Free Therapy # 55: The Happiness Trap and the Peaceful Prize

As I have mentioned in previous columns, for about the last 10 years I have primarily relied on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in my work with my clients.  ACT is one of the relatively new “Third Wave” forms of Behavior Therapy that relies on mindfulness, acceptance, commitment and behavior change strategies to achieve its clinical goal of increasing psychological flexibility.

By the time this column is published I will be teaching a nine-week course at First United Methodist Church based on ACT principles and the Russ Harris book called The Happiness Trap.  (For anyone interested in attending future classes, please call the church office at 243-2403 and leave your name and phone number.  Classes are free and usually run about 90 minutes on Monday evenings.)

In my view, ACT and other mindfulness-based cognitive therapies will eventually eclipse previous methods primarily because they are more effective than the traditional approaches we learned in the 70s, 80s and 90s but also because ACT rests on a solid, unprecedented and extensive, empirical basis. It is science-based, extremely effective and immediately appealing to most clients. Furthermore, it can be applied to any psychological problem.

Like many philosophies that reveal important truths, ACT has its share of paradoxical expressions.  For example, we now know that our pursuit of happiness can prevent us from being happy. Or to state it differently, our unwillingness to suffer keeps us stuck in suffering. The more we need to be in control, the more out of control we feel. The more we accept not being in control, the more in control we feel. If we are willing to fail, we will never fail. If we are unwilling to fail, we will always fail. When we employ excessive control strategies to avoid or get rid of painful thoughts and feelings, our efforts can boomerang and keep us stuck in the misery we are trying to resist.

ACT is not a set of “get happy” schemes but instead teaches clients how to develop a new relationship with their thinking mind and its painful contents, including memories, fears, regrets, anxieties, resentments and sorrows.  We incorrectly view our problem or enemy as the psychological pain that we experience when we get what we don’t want or fail to obtain what we desire.

However, we now understand that it’s our resistance to pain – not the pain itself – that is the primary problem.  The struggle with our internal experience of negative emotion and our futile avoidance strategies end up creating more, not less, negative emotion; the result is a vicious cycle that leaves us feeling discouraged, hopeless and trapped.

Steven Hayes, one of the ACT founders writes, “Like a lion trapped in a paper cage, human beings are generally trapped by the illusions of their own mind.”

Surprisingly, the aim with ACT is not to help clients “be happy.”  That is a pleasant by-product or side effect. The main focus is on something better.  Harris writes, “The aim of ACT is to help you live a rich, full and meaningful life while effectively handling the pain that inevitably comes your way.”  In other words, while we can’t always be happy, we can mind our minds. We can notice and observe our internal process and avoid the traps that prevent us from experiencing peace, contentment, fulfillment, even joy.

The ACT practitioner is trained to understand something called the “ubiquity of human suffering.”  In other words, psychological distress is more common than many of us realize.  We used to believe that it was “normal” for people to be psychologically healthy and it was abnormal to struggle with negative emotions.  Now it looks like we have that backward.

One out of three of us suffer with a psychological disorder and the World Health Organization estimates that depression is the fourth “biggest, costliest and most debilitating disease in the world” and in five years it is predicted to be the second biggest.

One worldwide study that looked at the one-year risk of mental disorders in fourteen different nations found Americans are 300 percent more at risk than nations with Buddhist cultures like China and Japan.  Half of us will seriously contemplate suicide at some point in our life and one out of ten will make a serious attempt.

One reason might be that we live in a “feel good” culture where we are told we should feel happy most of the time and there is something wrong with us if we don’t.  We end up feeling bad about feeling bad and falsely believe that others are healthier and happier than us.  We conclude that we’re defective or inadequate and this thought reinforces the feeling.  We believe our own story.  We compare ourselves with people we believe are better and this makes us feel worse.  Our clever minds are also capable of imagining how we should be (but aren’t) and this elusive “ideal self” fantasy causes us to feel more depressed, anxious and inadequate. We never measure up. We can never succeed in our own eyes.

There are several myths that Harris dispels in his book, including this notion that “Happiness is the natural state for all human beings.”  Instead, Harris explains, “Our minds evolved to think negatively, and research shows that about 80 percent of our thoughts have some degree of negative content.”

Myth #2 states, “If you’re not happy, you’re defective.”  Instead, through ACT we know, “The normal thinking process of a healthy human mind will naturally lead to psychological suffering.”  We are not defective. We may not be as happy as we think we should be but welcome to the club. That is remarkably normal.

Myth #3 states, “To create a better life, we must get rid of negative feelings.”  In fact, it is through our willingness to accept and make room for our negative emotions that we reduce their impact on us.

Myth #4 states, “You should be able to control what you think and feel.”  Wrong again.  Few of us have as much control over our thoughts and feelings as we would like.  Control, in fact, is the problem, not the solution. Making peace with this reality frees us to let go of senseless worry as we exert our time and energy where we can actually have an impact.

