Happiness is the subject of thousands of articles, podcasts, and scientific studies. Yet all this focus on happiness doesn’t seem to be making people any happier. In fact, the more they try to be happy, especially by fighting to get rid of bad feelings and cling to good ones, the more unhappy people often become.
My guest would say that the first step in escaping this negative cycle is redefining what happiness even means — thinking of it not as a state of feeling good but of doing good.
His name is Russ Harris and he’s a therapist and the author of The Happiness Trap.
Today on the show, Russ explains how struggling against difficult feelings and thoughts just makes them stronger — amplifying instead of diminishing stress, anxiety, depression, and self-consciousness — and how simply obeying your emotions doesn’t work out any better. He then unpacks the alternative approach to happiness espoused by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. With ACT, you allow both hard and pleasant feelings to coexist, and unhook from the latter so that they no longer jerk you around. This allows you to focus on taking action on your values to create a meaningful, flourishing life, or in other words, real happiness.
Resources Related to the Episode
- AoM Podcast #614: Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life With the Founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Steven Hayes
- AoM Article: From Overwhelmed to Empowered — How Labeling Your Emotions Can Help You Take Control
Connect With Russ Harris
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett Mckay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Happiness is the subject of thousands of articles, podcasts and scientific studies, yet all this focus on happiness doesn’t seem to be making people any happier, in fact, the more they try to be happy, especially by fighting to get rid of bad feelings and cling to good ones, the more unhappy people often become. My guest would say that the first step in escaping this negative cycle is redefining what happiness even means, thinking of it not as a state of feeling good, but doing good. His name is Russ Harris and he’s a therapist and the author of the Happiness Trap.
Today on the show, Russ explains how struggling against difficult feelings and thoughts just makes them stronger, amplifying instead of diminishing stress, anxiety, depression and self-consciousness, and how simply obeying your emotions doesn’t work out any better. He then unpacks the alternative approach tp happiness espoused by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, with ACT, you allow both pleasant and hard feelings to co-exist and unhooks from the latter as they no longer jerk you around. This allows you to focus on taking action on your values to create a meaningful, flourishing life, or in other words, real happiness. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/happinesstrap.
Alright, Russ Harris, welcome to the show.
Russ Harris: Thanks for having me.
Brett Mckay: So you have a background in medicine, but then you made a shift in your career, or became a therapist and you became a trainer in a form of talk therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. So you do therapy, but you also do coaching, and you got a book called The Happiness Trap: How To Stop Struggling And Start Living, and you start the book off talking about how most human beings, they wanna be happy. So we have all these blog posts, books, apps, courses on how to be happier, but people aren’t happier, depression’s up, life satisfaction is down, so what’s going on there? We have all these resources, there are people researching scientifically how to be happier, yet we still find happiness hard to achieve, what’s going on?
Russ Harris: Well, there’s a number of different factors, but probably the biggest one is the way that we think about happiness itself. Most people think of happiness as a good feeling or feeling good or a state of pleasure or contentment, and if that’s your concept of happiness, then there’s no such thing as lasting happiness. How long can a state of pleasure or contentment possibly last for if you think of the happiest day of your life? How long were you feeling happy for before there was some frustration, disappointment, anxiety? In western cultures, we don’t really learn how to deal with those inevitable painful emotions, we see them as the opposite of happiness and we start trying to avoid or get rid of all of those unwanted thoughts, feelings, emotions, all the uncomfortable stuff, and we start desperately trying to create more of the good, pleasant feelings and clinging to those feelings, and the technical psycho-babble name for this is experiential avoidance. Experiential avoidance is the ongoing attempt to avoid or get rid of unwanted thoughts, feelings, emotions and memories, all of that uncomfortable stuff that shows up inside us that we don’t like.
And experiential avoidance is normal, we’re all… [chuckle] I don’t know anybody who just loves having painful thoughts and feelings, but what happens is, high levels of experiential avoidance, where people are really trying very, very hard to avoid and get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings, while high levels of this actually directly correlate with your risk of depression, anxiety disorders, addiction and many other mental health issues. So if you’re trying very, very hard to control your emotions, to avoid or get rid of the unpleasant ones and create and cling to the pleasant ones, it’s gonna create a lot of problems for you.
