Pursue What Matters
Episode 73: The Happiness Trap Book Review
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Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
Do you have unrealistic expectations about happiness? Could it be that you’re caught in the happiness trap? What does that even mean? Join me today to find out what it is, whether you’re caught in it? And if so, how to get out of the happiness trap?
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:16
Hi, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith, welcome to the Pursue What matters Podcast: where we focus on what it takes to thrive in love and work. Well, today, it’s time for another great book review. And we are reviewing an excellent book, this time on the topic of what else? Happiness! And listen, we are heading into fall. And you know, you do not need me to tell you this, it’s been one heck of a year. And this long night of COVID does not show any end in sight. So we could all use some serious Mental Floss around mood and coping. And so I thought this book could be a really useful resource for us to discuss today. As the days are getting shorter, we’re preparing, you know, to head into winter. You know, I don’t want to depress anyone with bad news. But let’s really make sure you are well positioned as we head in to fall and winter. So the book that we are talking about today is the happiness trap, how to stop struggling and start living by Ross Harris. And boy, this is a staple, this is such a great book. So this is based on the principles of Act. So it’s often used as it’s an acronym, so ACT, but you pronounce it act. So this is the mindfulness based program for reducing stress, overcoming fear, and creating a rich and meaningful life. And I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty good. So this book came out originally in 2008. And like I said, it really is a staple in the mood, self help category, it is one of my favorite, go to books, and it’s really stood the test of time, it’s a great resource. And so one of the common beliefs that many of us hold is that if we’re not happy, there must be something wrong with us. And so one of the things that Ross Harris talks about, and this is actually foundational to act, which I’ll talk about in a little bit. But you know, if we’re not happy, there’s something wrong with us. But that the way we go about trying to be happy, actually makes us miserable. And that these behaviors, these approaches that we attempt, actually drive anxiety, depression, and stress in our lives. And so, you know, it’s really unfortunate because the very things we do to try and help ourselves to be happy actually make us unhappy, they make us more miserable, they make us more anxious and more stressed. So instead of focusing on those behaviors, that actually tend to feed our feelings of stuckness. The happiness trap really relies on the principles of ACT, which of course, is scientifically validated to focus on mindfulness and purpose driven living. So you can guess why I like it, because I’m all about purpose drive living, it really helps you target the following behavior. So if it helps you focus on reducing stress and worry because right like, Who has time for that? It helps you to handle painful feelings and thoughts more effectively. Because as I’m fond of saying, life is always going to be challenging, there is no way to escape that. It also helps you to break self defeating habits, overcome insecurity and self doubt, right? There are times we all feel like an imposter. And that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take on big goals. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take on challenges. But you know, we’re going to have those moments of feeling insecure, and where we doubt ourselves. And it helps us to create a rich, full and meaningful life.
Dr. Melissa Smith 4:50
So let’s learn a little bit more about what others have to say about the book. So this is an endorsement from Steven Hayes, Dr. Steven Hayes. He is the author of Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life. Now that is a workbook based on the principles of ACT. And that’s a really wonderful workbook. I also use that a lot in my clinical work. So Steven Hayes is recognized as one of the founders of ACT and ACT is a therapeutic approach and theory for addressing mood issues. So this is a great endorsement from Steven Hayes. So this is what he had to say, “carefully and creatively presents techniques that anyone can use to undermine struggle, avoidance, and loss of the moment, Harris systematically explores how we get into the happiness trap, and then shines a powerful beacon, showing us another way forward.” And then another endorsement here, “eminently practical and readable, The book reveals that when calibrating one’s life, according to acceptance, and valued action,” which are kind of the principles of Act,” happiness is a pleasant sideshow, in the larger Carnival of an engaged and purposeful existence.” And that’s by Zindel Segal, who is a PhD, author of The Mindful Way Through Depression. And one more endorsement, there’s lots of endorsements. But one more that I’ll share with you. This is by Dr. David Richo RI, CH, CO, author of The Five Things We Cannot Change. So this is what Dr. Richo has to say,” An exciting alternative to the usual approach of so many self help books, Harris explains how we can work with ourselves as we are, rather than aggressively trying to alter ourselves. I’m impressed by the simple and effective methods of Act”. So that is actually one of the very unique features of this book that is so very different from many self help books. And what I would say is, this is a unique approach to ACT that is so different from so many other clinical or therapeutic or self help approaches to mood disturbances, you know, to depression to anxiety and distress is, you know, ACT basically says, hey, maybe the problem problem isn’t with you, right? Maybe the work isn’t to attack your thoughts all the time. Maybe the work is in disentangling yourself from your thoughts. And maybe we just shouldn’t take our thoughts so seriously. And it is, it’s a subtle shift. It can feel like a subtle shift, initially, but it is a profound shift that can have profound implications for you, and for your life and for your happiness.