The good news for all of us is that we have a choice.  We can identify with and fuse with our negative thoughts or we can step back from them and see them as just words that are passing through our minds.  By noticing and not identifying with them, they have less power.  And instead of worrying if they are true or not, we can question how it helps or hurts to dwell on or believe these thoughts.

Over time, we can increase our self-awareness and become more centered in the present moment.  Instead of habitually clinging to self-critical thoughts, we can rest lightly within our observing self, the part of our mind that sees but does not judge; that notices without rejection or blame and accepts this moment as if it was chosen.  That’s when it clicks.  That’s when we come to understand.

When we give up what we never possessed, we get what we’ve always had.  Peace.

Doug Craig graduated from college in Ohio with a journalism degree and got married during the Carter administration. He graduated from graduate school with a doctorate in Psychology, got divorced, moved to Redding, re-married and started his private practice during the Reagan administration. He had his kids during the first Bush administration. Since then he has done nothing noteworthy besides write a little poetry, survive a motorcycle crash, buy and sell an electric car, raise his kids, manage to stay married and maintain his practice for almost 25 years. He believes in magic and is a Sacramento Kings fan.

Douglas Craig
Doug Craig graduated from college in Ohio with a journalism degree and got married during the Carter administration. He graduated from graduate school with a doctorate in Psychology, got divorced, moved to Redding, re-married and started his private practice during the Reagan administration. He had his kids during the first Bush administration. Since then he has done nothing noteworthy besides write a little poetry, survive a motorcycle crash, buy and sell an electric car, raise his kids, manage to stay married and maintain his practice for almost 30 years. He believes in magic and is a Dawes fan.
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4 Responses

  1. Avatar Joanne Lobeski-Snyder says:

    Thank you Doug for explaining ACT therapy so clearly. What you’ve described is a therapy based on actual scientific research about our brains and the knowledge of human experience through time and around the globe. Great article. I will have to reread it to get everything you wrote!

  2. Avatar Russell says:

    ACT, especially as described in this article, shares much more in common with religious belief systems than with “Science” — it is far too early to say that ” (ACT) will eventually eclipse previous methods” — the rest of this sentence, Doug, is really a personal statement of YOUR “Faith” — — in fact, even ACT’s developers (e.g, Steve Hayes) don’t even say this, instead saying this awaits further empirical testing. Unfortunately, ACT’s developers, and its spokespeople, often over-state the “achievements” of ACT, and other therapies. Hence, I encourage all people to maintain proper scientific scepticism; to “read around”, for themselves, especially things like the writings of James Coyne (“Mind The Brain” blog) — for example, here’s a good starting point http://goo.gl/EyfsjW — this is NOT an “attack” on ACT, just a call for appropriate caution.

  3. Avatar Joanne Lobeski-Snyder says:

    When a person needs help, they usually don’t have the knowledge or money to shop around for something that might work for them. I’ve sat on the sidelines watching people throwing away time and money on “therapies” that don’t work. And unfortunately, when people really need help, they are very open to anything they hear from a trained “therapist”. If you have a brain disorder you should see a doctor. Great comment Russell. I had one friend who went through an “exorcism” because of what turned out to be a biological issue. Who do we know what to do when we know we need help?

  4. Doug Craig Doug Craig says:

    Russell is correct. I have found ACT to be so effective in my practice in the last ten years, that I can come across as overly zealous. And yes, every word published here is my opinion, if that is not obvious to my readers. I personally trained with David Burns in the 90s and early 2000s many times and still find his Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) methods helpful with my clients. However, once I began training with Steven Hayes in 2005, I discovered many more tools for my clients. Mindfulness-based therapies like ACT are truly revolutionary (again, my opinion) because they offer us practical methods (defusion, acceptance, contact with the present moment, identification with the observer) that are extremely powerful and effective and truly different from what came before. There are studies supporting ACT as an empirically validated treatment by the American Psychological Association (http://www.div12.org/PsychologicalTreatments/treatments.html). ACT has been accepted for listing on The National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP), a searchable online database of mental health and substance abuse interventions. In other words, it is considered to have a sound empirical basis and is considered to be “evidence-based” by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) of the United States federal government. For example, see http://nrepp.samhsa.gov/ViewIntervention.aspx?id=191. Even for those who can find fault with ACT, however, it’s not like there are numerous superior alternatives. There aren’t! I have worked in this field since the 1970s. Every therapist I have ever known has their own style and approach, with varying degrees of effectiveness. The key is often the relationship, not the methodology. In other words, some people “get well” because of the therapeutic benefit of the therapist-client relationship, regardless of the techniques employed. Adding mindfulness strategies can only make good therapy that much better, in my view.