In my book, The Happiness Trap, it’s called The Happiness Trap because popular notions of happiness create this trap that actually pull you into this vicious cycle of avoidance that makes life worse. There’s a very different way of looking at happiness which doesn’t come naturally to most people. The concept to happiness I’ve just been talking about is really only become popular in the last 100 years, this idea that it’s about feeling good, but if we go back over the centuries for most of recorded history, happiness has not been about feeling good, it’s been about doing good, it’s about living your values, behaving like the person you want to be, doing things that are meaningful and purposeful.
And when we create a meaningful life, living by our values, doing the stuff that’s fulfilling and meaningful and purposeful, well, as we do that, we’ll experience the full range of human emotions, both pleasant and painful, we’ll experience the enjoyable emotions, love and joy, and we’ll experience the painful ones, fear and sadness and anger and anxiety and guilt, these are all part of the rich tapestry of human life. So if we could re-conceptualize happiness as living a rich, full and meaningful life in which we feel the full range of human emotions, both pleasant and painful, we’d be a lot better off.
Brett Mckay: Yeah, and that second definition of happiness, that it’s a meaningful life where you can experience unpleasant emotions and feelings but still have a meaningful life, that’s like eudaimonia from the ancient Greeks, like it’s a flourishing life.
Russ Harris: Yeah, very much. That’s much more in line with the meaningful, fulfilling life that encouraging…
Brett Mckay: Yeah, so you talk about, when we define happiness as just feeling good, we engage in experiential avoidance, and you talk about there’s different ways we can do that, and you call it we struggle with an emotion or a feeling, and there’s different struggle strategies you describe in the book, what are some common ways we struggle with an unpleasant emotion so we can get rid of it, and the idea is that we’ll feel that happy feeling again, what are some typical struggle strategies?
Russ Harris: Well, by far, the most common that we all do is distraction, it’s so easy for us in our modern world with our phones always at our fingertips that we can just distract ourselves with. Got some unpleasant thoughts and feelings going up, we start scrolling through social media or watching some YouTube videos or whatever it is that we like to do on our phones and our devices, and it gives us a bit of short-term relief from whatever unpleasant feelings are showing up, and a little bit of distraction’s not a problem at all, but we all know what happens when we do excessive distraction and I’m sure… I know I have, and I’m sure all your listeners have experienced that sense of wasted time where you’ve just been… Whether it’s skipping through programs on television just trying to distract yourself from how you’re feeling, and it’s not really very satisfying or fulfilling, and of course, it’s only a temporary relief.
Opting out is another very common strategy, we opt out of the difficult people, places, situations or activities that bring up difficult thoughts and feelings for us, we procrastinate on things, we avoid difficult conversations, we stay away from perhaps social situations that we think are gonna be challenging. And again, this opting out, procrastination, putting things off, gives us a bit of short-term relief, but of course in the long term, if we do too much of this, our life gets very small. If we do too much procrastination, that leads to many other problems because we’re not really addressing the important things we need to do in life. And so, all of these struggles strategies, they have this short-term relief, but in the long-term, they tend to make by for worse if you do too much of them.
Another common one is just substances, all of us just to some extent, put substances into our body to feel better, whether that’s just a aspirin or whether that’s a glass of wine, or whether that’s some chocolate cookies or chips, or in the more extreme cases, hard drugs. And again, very often when we do this, these substances give us some short-term relief from pain, but in the long term, if we overuse these substances, that we use them too much, too excessively, then we get all sorts of health problems, however that’s from overeating but overdrinking or addiction.
Brett Mckay: Well, you also talk about many traditional therapy modalities, they inadvertently maybe lead people to engage in struggle strategies, what are some examples of that?
Russ Harris: Well, I would say probably again, the two most common would be distraction techniques, these are so popular. Some unpleasant thoughts and feelings show up, and so you go to your happy place or you think of something positive or you snap an elastic band around your wrist and tell those thoughts and feelings to go away. And one of the big problems with distraction strategies is there’s a rebound effect, so they do work in the short-term, for example, snapping an elastic band and telling negative thoughts to go away, actually in the short term they do, but what the research shows very clearly is that in the long term, they rebound with greater and greater frequency and intensity.