Dr. Melissa Smith 7:59
So let’s learn a little bit more about Dr. Russ Harris. He is a physician, therapist and speaker specializing in stress management. He travels nationally and internationally to train individuals and health professionals in the techniques of Act. So he was born and educated in England, but he now lives in Australia. And of course, he has a lovely accent. And so he really has become, you know, an internationally recognized leader and speaker on act and he’s he’s very approachable, he’s got a really wonderful style about him. And so he’s, he’s great. And his writing is very approachable as well. And so the happiness trap is a great book, it’s easy to read, it’s easy to digest, and it’s very useful. So it’s a book that you can turn to again and again.
Dr. Melissa Smith 8:58
Okay, so with the book review, I’m not going to, you know, go through the the contents of the whole book, I mean, that probably would not be very useful for you. But I want to cover some of the main points of the book, and really help you see how this book can really strengthen your leadership and maybe give you a little bit of a taste for the book, and so that you can consider whether you might want to follow up on this book. And so that’s my goal with the book today. And of course, with every podcast episode, my goal is also to help you strengthen your confidence to lead and I try to do that in one of three primary areas. So whether that is helping you lead with clarity, with curiosity or with community, and so primarily today, we really want to help you lead with curiosity, and curiosity is all about self awareness. And so when we are talking about the happiness trap, when we are talking about these mindfulness skills, which act is all about mindfulness skills and building your resilience when it comes to facing life’s challenges, that is all about self awareness and curiosity, and just developing more awareness about what’s going on in my mind, so that you don’t get caught in the chatter. And so that is the category that we want to strengthen your confidence to lead. So this leading with curiosity, so that’s the goal today. So first of all, let’s define the happiness trap. So what does Harris mean by the happiness trap, and so to help you understand the happiness trap, he talks about four happiness myths that set us up for the happiness trap. So I want to walk you through these four happiness myths that so many of us buy into, they are part for many of us, they are part of our cultural experience. And they really set us up for falling in to the happiness trap.
Dr. Melissa Smith 11:19
So the first happiness myth that so many of us fall into, is that happiness is the natural state of humans, that if everything’s going according to plan, it is natural and normal for humans to be happy. And this is not the case that it’s just not true. The reality is that the normal state of humans is an ever changing flow of changing emotions. And so Harris says the best way to think about our emotions is like the weather, our emotions are like the weather, they are ever changing based on the situations that we are facing. So for instance, if you are doing something for the first time, it is very likely that you will be anxious, and this is absolutely normal, it’s totally understandable that if you are taking on a big challenge, that you would be anxious, and to think otherwise, is actually problematic. So there’s nothing wrong, if you are feeling anxious, if you are taking on something new for the first time. But when we fall into this first happiness myth, that, you know, we, I shouldn’t feel anxious, or I should be happy about this, you know, we set ourselves up for getting caught in the happiness myth. So you know, it actually, you know, I kind of be a little concerned about you if you weren’t anxious, when you are doing something, you know, big for the first time. So that’s the first happiness myth that happiness is the natural state of humans. And the reality is, it is not. And so think about emotions, like whether they’re ever changing based on the situation’s we are facing.
