To find happiness we try to avoid or get rid of bad feelings, but the harder we try, the more bad feelings we create.
What’s it about?
Russ Harris writes that everything we believe about happiness is inaccurate, misleading or false. These beliefs make us miserable – our very efforts to find happiness actually prevent us from achieving it. Everyone is in the same boat – including all those psychologists, psychiatrists, and self-help gurus who claim they have the answers.
The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living:
- A growing body of scientific research suggests we are all caught in a powerful psychological trap. We lead our lives ruled by many unhelpful and inaccurate beliefs about happiness – ideas widely accepted because “everyone knows they are true.”
- Despite the West’s wealth it’s inhabitants don’t appear to be happy. Despite all the advice from experts and gurus, human happiness does not appear to be diminishing but growing by leaps and bounds. The statistics are staggering. 30% of the adult population will suffer from a recognized psychological disorder; depression is widespread; a quarter of people will suffer drug or alcohol addiction at some point in their life. One in 10 people attempt suicide and a half contemplate it for a period of at least two weeks or more. It’s not a pretty picture, lasting happiness is not normal.
- Happiness Is the Natural State for All Human Beings. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, our culture insists that humans are naturally happy. When you add in all the misery caused by problems that are not classified as psychiatric disorders – loneliness, divorce, work stress, midlife crises, relationship issues, social isolation, prejudice, and lack of meaning and purpose – you get an idea of how rare happiness is. Unfortunately, we often walk around with the belief that everyone else is happy. This creates even more unhappiness.
- If You’re not Happy, You’re Defective. Western society assumes that mental suffering is abnormal. It is seen as a weakness or illness, a product of a mind that is faulty or defective. Consequently, when we do experience painful thoughts and feelings, we often criticize ourselves for being weak or stupid.
- To Create a better Life, We Must Get Rid of Negative Feelings. We live in a feel-good society, a culture thoroughly obsessed with finding happiness. And what does society tell us to do? To eliminate ‘negative’ feelings and accumulate ‘positive’ ones in their place. This despite that everything meaningful we embark on in life – jobs, careers, families, relationships, business projects – will all generate both positive and negative experiences. There will be wonderful feelings, but there will also be disappointments, set-backs and frustrations. Not to mention stress, fear and anxiety.
- You Should Be Able to Control What You Think and Feel. We actually have much less control over our thoughts and feelings than we would like. It’s not that we have no control; it’s just that we have much less than most people would have us believe. However, we do have a huge amount of control over our actions. And it’s through taking action that we can create a rich, full, and meaningful life.
The overwhelming majority of self-help programs subscribe to Myth 4. The basic claim is: if you challenge your negative thoughts or images and, instead, repeatedly fill your head with positive thoughts or images, you will find happiness. If only life were that simple!
It’s not that these techniques have no effect; they can often make you feel better temporarily. But they will not get rid of negative thoughts over the long term.
I’m willing to bet you’ve already tried countless times to think more positively about things, and yet those negative thoughts keep coming back, don’t they?
The Illusion of Control
Thoughts, feelings, sensations, and memories are not that easy to control. It’s not that you don’t have any control over these things; it’s just that you have much less control than you thought. Or else why aren’t we all living in perpetual bliss?
The actual degree of control we have over our thoughts and feelings depends largely on how intense they are, and what situation we are in – the less intense the feelings and the less stressful the situation, the more control we have.
The more intense our thoughts and feelings are and the more stressful environment we are in, the less effective our attempts at control will be.
Increasing self-awareness is a start. Noticing your thoughts and feelings during the day, possibly keeping a journal. In order to better deal with unpleasant thoughts we can make room for them, instead of pushing them away. We can feel them, explore them. You can observe yourself thinking, using a powerful, but often under-appreciated aspect of the mind, that of the Observer Self. And you can clarify what is important to you by understanding and connecting with your values and taking action to realize them.
Take Away Points and Context
- The Human mind has given us an enormous advantage as a species. It enables us to make plans, invent things, coordinate actions, analyze problems, share knowledge, learn from our experiences, and imagine new futures. It was built for threat detection and survival, however, not happiness. Fleeting positive emotions helped drive survival-conducive behavior.
- Life involves pain. Sooner or later we will all grow infirm, get sick and die. We will lose valued relationships through rejection, separation, or death, and we will come face to face with crises, disappointment and failure.
- Great advice about how to improve your life comes at you from all directions: find a meaningful job, do this work-out, get out in nature, take-up a hobby, join a club, contribute to charity, learn new skills, have fun with friends, and so on. All of these activities can be deeply satisfying if you do them because they are important and meaningful to you. If these activities are used to mainly escape unpleasant thoughts and feelings, chances are, they won’t be very rewarding.
- To find happiness we try to avoid or get rid of bad feelings, but the harder we try, the more bad feelings we create. Try to look at the costs of avoidance, examine your negative feelings, can you help understand and diffuse them?
The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living. You Comments Welcome below.