It’s the same with squashing painful emotions down, suppressing our emotions, in the short term, we can actually do it, but again, in the long term, lots of research that show there’s a rebound effect where the emotions come back with greater frequency and intensity. Many, many pop psychology strategies rely very heavily on thinking techniques, it might challenge your negative thoughts or try to replace them with positive affirmations, and the thing with thinking techniques is they work quite well a lot of the time if your emotional pain is mild, if you’re just a little bit sad or a little bit angry or a little bit anxious or little bit guilty. You can usually think your way out of it quite effectively with these pop psychology strategies, but the more intense your emotional pain and the greater the difficulty you’re facing in your life, the less effective those techniques become.
Take the example of someone you love is dying or has just died, there’s no positive thinking strategy that’s gonna enable you to think away your painful feelings, you’re gonna have intense feelings of sadness or anger and maybe anxiety, it depends on what your relationship was like with this person and what’s led up to their death and so forth, but one thing’s sure, there’s gonna be lots of painful emotions. And you can’t just think that away, you can’t expect to feel happy and think positively in the face of a great loss, same with other very, really challenging situations in life. So, people often get a bit frustrated, they’re trying to use these positive thinking techniques and finding they’re not working, and then it’s what’s wrong with me and it’s just setting people up for failure. So they work okay with mild emotional distress but not with really big stuff.
Brett Mckay: Now, I’ve experienced that, ’cause I’ve read books about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, one of the premises of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is that if you have this self-defeating thought, you’re supposed to challenge it. Alright, let’s think rationally and logically about this. But I found sometimes when I do that, I can come up with all sorts of reasons. Like if I’m like, “Well, I’m an idiot.” And then you’re like, “Well, am I really an idiot?” And I’ll be like, “Well yeah, here’s all the reasons why I’m an… ” I can come with up… [laughter] And it just makes it worse. And I’m feeling… And then like you said, you’re like you feel dumb, you’re just like, “Why isn’t this working? Why can’t I get this thing, this Cognitive Behavioral Therapy thing to work for me?” And then it just go down, it just continues down the vicious cycle.
Russ Harris: I can relate to that very strongly, yeah. And then of course that just gives you mind even more ammunition. “Yeah, see what loser I am, I can’t even do this Cognitive Therapy stuff.”
Brett Mckay: Okay, so those are some struggle strategy, so distraction, fighting with it, trying to [0:12:24.1] ____ rein your way out of it, you’re not saying that the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy stuff isn’t useful, it’s useful in some situations, but not all the time. Another thing that we often do when we experience a negative emotion or feeling or thought, besides struggling with it, is obeying it. What do you mean by that?
Russ Harris: Well, a lot of the time, our thoughts show up and we’re not even aware that we’re thinking, our mind says, “Do this, do that, do the other,” and we just go along with it. Our mind makes a judgment or an appraisal of a situation, “That person’s bad. This situation’s too hard, I can’t deal with it. I have to do this. I must do that. I shouldn’t do the other. I can’t do X until Y,” and we just go along with that stuff, our mind lays down these judgments and these rules, and we just follow along blindly. And the problem is that can keep us caught in a rut just doing the same old thing. I mean a good example of this is perfectionism for example. Our mind lays down all these rules, “I have to do it perfectly, I mustn’t let anyone down, I have to stick at this and make sure everything’s spot on, and there’s no point doing it unless I can do it perfectly.” And what happens is, if anyone’s experience this, and I know I certainly have in my life, it puts just massive pressure on you, it doesn’t even occur to you that these arbitrary rules your mind just come up with, that you’ve got a choice about whether you follow them or whether you bend them or whether you break them. We just go onto automatic pilot and do what our mind tells us to do. Another common example is people-pleasing rules.
These play a big role in many people who suffer from depression, it’s like I have to please others, I have to put their needs first, my needs don’t count, what they want is more important than I want, and if you get caught up in the people-pleasing routine, life gets pretty miserable, it’s all about sacrificing yourself to please others. So we can identify our mind’s rules by words like should, have to, must, ought, can’t unless, won’t, until, don’t, because. And we wanna have a look, if I keep following these rules, is it actually giving me the life that I want, is it giving me the relationships I want? One of the problems with obeying these rules is they very often create tension and conflict in relationships, particularly when we start imposing those rules on the other person, “You should do this and you shouldn’t do that,” and none of us likes being told what we should or shouldn’t do, right?
Brett Mckay: No, no. Okay, so we can either struggle with these negative thoughts, emotions, feelings, and that can lead to a happiness trap because they usually just backfire, just makes the problem worse, or there’s a rebound effect, or we can obey it and just follow along with it, and that continues to just making us feel miserable, doesn’t change anything.