Dr. Melissa Smith 13:20
Okay, so now let’s talk about the second myth of happiness. So the second myth is the idea that happiness means feeling good, or it means pleasure. So this is the second myth of happiness, this idea of pleasure or feeling good. This is also completely unrealistic. Because the reality is, pleasure does not last very long in life.Maybe you’ve noticed, I certainly have. I mean, even when you have a very exciting experience, or you know, something that, you know, is joyful, and, you know, you’re super excited about the reality is, pleasure does not last very long. And so if you have this belief, that in order to be happy, I need to be experiencing pleasure, or I need to be feeling good all the time, but you are setting yourself up for disappointment. So instead, a better definition of happiness is to live a rich, full and meaningful life in which you experience the full range of human emotions. Right. And let’s think back to emotions are like a weather system right where you have a full range of human emotions. So think about, you know, the things that bring us meaning in life don’t always bring us happiness. You do not have to think any further than your most meaningful relationships, right? Think about creating meaningful relationships, they require so much hard work. And they are not always full of pleasure. In fact, many times they’re not full of pleasure. Think about having a new baby. It is for most people, you know, in surveys of new parents, it is among the most meaningful life experiences that humans can experience. And yet, it is also among the most stressful experiences that humans will experience. And very, very few new parents will describe that as full of pleasure. Very rarely, they’re sleep deprived. They’re, they’re stressed, they feel like they are incompetent, they’re overwhelmed. You know, maybe they’re in pain, right? If we’re thinking about new mothers, having just given birth or trying to figure out breastfeeding. And so if our measure of happiness is feeling good, or pleasure, boy, we’re in big trouble. So the second myth is the idea that happiness means feeling good. And that’s just dead wrong.
Dr. Melissa Smith 16:28
Okay, on to the third myth of happiness. So the third myth is that if you’re not happy, you are somehow defective. And boy, I have talked to a lot of people over the years that have absolutely fallen for this myth, they have believed that if they are not happy, something is wrong with them. And it is understandable that they have come to believe this. Because in our culture, in many Western cultures, especially we see it for sure, in the US, but in many Western cultures, we pathologize the range of emotions, we medicate the normal range of emotions, we throw medications, at moody teenagers, we medicate new mothers, right, we really have very, very low tolerance for the full range of normal emotions. And it is a real disservice. It is a problem. It’s such a problem. And in fact, I in my clinical work, I can’t tell you how many times I have had people, you know, come to see me for treatment, right to come see me for clinical services for therapy, fully expecting me to, you know, tell them, hey, you need to be on medication, only to be you know, a lot of times pleasantly surprised. When I say you know, I don’t necessarily think you need to jump right to that. Now, don’t get me wrong, sometimes there absolutely is a place for medication. But we have been so so trained to popping pills, to cope, that it’s really undermined, actually our ability to cope effectively. And so, you know, the reality is, if you are not happy all the time, you know what it means? It means you’re normal, it means you’re human, it means you’re a human living on this big rock having a human experience. And the reality is, we all need to be a little bit better learning to talk about our experiences, learning to give ourselves and one another a bit of grace. Because what happens is, we’re all having this range of emotional experience, but we feel ashamed by it, or we feel defective. And so our emotions are going underground. And so rather than, you know, seeing the range of emotions, all of those emotions are staying hidden, or they’re saying behind closed doors in a therapist’s office, or in bedrooms, you know, where we can’t get the support, to be able to cope effectively. And so, the third myth is that if you’re not happy, you are somehow defective. And unfortunately, for many of us in Western cultures, we pathologize the range of emotions. So we also see this stream, which you know, it, you know, I’ve seen it in in the popular culture, I tend to call this this idea of toxic positivity. And this is super dangerous. Because if you are not seeing the silver lining, in every damn rain cloud that you are experiencing, you can feel ungrateful or you can even be labeled ungrateful, bitter, and unhealthy to be around. And I just want to say like timeout and Good grief. You know, life is difficult, it is challenging, and I think this idea of toxic positivity is downright dangerous. Because the message that it sends is that you need to hide the full range of normal experiences. Now, listen, I’m all about gratitude. I’m all about perspective. I’m all about staying out of drama. And staying out of Whoa, is me and pity and all of that, like, I’m not, I am not advocating for that at all. That toxic positivity is a dangerous road to go down. This belief that if you’re not happy, you’re somehow defective or ungrateful, or you don’t see, you know, the gifts in your life is a real problem. Because to be able to, you know, have days when you’re sad, when you’re upset, is just acknowledging that life is challenging. And that is just truth. So, this reminds me of a favorite book quote, which of course, then became a favorite movie quote, because if it’s a really good book, quote, then it you know, it will usually become a great movie, quote from Princess Bride said by Wesley, to Princess Buttercup. And, we tend to quote this a lot at our house. “Life is pain highness, anyone who tells you differently is selling something.” And of course, that comes to us compliments of William Goldman from the great Princess Bride, you must read that it’s such a classic, of course, the movie is awesome. But if you’ve never read the book, you got to read the book. Because as much as I love the movie, and I really do love the movie, the book is brilliant.
