out of our thinking self and into our observing self.
5. Values: what kind of person are you and want to be? What is significant and meaningful to you? What do you stand for?
6. Committed action. All of this business about being objective and mindfulness must be followed by a commitment to action if we truly want to change.
These principles form the core of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), developed by Steven Hays. While Hays and others have published a number of books on ACT they were written for therapists applying ACT to different conditions. The Happiness Trap translates ACT’s principles for laymen interested in applying these principles. As Harris points out ACT also stands for something else:
A – Accepting your thoughts and feelings and being present in the moment,
C – Connect with your values, and
T – Take effective action.
The Happiness Trap holds a lot more insights and techniques than I can do justice to here. Overall I like several aspects of The Happiness Trap and ACT.
- They don’t try to suppress or ignore emotions. The recommended methods aim at honoring these emotions while trying to get beyond them.
- They emphasize mindfulness and objectivity.
- The end goal is to get us to act, not just to idly analyze our feelings.
- Values play a key role because ultimately this is what motivates us to action: what is important to us.
As I said at the beginning The Happiness Trap has joined the small group of my favorite books. It offers a realistic guide with a number of helpful activates to get us to move beyond self-limiting thoughts and emotions so we can obtain, express and enjoy our values.
Just recently I received the latest newsletter from the author which had an interesting observation.
[I]f we believe that happiness is the same as feeling good, we are constantly going to be struggling. Expecting to feel good all the time is like expecting a crocodile to be your best friend. You’re soon going to be disappointed. In ACT, we generally stay away from using the term “happiness”, as so many people think it means “feeling good”. Instead, we talk about “vitality”: a sense of being fully alive and embracing each moment of life, regardless of how you are feeling in that moment. If we were to define happiness in ACT terms, we would define it as living a rich, full and meaningful life in which you feel the full range of human emotions; or as the sense of vitality and wellbeing that comes from living by your values (something the ancient Greeks called “eudemonia”).
I like this idea of vitality and eudemonia (also referred to as “flourishing”). In fact, in the late 1980’s I wrote a paper titled Is Self-Interest Enough that was sold as an audio tape through Laissez Faire Books (and received a rave review in their catalog). My paper suggested how the Objectivist ethics could benefit from incorporating the Greek concept of eudemonia.
Edith Hamilton best summarized the eudaemonist approach in her The Greek Way as: “The exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life affording them scope.”