Russ Harris: Yeah, well, just expanding the concept of obey, it’s not just about obeying what our mind says, it’s also obeying our emotions. Anger shows up and there’s an urge to shout or yell or fight, fear shows up and there’s an urge to hide away, escape, avoid, and so again, we often obey our emotions, just let them jerk us around like a puppet on a string, pull us into patterns of behaviors, just completely driven by the emotion itself.
Brett Mckay: And so we connect ourselves with your emotions, like too… We’re fused too much with our emotions when we obey.
Russ Harris: Yeah, fused is the technical term. Basically, the emotion dominates us and it just jerks us around and pushes us around. In everyday language, we say I was in the grip of anger for example, but what that basically means is you’re just allowing your emotions to rule you and dictate what you do, so this applies to thoughts as well as feelings.
Brett Mckay: So let’s dig into how Acceptance and Commitment Therapy approaches difficult thoughts and emotions, and you talk about the first step of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is this idea of unhooking yourself from the difficult thought or emotion, what do you mean by that?
Russ Harris: Can I, just before I answer the question, explain the name Acceptance and Commitment Therapy?
Brett Mckay: Yeah.
Russ Harris: It was created by Steven Hayes, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Reno, Nevada. And ACT is the shortened term for it and it gets its name because of one of the key messages, “Accept what’s out of your personal control and commit to action that improves your life.” So there’s basically three strands to the therapy itself, one strand is this idea of taking action, committed action to do the things in life that are important and meaningful and fulfilling, so you get in touch with your values, your heart’s deepest desires for how you want to behave, how you want to treat yourself and others, and you use those values as a compass to guide your actions and motivate you to do the things that matter.
The second stream of the approach is learning these unhooking skills, how to un-hook from difficult thoughts, feelings, emotions and memories so that they can’t jerk you around and pull you all over the place, learning how to basically take the power and impact out of difficult or unwanted thoughts and feelings. And then the third stream of therapy is really focusing your attention, learning how to focus your attention on what’s important right here, right now and to engage in what you’re doing so you get the most out of it.
So unhooking skills are one of those three streams, and it’s basically a set of skills that really teach you how to respond to even the most difficult painful emotions, thoughts, feelings and memories in a new way, in a way that basically drains them of their power, they’re still there, it’s not a way to get rid of these thoughts and feelings, but it’s a way to take the impact out of them, you learn how to let them flow through you, let them come and stay and go in their own good time without sweeping you away, without crushing you and without you fighting with them or trying to escape from them.
Brett Mckay: Okay, so the idea is you’re not… Instead of… I’m trying to get an example, in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, if you had a negative emotion or thought, the typical response would be like, “Well, let’s look at this, let’s challenge it, do you have any real reason to feel like this?” And you go through this self dialogue. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, when you have that negative thought and emotion, that doesn’t happen, you’re not trying to get rid of the negative thought or emotion.
Russ Harris: No, that’s right. Yeah, so it’s basically… Your first step in ACT would be just to acknowledge, “Oh, okay, here it is, here’s this difficult thought,” or, “Here’s this difficult feeling showing up.” “Yes, I know this one.” And then rather than… Well, let’s talk about thoughts and feelings a bit separately, that kind of overlap…
Brett Mckay: Sure.
Russ Harris: That’d be useful. If you’ve got a thought like, “I’m not good enough,” for example, the chances are that thought has showed up hundreds of thousands, if not millions of times by the time you get to therapy or read a self-help book, or go and see your coach or something. So theres no delete button in the brain, there’s no way you’re gonna delete the, “I’m not good enough,” story so that it never shows up, it’s deeply entrenched in your neuronal pathway. And so it’s a bit pointless going in and trying to fight it and challenge it and dispute it every time it shows up. What we wanna do is basically lay down a new neuronal pathway in the brain so that when, “I am not good enough,” pops up, we can go, “Oh, there’s the not good enough story,” or, “Oh, there’s the inner critic,” or “Oh, there’s my mind giving me a hard time.” “Oh, I know this one, I’ve heard this before,” but instantly takes a lot of the impact out of it, just recognizing it, acknowledging it and choosing not to fight, it doesn’t mean that we agree with it and believe it and buy into it, but we start to see this is a thought, these are words or sometimes words and pictures that are popping up in my head right now.
Brett Mckay: So that’s thoughts, you could do the same thing with feelings as well, correct?