Dr. Melissa Smith 22:42
So okay, so now on to the fourth myth. The fourth myth is that you should be able to control what you think and feel. So a lot of people believe this is true, you should be able to control what you think and feel. So what I would say to this is, go ahead and try it, I dare you. The reality is, we do not have control over our thoughts and feelings. We just don’t I mean, that would be super nice, it would make my job a lot easier. If that were true. As a psychologist, it would make my job a lot easier. But the reality is, we just don’t have that kind of control. And so the work instead, is, you know, instead of trying to control our thoughts and feelings, which a lot of traditional approaches a lot of traditional side, self help approaches, and psychotherapy approaches actually try to target this control of thoughts and feelings. And Act says, that’s kind of pointless. And so let’s actually relate differently to your thoughts and your feelings. So we don’t get so tangled up in them, so we don’t take them as seriously. And so it’s shifting your relationship to your thoughts and your feelings. And that shift becomes really powerful. And so those are the four myths that set us up for the happiness trap. So very quickly, the first myth is that happiness is the natural state of humans. The second myth is that happiness means feeling good, or a state of pleasure. The third myth is that if you’re not happy, you are somehow defective. And then the fourth myth is that you should be able to control what you think and feel. So with this book, and of course, with his teachings, Harris really wants you to understand the happiness trap so that you can obviously have a more realistic view of your life. So that you know, you’re first not working against yourself. Because you know, I’ve talked about this before. But a very simple calculus for unhappiness is the gap between where we are, and where we think we should be. Boy, that’s a formula for unhappiness. And in a nutshell, that is unmet expectations. And so when we take a look at unmet expectations, we need to dig a little bit deeper, and see whether our unmet expectations are even realistic. And often we find that they really are not. And that is absolutely true. Of these four happiness myths, we believe that those four things are true. And they’re not even true. And so we have these very unrealistic expectations about our state of happiness, and how we should be in the world. And it sets us up for misery, it sets us up for failure. And so, I mean, right out of the gate, we’re setting ourselves up for misery. So obviously, we don’t want that to be happening.And, so with this book, of course, we see that perhaps our very first expectation is that it’s normal to be happy all the time. And, you know, it’s, that’s totally unrealistic. Okay.
Dr. Melissa Smith 26:26
So now let’s just talk a little more specifically about how we get caught in this happiness trap. So first of all, we believe these four myths. And then, along with those four myths, we believe that we can control our thoughts, feelings and our lives. Right. So that’s a pretty dangerous combination right there. Because ultimately, and you know, hate to break it to you, probably not really breaking anything to you. But control is just an illusion. But we cling to control, especially around our thoughts and our feelings. And this control takes up so much time, and energy, and it’s incredibly draining. It just drains our lifeforce. And so when we can’t control our thoughts and feelings, because right like, ultimately, it’s not possible, we feel even more defective. So we feel like we’re, you know, we’re chasing this elusive goal, and we just can’t be successful with it. And so these control strategies lower our quality of life over the long term. And so in that way, we get caught in this happiness trap.
