A meaningful life involves a range of experiences. Therefore a range of emotional experiences are not only normal, they are natural and expected. Image courtesy of prawny at freedigitalphotos.net
I have been a "self-help" junkie most of my life. Always interested in how to enjoy my life to the maximum degree and remove all my shortcomings, I have naturally been attracted and addicted to this genre!
Out of all the concepts I have encountered, none have been so helpful to me as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (or ACT). It has improved my quality of life in such an extraordinary way, I'd like to share my journey with others, interested in whether others also find it useful.
Recently, I fell upon a book with a title that at first did not appeal to me: “The Happiness Trap” by Russ Harris. According to Russ, the pursuit of happiness is an unrealistic ideal – and not only that, “a trap”! The trap is that, by trying to chase happiness, we can actually become more dissatisfied with our lives.
At first, the concepts did not appeal to me – surely, I thought, there was an ‘easy answer’ out there, something that could promise a fulfilling life. After all, most of the “self-help” books I had read reiterated time again that it could be at anyone’s fingertips.
However, the tables have turned. Having read Russ’ book, I have been able to easily accept his main assertion that acceptance rather than happiness is the key to a “rich, full and meaningful life.” This seemed to actually excite me – his ideas of a fulfilling acceptance rather than chasing perpetual happiness. Happiness can occur in our lives, but it does not have to, in order to live an meaningful and fulfilling life.
Firstly, the book throws four common false beliefs about happiness out the door.
1. Myth 1: being happy is the ‘norm’ for us human beings.
It’s not! Science shows us that eighty percent of our thoughts are negative to some extent. Believing happiness is normal creates further discomfort. This is because we think we ‘should’ be happy. After all that’s what the majority of self-help books tell us, doesn’t it?
Myth 2: If you’re not happy, there’s something wrong with you.
This exists as a natural result of the first misconception. We criticise ourselves if we’re not happy, thinking we’re flawed in a sense.
Myth 3. We need to remove negative emotions to lead an improved life.
This belief occurs as a follow on of “Myth 2”. Anything that is meaningful in our life, as Russ explains, naturally involves both positive and negative emotions. For example there can be stress and anxiety studying at university, yet the positive rewards of learning and meeting people make it a worthwhile experience. Relationships important to us involve both frustration and joy as another example.
Living a full life means we naturally will experience a range of feelings from desirable to undesirable.
Myth 4. People should have power over what they think and feel.
We are often brought up this way, and this misconception is fed by the message society gives us. However, our thoughts and feelings are what they are. However this doesn’t mean we can’t live a life directed by our personal values – we can, despite uncomfortable emotions and thoughts.
The reality is there are a range of various common problems that mean that perpetual happiness is not realistic, and would actually be a rather strange response! There are relationship issues, employment problems. We may suffer ill health. We may suffer isolation or are afraid of rejection. And so on.
As we have seen, however, we are set up by society to remove the negative thoughts and feelings that these life situations incur.
However, the more we try to remove, avoid or escape these, the bigger they become. For example, we may fear rejection. If we try to avoid our anxiety about an upcoming exam by not studying, our fear will grow as the exam becomes closer. If we avoid grief by drinking, we know it only comes back. If we continue to react maladaptively our problems intensify because we are so busy trying to avoid our pain, that we neglect to work on our issues, which only become larger over time if neglected.
See Part 2 for the common ways we use “Fight or Flight” to deal with our negative thoughts and emotions. This also forms the basis of why acceptance of our current situation and choosing a valued direction in our behaviour, is an alternative approach that is effective in improving our quality of life.
I am very well, thanks Jussie. Have been doing lots of reorganising my house and feeling good about making better use of the space available. De-cluttering and reorganising has led to ideas for more articles so hope to get stuck into writing this week.