Russ Harris: Yeah, so a painful feeling shows up, anger or sadness, and again, the first step is just to acknowledge, Oh okay, here’s sadness or here’s anger. I’m noticing here’s tightness in my chest, here’s knots in my stomach, here’s some teariness in my eyes and just recognizing this is a normal human emotion, this is an emotion that we expect to feel when life is tough, when things are challenging, it’s absolutely a normal part of being human to have painful emotions, it’s a normal part of being human to have negative thoughts. And it’s useful to recognize if we come back to thoughts, our mind generates these negative thoughts for a purpose, it’s not deliberately trying to beat us up and give us a hard time, it’s always there’s an underlying purpose, our mind is always trying to help us avoid things that we don’t want or get things that we do want. The problem is, it very often goes about doing that in a way that is ultimately unhelpful. I often compare your mind to an overly helpful friend, one of those friends who’s trying so hard to help [chuckle] that they end up getting in the way and making things worse, if you ever had a friend like that, Brett. [chuckle]
Brett Mckay: Yeah.
Russ Harris: And so if you come back to the idea of your mind beating you up, criticizing you, telling you the not good enough story, usually your mind’s trying to help you change your behavior, it’s telling you to shape up or it’s warning you about what might happen if you keep on doing these things, how you might get into trouble, maybe it’s trying to save you from failure or save you from rejection, but mostly it’s trying to just help you shape up and do things better when it starts beating you up. If we take other common patterns of negative thinking like worrying, and predicting the worst, and catastrophizing, again, this is your mind warning you of potential dangers, potential threats, it’s trying to help prepare you for the worst, make sure that you’re as well prepared as you can be, it’s trying to keep you safe and avoid you getting hurt. So if we look at pretty much any negative cognitive process, we’re gonna see that there’s always an underlying purpose, it’s always your mind trying to help you avoid something you don’t want or get something that you do want or both.
But it’s just going about it in a very clumsy way, and so we’ll be, “Ah, here’s my mind again, oh, here’s the not good enough story, I know this one. Oh okay, thanks mind. I know you’re trying to help and it’s okay, I’ve got this handled.” So now we’re not fighting with it, we’re not arguing with it, but nor are we buying into it, nor are we letting that thought dominate us and push us around.
Brett Mckay: We’re gonna take quick break for a word from our sponsors.
And now back to the show. And what’s weird about… This is really counter-intuitive, by simply just accepting the negative thought or emotions like, “Oh yeah, there’s that thought,” it diffuses things. What’s going on there? Has there been research done? Why just noticing it and accepting it just takes the heat off of things?
Russ Harris: Yeah, well look, it’s interesting because coming back to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and ACT are fellow travelers, and they actually do have a lot in common. And Steve Hayes, the guy who created ACT, was intrigued by the finding in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that improvement happened way before you got to the point where you start disputing or challenging negative thoughts. We noticed that at the first stage in CBT is that you just acknowledge the thoughts that are showing up and you non-judgmentally label them, say, “Ah, okay, there’s black and white thinking,” or, “There’s catastrophizing.” And clinical improvement started at that point, just the noticing and non-judgmental naming of cognition which in CBT is called cognitive distancing. And so Steve Hayes thought, “Well, what if instead of going on to challenge and dispute those thoughts, what if we went in distancing further, really helping people to step back and see their thoughts as nothing more or less than words or pictures?”
And when we can step back from our thoughts, then we’ve got a lot more choice about what we do with them. I often use the analogy that your mind is a lot like radio doom and gloom, it naturally broadcasts a lot of painful stuff from the past, a lot of fearful stuff about the future, and a lot of difficult stuff that’s going on in the present, that’s a normal human mind, and have you ever had the experience there was a radio playing on in the background and you were so absorbed in what you’re doing that you hardly even knew the radio was there?
Brett Mckay: Right, yeah.
Russ Harris: And then… Yeah, yeah. And then suddenly the song changed, one of your favorite songs was there, and you were singing along and you were very aware of it, and then the song changed and the radio faded into the background again. And this is what we’re trying to help people do in ACT, it’s like focus on… Do the meaningful things, live your values, engage in what you’re doing, really focus on it, and let your mind just chatter away in the background, broadcasting all the stuff that it normally does. If you mind’s broadcasting something useful and helpful that helps you to live your life, then by all means tune in and make use of that. But a lot of the time, a lot of the stuff on that radio is gonna be fairly unhelpful. It’s like what happens if you start arguing with a radio? [chuckle] Its like, what happens if you start trying to ignore a radio? The more you try to ignore it, the more it bothers you, or a loud voice in a restaurant or a lawnmower outside, the more you try to ignore something, the more it bothers you. So just learning how to let it be there, let it play on and take anything that’s useful that gets broadcast along the way.