Dr. Melissa Smith 27:47
So it’s a result of believing these four myths and then setting out to control our thoughts and feelings over time. And it just is this vicious cycle that where we just get caught in this happiness trap. And so when we set out on this course, to control our thoughts and feelings, what happens is we end up in engaging in experiential avoidance, right. So that’s a fun psychological term, which basically means this ongoing attempt to avoid escape from or get rid of unwanted thoughts, feelings and memories. And so, with experiential avoidance, you can just call that avoidance if you’d like, right? It’s the same idea, but experiential avoidance, right? We become, right, like we start avoiding life. And this experiential avoidance actually becomes a major cause of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and so many other psychological problems. It’s the foundation for most addictive processes. Because, you know, when we have some of the unwanted thoughts, feelings and memories, that we’re trying to avoid our maybe fear, distress. This, this belief of, Oh, no, I am not competent. And so we’ll avoid doing things that make us feel incompetent. So you can see very quickly how you start avoiding taking on challenges in life. And so, as we see, classically with anxiety, our world gets smaller and smaller. So we don’t take on goals, we don’t take on challenges. And we really become more depressed, more anxious, and it’s such a vicious cycle. And so the happiness trap is this to find happiness. We try to avoid or get rid of bad feelings. But the harder we try, the more bad feelings we create. And in this way, it’s such a vicious cycle. And so that in a nutshell is the happiness trap. And it’s dangerous.
Dr. Melissa Smith 30:15
So the real key to that happiness trap is avoidance. And so, you know, as I’m fond of saying, the only thing we want to avoid is avoidance. Okay. And so instead of trying to avoid unhappiness and pain, the work of life, and certainly this book is to help you cope effectively with pain, and create a life of meaning, despite your challenges. And so, key to the book is developing psychological flexibility. So learning to be flexible in your approach to your thoughts and your feelings and your approach to life. And so Harris has a nice little formula here to create psychological flexibility. And so this formula is as follows.
Dr. Melissa Smith 31:10
So mindfulness, plus values, plus action, equals psychological flexibility. Okay, so mindfulness, you have to have awareness of your thoughts and your feelings in the moment, plus values, you need to know what matters to you. Okay, because if you don’t know what matters to you, then how do you know what you need to take action on. And then, So mindfulness plus values plus action, you must act. So this is absolutely counter to avoidance, you must take action in your life, you’ve got to face your challenges head on. And that equals psychological flexibility. So that is the formula, mindfulness plus values plus action equals psychological flexibility. That formula is a recipe for mental health right there. Okay, so I want to talk a little bit more about some of the underpinnings for this formula. Because I think these are some simple little things that can be very helpful.
Dr. Melissa Smith 32:25
So first of all, with mindfulness, I talk a lot about mindfulness, because it is just that important. So mindfulness is the present moment, awareness of your thoughts and feelings. It is all about self awareness. So this is the Curiosity piece that I talked about, with confidence to lead. And so some of the some of the things that we want to do with act is we want you to have a little bit of separation between yourself and your thoughts. So your thoughts are not truth. They’re just thoughts moving through your mind. So you want to have a little bit of separation. And so some tools that can help you to start to have some separation from your thoughts include, the thought I’m having is, you know, another thing that you can do is remind yourself that I am not my thoughts, you can start to name your stories. So you know, we each have themes. So one, one example might be Ah, yes, this is the I’ll never get ahead story. Or Oh, yes, this is where I feel like everyone’s blaming me, right. And if you as you develop more self awareness, you’ll start to notice your themes and your stories. So you start to name your stories. One that comes to us compliments of Bernie Brown, is one that I’ve talked about before is the story I’m telling myself. So the story I’m telling myself is this person is out to get me. And so all of these tools are mindfulness tools to help you have a little separation from your thoughts. These are called diffusion tools. And you remind yourself that thoughts are just stories, right? We’re very fond of telling ourselves stories in our minds. So the mind never stops telling stories. And this is, this is a really liberating thought that you don’t have to listen to your stories you don’t have to obey. And here’s the other thing. You don’t have to even respond.
