We all want to be happy.
After all, if we are happy, we will likely be healthy. And when we are healthy, we are more productive and we are able to do more of the things we love.
In order to create this happiness, we often try to make it happen. If we have uncomfortable or unpleasant feelings, we try to do things that will make us feel better. If we are happy, we try to do everything in our power to help us stay there.
This pattern is natural. I mean, who doesn’t want to feel good?
However, this is also a slippery slope: by trying so hard to make sure things are going well, we may actually sabotage our happiness and wellbeing, generating more stress and unpleasant emotions in the process.
Russ Harris, in his book The Happiness Trap, puts it this way:
“We live in a feel-good society, a culture obsessed with finding happiness. And what does that society tell us to do? To eliminate “negative” feelings and accumulate “positive” ones in their place. It’s a nice theory, and on the surface it seems to make sense. After all, who wants to have unpleasant feelings? But here’s the catch: the things we generally value most in life bring with them a whole range of feelings, both pleasant and unpleasant… So if you believe (the myth of ‘to create a better life, we must get rid of negative feelings’), you’re in big trouble because it’s pretty impossible to create a better life if you’re not prepared to have some uncomfortable feelings.”
This is also known by psychologists as “stress generation” – when we face uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and emotions, we employ a range of control strategies, such as relaxation techniques and “positive self-talk,” aimed at getting rid of those thoughts, feelings, and emotions. This uncompassionate and controlling “comfort-at-all-cost” approach to “being happy and feeling good” only temporarily masks the symptoms of negative feelings & emotions, and may actually be causing more struggle and unhappiness.
So what can we do to break free of this vicious cycle Russ Harris calls The Happiness Trap?
Harris proposes that, whereas there is a time and place for employing control strategies, such as relaxation techniques, a more gentle approach of mindful acceptance and commitment (ACT: Acceptance & Commitment Therapy) may be the key to breaking the cycle of stress generation. We can then learn to employ what he calls values-driven actions in place of control strategies, allowing us to do the things we love and creating a life full of meaningful activities and experiences.
Principles of ACT
There are at least three aspects of ACT:
- Committed Action
Mindfulness, by definition, is simply being fully aware in the present moment without judgment. The concept is simple, but the implementation can be rather difficult, especially in western society that is more out of tune with this way of thinking.
Before discussing the principles of mindfulness, and how that can help us break free of the cycle of stress generation, we must first dive into how the mind works, and how how the mind works contributes to stress generation.
In the book Everyday Mindfulness for OCD, by Jon Hershfield & Shala Nicely, they outline three aspects of our human experience: the brain, the mind, and the self.
The brain is the physical aspect of our experience. It receives input from the outside world and projects it in our mind. The mind displays the information from our brain for our self to see and interpret. Our self determines what we pay most attention to and how much importance we place on different thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
Think of it like different parts of a computer. The computer itself is the brain: it receives input. The monitor or screen is the mind: it displays what the computer receives. The self is like a person watching the screen: they see what’s being displayed, and can choose what to click on and examine.
The problem is that we often find ourselves with our face right up against the screen, entranced by some piece(s) of information on the screen. When we have our face smashed up against the screen like that, it’s hard to see or pay attention to anything else, and the picture looks a lot bigger than it actually is. This is what Russ Harris describes as “fusion” – we are fused to our thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
When we are fused to our thoughts, feelings, and emotions, we may 1) see our thoughts as reality and what we are thinking is actually happening, 2) believe those thoughts to be truth, 3) take those thoughts seriously and give them full attention, 4) obey those thoughts as if they were orders, and 5) see those thoughts as threats, and want to get rid of them.
In other words, being used to our thoughts, feelings, and emotions means that we are oppressed by them, making it difficult to function and see our reality clearly.
Defusion, then, is releasing ourselves from the oppression of our thoughts, feelings, and emotions, allowing us the space to choose values-driven actions.
The principles of mindfulness will help us create this space between stimulus and response, within which “lies our growth and freedom.” These principles are all interconnected and overlap with each other:
- Acceptance – we accept our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and the world around us objectively as it is. If we have uncomfortable feelings we acknowledge and accept them, not fighting or struggling or trying to get rid of them.
- Non-judgment – we accept our experience from a neutral perspective, without attaching meaning to it (yet).
- The Observing Self – we are not our thoughts, feelings and emotions. The observing self is what we choose to focus and rest our attention on. Our thoughts? Our feelings? Our emotions? The space around us? That tree over there? What that person said over there?
- The Present Moment – we are anchored in the here and now. Not thinking about the past. Not worrying about the future. What am I experiencing now?
Here’s how defusing a debilitating and negative belief might look:
You notice, acknowledge, and accept the fact that you have a negative thought that is creating negative emotions. Without attaching judgement, you notice the way you feel. You are curious about it, but you see it as nothing more than what they are: thoughts and feelings. You realize that this is happening, and there is nothing you can do to change the fact that the thought has already come up, and that you have already felt a certain way.
Can you pick out the four aspects of mindfulness? There is a certain level of surrender in there: we surrender to the fact that something happened, and there is nothing we can do to change the past. We surrender to the present moment.
This doesn’t mean that we sit back passively and just let things happen to us, though.
Values & Commitment
Remember, defusing ourselves from the oppression of our thoughts, feelings, and emotions (taking our face away from the computer scree) gives us the space we need to see our situation clearly. It is in this space that we can 1) think of our values, or what is important to us and our future, and 2) choose to act accordingly.
This is anything but passively watching as life happens to us. Rather (to keep up with the computer analogy), it is more of us analyzing the data that is given to us and choosing the best course of action.
It is as the Serenity Prayer:
Develop the courage to solve those problems that can be solved, the serenity to accept those problems that can’t be solved, and the wisdom to know the difference
Precision Nutrition, a highly reputable nutrition coaching and certification company, terms this “The Sphere of Control.”
Essentially, define the things you can’t control (like many of our thoughts and emotions). Then stop trying to control them.
Rather, focus on what you can control (such as your behavior and reaction to thoughts and emotions).
So stop struggling and being a slave to your own thoughts and emotions! Just like any skill, we can develop the skill of mindful acceptance and commitment by practicing! Consider developing a mindfulness meditation routine or a mindset shift!
Happy being happy!