Brett Mckay: And in the book, you lay out some different strategies or techniques people can use to unhook, we mentioned… Which is notice a name, which is just like, “Well, there I am thinking that I’m an idiot,” that can work for a lot of people, but what are some other ones that you have found useful with the people you’ve worked with?
Russ Harris: Yeah, well, I’m wondering, could I take the listeners through a very quick exercise right now?
Brett Mckay: Yeah, it’d be great.
Russ Harris: Okay, so if you’re listening to this, I hope you’re listening to this, bring to mind a negative thought that tends to hook you, a thought that when it shows up, it tends to jerk you around, pull you out of your life, pull you back, pull you into a dark space. If you’re struggling to come up with ideas, then just pick some version of the I’m not good enough story, everyone’s got multiple versions of I’m not good enough, whatever, it’s I’m fat or I’m stupid or I’m too old, or I’m not enough of this, or I’m too much of that. So bring to mind a nasty, negative, self-judgment and what I’ll ask you to do is just for the next few seconds, I’m gonna get you to buy into that thought, believe it as much as you can, get all consumed by it, so please don’t challenge it or don’t dispute it, I want you to do the very opposite, let it hook you, let it pull you in, and obviously you’ll feel a bit uncomfortable when you do that, so I hope you’re willing to feel a little bit uncomfortable to learn a useful new skill.
So maybe if we just give people about five seconds of silence just to bring this thought to mind and buy into it. I’m stupid or I’m not smart enough or I’m fat or I’m unworthy, or any other thought that really tends to hook you, buy into it now, really let it grab you. Really let it pull you in. Now, silently replay that thought with these words in front, “I am having the thought that.” “I’m having the thought that I’m stupid.” Now, replay it one more time with a longer phrase, “I noticed I’m having the thought that.” “I notice I’m having the thought that I’m a lousy parent.” So I hope you viewers did that. Brett, did you have a go at it?
Brett Mckay: I did have a go at it, yes.
Russ Harris: And what happened for you?
Brett Mckay: Well, it just reduced the… There’s a distance put into it, the phrase is… I just noticed myself becoming more distant from that initial thought basically.
Russ Harris: Yeah. So yeah, that’s the common experience, if any viewer didn’t have that experience, I just encourage you to try it again, pick a different thought perhaps and try it again. But that’s a very simple… The technical name for what we’re doing there, I think you mentioned it earlier, is cognitive diffusion. So cognitive fusion means we get hooked by our thoughts, they dominate us, they have huge power over us, whereas cognitive defusion means we separate or distance from our thoughts and we can see their true nature, we can see that they’re words or pictures or combinations thereof, and when we can see that, then we’ve got a lot more choice about what we do when those thoughts are present. Now, I must say, I have occasionally had a client react when I introduce this exercise to them. I remember one guy, he was massively overweight, morbidly obese guy, and I took him through that exercise and he said, “But it’s true, I really am fat,” and he pulled up his shirt to show me. I was like, “Oh well, thank you for sharing.” And it’s one of the things in ACT is we never, ever get into debates about whether these thoughts are true or false.
So I said to this guy… He’d been referred to me because he was suffering from major depression, and so I said to him, “Look, I know you’ve seen other therapists before me and you’ve tried debating whether your thoughts were true or false, was that helpful for you?” And he’s like, “No, ’cause I am fat.” And he had a very harsh inner critic, “I’m a loser. I’m killing myself by eating all of this. I’m disgusting, look at all of this fat,” and so really, really harsh, lots of harsh self-judgment. And so I said, “Well look, your mind is actually a lot like my mind. We all have minds that are very quick to judge us and criticize us and label us and tell us what’s not good enough about ourselves, and this is basically a normal human mind, and I don’t know how to stop your mind from speaking to you that way. I do know that debating whether your thoughts are true or false is not likely to have any impact at all, right?” So he’s nodding his head yes. And so it’s like our aim here is to learn a different way of responding to those thoughts so that when they show up, you can take the power and impact out of them, so they don’t have to jerk you around, because I said, “What normally happens when all of these self-critical thoughts pop up, what normally happens when you get hooked by them?” “Well,” he said, “Well, I’ll get depressed, mate.”