Dr. Melissa Smith 34:55
So you know, your mind will keep chattering and you can go ahead and still live to your values, despite the stories Your mind is telling you. And that can be really very liberating. So don’t take your thoughts seriously, they’re only thoughts. So one way of picturing your thoughts, as though they are just items on a conveyor belt. So they’re thoughts moving along a conveyor belt of your mind, and they’re just going to keep on moving. And you don’t have to do a darn thing with them. Another popular imagery is leaves on a stream. So you just you see the thoughts, like leaves on a stream, and you don’t need to do a darn thing with them, they’re just going to keep on moving. The problem is, is we become so tied to our thoughts, and we believe Oh, my goodness, like, I got to pick up every single one of those leaves, every single one of those leaves on the stream means something about me. And the reality is they don’t, you can just let them keep on going. And so this is all known as diffusion techniques. So just a couple more thoughts on these, so. And, you know, you can thank your mind for all the thoughts, even the ridiculous thoughts. So, you know, this, it might feel silly, but the reality is, your mind’s always talking to you. And so you can just thank you thank your mind for the thought. So, you know, I will do that sometime. And like, thank you for that commentary mind. Enough, I’ve heard enough from you now. And you could use a silly voice to challenge a thought in your mind. Because sometimes a thought sounds like real legit. But when you can use a silly voice, it helps you to kind of shift your perspective, and to take it a little less seriously. So that is, those are some thoughts with mindfulness, and especially to help with diffusion to kind of help you get some separation from your thoughts.
Dr. Melissa Smith 37:13
And then I just want to say a couple other things. One about values. So right mindfulness, plus values plus action, lead to psychological flexibility. So with values, we want you to live to your values, despite life’s challenges. That’s what it’s all about. So you must decide what’s important to you? What do you hold dear. And so you know, I always am talking about pursuing what matters and living to purpose, and so starting to pay attention to what matters to you. And even if it’s just one value, that’s great, that’s wonderful. It doesn’t have to be a lot. And, you know, having one to two core values is powerful. And holding on to those and letting those values guide your daily actions, they really should, we should be living to our values every single day.
Dr. Melissa Smith 38:12
And then, of course, the last component of that is action, we must take appropriate action consistent with our values. And so you know, like I said before, the only thing to avoid is avoidance. And and then, you know, one of the questions that I want you to think about is how do you know if it’s appropriate to act, sometimes it’s appropriate to act, and sometimes it’s not appropriate to act. And so the reality is that our emotions, prime our body to act. So each emotion gives you an impulse or an urge to act in a certain way. So for instance, anger might create an urge to yell, sadness might create an urge to cry. So you know, we have these urges that spring up from our emotions. And yet, it’s not always totally appropriate to act on those urges or those impulses. And we also have urges that are not associated with emotions, right? We have urges related to eating, drinking, sleeping, having sex to use control strategies, so all sorts of urges that aren’t necessarily associated with emotions. But this is where connecting to your values is so important. And this is where the mindfulness is so important, where you can slow yourself down enough to ask, Is it appropriate to act?
Dr. Melissa Smith 39:42
If I act in this way? will it lead me closer to my values? Or will it take me further away from my values? And you know, answering that question will help you determine whether you need To act, and you know what that action needs to look like.
Dr. Melissa Smith 40:04
And so I’m super excited because in an upcoming podcast, I want you to stay tuned, I am going to be focusing all on taking action with act skills, because act skills are really powerful. So they are so helpful for coping in everyday life, and really helping you to be a better decision maker. And to you know, really just, they’re so helpful for creating psychological safety, for establishing boundaries for being a more effective communicator. And so stay tuned, because I’m going to have a lot of practical applications for you, in an upcoming podcast, take action with act skills. And so with that, you know, the acronym that we really are going to be focusing on is first, A accept your thoughts and feelings, C, connect with your values, and T, take effective action. And so I’ll have some examples. And lots of ways where, you know, we’re going to use this formula to help you to be mindful, and to connect with your values, to take action so that you can have psychological flexibility. So that you can, you know, be more effective in your own life, and support those you lead. So stay tuned, I hope that you will join me for that podcast. So I hope that you will check out this book. It’s a really great one. So the happiness trap, it’s by Russ Harris, I will link to the book in the show notes. And I’ll also link to a couple of nice little videos, he talks about some of the happiness myths. So you can kind of learn a little bit more about those and they’re nice little videos, you could share them like with your kiddos or with your team. So those are nice videos to share. And so head on over to my website for the show notes and all of the great resources there. And that’s at www www.drmelissasmith.com forward slash episode, dash 73 one more time. That’s www.drmelissasmith.com forward slash episode dash 73 and I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember love and work, work and love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care.
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