The Happiness Trap by Dr Russ Harris

My Life Coach recommended I read this book recently, at a time when I was struggling with some unpleasant feelings which seemed to be getting in the way of me achieving consistent lasting happiness. The book is practical guide to ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) with a subtitle that rang a chord with me: Stop struggling, start living.

The basic premise of The Happiness Trap is summed up when Dr Harris writes: "The more we try to avoid the basic reality that all human life involves pain, the more we are likely to struggle with that pain when it arises, thereby creating even more suffering." We spend a great deal of our lives seeking pleasant feelings and avoiding unpleasant ones, because we think that this is what will make us happy. But herein lies the trap: the techniques we use to avoid unpleasant feelings actually tend to reinforce them, like the old "don't think of pink elephants" trick. Or we avoid our feelings altogether, leaving us disconnected from reality. Even setting and pursuing goals can cause us to lose connection with what's going on around us when we immediately notice that we haven't met those goals yet, or we experience frustration over goals we haven't been able to achieve yet.

Experiencing feelings, both pleasant and unpleasant, is part of being human. Dr Harris also points out that our mind has evolved to make our survival its highest priority, rather than our happiness. Our brains are a "Don't get killed" device, and if that means experiencing anxiety, fear, sadness or even depression at times, so be it. Happiness is not necessarily the default human condition, and sometimes we need to practice accepting unpleasant feelings if we're to have lasting fulfillment in our lives. Expecting that we can experience pure happiness all the time is just setting ourselves up for failure.

So to avoid these traps, Dr Harris presents a number of practical alternatives aimed at making space for unpleasant feelings so that we don't try to push them away, but rather we expand our consciousness to make room for them. In doing so, unpleasant feelings tend to defuse because they don't seem so big by comparison; so long as we avoid attempting to directly push the unpleasant feeling away. That would just lead us back into the trap again.

Later in the book, Dr Harris moves onto personal values, goal setting and maintaining the willingness to experience what we need to in order to achieve our goals without falling into the trap of happiness by achievement. The idea here is that so long as we are acting in accordance with our personal values, the journey towards our goal becomes fulfilling in itself; it's not just about the achievement of the goal itself since achieving a goal is a fleeting thing that only impacts our happiness momentarily.

I wondered for a while whether the message in this book contradicts a couple of my other favorites: Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman and You Can Choose To Be Happy by Tom G. Stevens. Both those books suggest that it's possible (and even sensible) to pursue happiness directly as a life goal, whereas Dr Harris's book hints that this can easily lead to us falling into the trap he describes of perpetual frustration and misery. But all three contain a similar message about the importance of living in accordance with our deepest values if we want a rewarding life. I don't think Dr Harris is so much saying that pursuing happiness will make you un-happy, but rather that pursuing happiness by attempting to avoid ever experiencing unpleasant feelings is what will lead us into misery.

I found lots of useful techniques in the book which I now use regularly. Nobody's going to read this book review, so what's the point of writing it? "Thanks mind! That's just an opinion." This is a great book, with lots of really sensible wisdom, especially related to dealing with unpleasant feelings. I highly recommend it.

About Graham

I combine trauma awareness, emotional healing and comedy to heal painful events from your past, so you can live a future life you love; and have fun doing it.

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4 Responses to The Happiness Trap by Dr Russ Harris

  1. Adrienne says:

    Fantastic critique Graham on The Happiness Trap. I'll be reading it!

  2. Christina Burns says:

    I read all your posts Graham and enjoy them.On this one I agree with Dr. Harris re the trap of Happiness. Twenty years of working with people and with my self has made me aware that "accepting " ALL of our emotions is actually very healthy and I no longer pursue happiness as a goal.
    Thanks for this...led me to some interesting thoughts and feelings. <3

    • Graham says:

      Thanks Christina. Yes; it does seem that happiness is most easily experienced by living a rich emotionally aware life, focused on pursuits which are inherently rewarding; rather than focused on happiness as a goal in itself.

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