I started reading The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris (linked here). It is a combination of a self-help book and psychoeducation and can be used for both personal and professional learning. It is based on a counseling theory called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). ACT was born out of Cognitive Behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT approaches thoughts as having been reinforced by our environments and that we have the ability to modify these thoughts through CBT techniques. The creators of ACT recognized that there is a lack of acceptance in the world of psychology. People try to avoid or replace their emotions, and this is where ACT brings something new into the field. ACT promotes the recognition, ability to accept and cope with difficult emotions. The founders of ACT realized that for some people their thoughts come back regardless of how many times they try to avoid or replace them. So, ACT tries to help you come to accept and learn to live with those inevitable negative thoughts.
But the book is called the happiness trap, what does this have to do with happiness? When we scroll social media or chat with someone we haven’t seen in a while, it isn’t common for anxiety, grief, low self-esteem and/or hopelessness to dominate the conversation. We typically put our best foot forward and yet everyone has these negative thoughts. When we aren’t feeling 100%, we are striving for happiness which sometimes is just unrealistic. Humans go through difficult things, and it is okay to not be happy all the time and yet we strive for this unrealistic goal and try to influence others to also strive for it too. So, we get stuck in this cycle of trying to strive for unrealistic permanent happiness, and that is the happiness trap. Russ Harris argues that by using ACT, we can be set free from this trap and learn to accept the difficulties that life throws at us.
ACT accepts all the parts of you, even the not so desirable ones. To give a personal example, I went to a religious high school that praised the happy “perfect” Christian student. I was a bit of an eclectic kid, I liked the color black, horror movies, and rock music. But I also loved flowers, laughter, and musicals. I felt like one part of me was accepted and the other part was someone bad. So, I went through a lot of high school either trying to hide a part of who I was or completely ripping the Band-Aid off and would dress like I was the lead singer of Black Veil Brides. Eventually, during university, I came to accept both parts of who I am. Whenever I was having thoughts of “I am not good enough” ACT techniques would tell me to thank my mind for sharing that. After all, they are just words. ACT would also encourage me to change “I am not good enough” to “I am having the thought that I am not good enough”. This technique alleviates the negative reaction that we have to the first statement. So, we still have the thought, but it slowly holds less power over our emotions, and we can learn to accept that we may always have those thoughts about ourselves.
During the pandemic, I constantly found myself trying to find the good in the situation, I forced myself to bottle up the negative emotions. I pretended to be one of those people learning all these new crafts and using so much of my days at home for productivity. Everyone I saw on social media was doing the same thing. Was it totally a lie? No. I did learn to crochet and there were times that I appreciated and enjoyed being at home. But like most people, there were times that the pandemic was hard and trying to force a smile was getting harder and harder. I had fallen into the happiness trap, and I know a lot of others did as well. Eventually, me and a few friends started experiencing pandemic burnout and started talking about these unrealistic expectations that we had for ourselves during such a difficult time. I have found that reading this book has not only helped me learn professional techniques for my upcoming career as a therapist, but it has also had an impact on me personally. I know that my future holds happiness, but I know it will also hold difficult times. Knowing that I can accept those difficulties and cope with them without trying to avoid them makes the future a little less scary.