“Okay. And so then when you get depressed, what do you do?” “Well, I eat a load of shit, mate.” “Okay, so getting hooked by these thoughts isn’t really helping you.” And then remember the other part of the model is about values, so I said, “Let’s just put this unhooking stuff to one side for a moment, now, let’s have a look at your values,” and one of my favorite ways of getting people in touch with their values is I ask this question, if I could wave a magic wand so all these thoughts and feelings that you’re struggling with are like water off a duck’s back, they flow over you without jerking you around, then what would you do differently? How would you treat your body? How would you treat your friends? How would you treat your family? How would you treat your life differently? What would you start doing more of? What would you start doing? What would you stop doing or do less of? And so I asked this guy the same question, I said, “Let’s just have a look at how you treat your body. If I wave this magic wand, all these depressing thoughts and feelings lose their power, how would you treat your body differently?” And he said, “Well, I wouldn’t sit around all day just watching the telly.”
“Yeah, okay, so what would you do differently?” “Well, I might get up and exercise.” “Okay, so you’d be exercising more, you’d be moving more. What else would be different?” “Well, I wouldn’t eat so much shitty food.” “Okay, so you might be eating more healthy food.” “Yeah, yeah.” “Okay, so I’m gonna say there’s a very important value here that’s getting lost, I’m gonna call it self-care, and if you were in touch with this value of self-care, you’d be making different choices, you’d be eating differently, you be moving more, exercising more.” “Yeah.” “Okay, so when your mind comes in and it starts beating you up and telling you the not good enough story and telling you about I’m fat, I’m a loser and so forth, if you get hooked by those thoughts, does it help you to live that value of self-care?” “Nah.” “Okay, so there’s no question here about whether they’re true or false, it’s just a pragmatic choice. Getting hooked by these thoughts isn’t helping you to live your values, do the stuff that’s important, so let’s learn some unhooking skills here, and let’s not waste time debating whether things are true or false.” So it’s a massive paradigm shift for people this approach, but a very liberating one.
Brett Mckay: And I imagine this takes practice to do, its not some one and done thing, ’cause you’re probably… I think most people are probably just ingrained like if you have a negative emotion, you gotta fight it, squash it down and distract yourself, it’s gonna… When you first try this stuff, you’re not gonna be very good at it, but the more you do it, the better you’re gonna get at it.
Russ Harris: Yeah, that’s a great summary, yeah. Basically, we’re talking about a whole new set of skills in this approach, and like any new skill, it requires practice. And as you said, these things are counter-intuitive, they go against the grain, they’re not our default. It’s so unusual for us to learn how to let these thoughts and feelings be there and just take the power out of them rather than fighting with them or running from them.
Brett Mckay: Related to this idea of unhooking ourselves from emotions, let’s say you’re experiencing a really strong emotion like I’m just… Just big, severe… Just anxiety or depression or just this rumination, you talk about you need to make room for that. Again, that’s counter-intuitive ’cause you think well, I’m feeling those things, I want those to go away, why would I make room for it? What do you mean by making room for difficult emotions?
Russ Harris: Well, I think I often talk about this idea, there’s like a struggle switch at the back of your mind, and as soon as a difficult emotion shows up, the struggle switch goes on and you start to struggle with it, so let’s suppose anxiety shows up, the struggle switch goes on. “Oh no, here’s anxiety, I don’t like anxiety. I wish this anxiety was gone.” Wow, now you’ve got anxiety about your anxiety, suddenly it’s getting bigger. “Oh, oh, now anxiety’s getting big, how do I get rid of that anxiety? This anxiety’s really terrible.” Now you’ve got another layer of anxiety, you’ve got anxiety about your anxiety about your anxiety. So the struggle switch amplifies your emotions, makes them bigger. You may then get angry about your anxiety. “Why does this keep happening to me?” Then you may start to feel guilty, “Oh, there’s starving kids in Africa, what have I got to complain about?” Now you’ve got guilt about your anger about your anxiety about your anxiety about your anxiety. So the struggle switch massively amplifies your emotions, makes them bigger, stronger, stickier, they hang around for a lot longer. So what we learn to do is how to switch off our struggle switch, so anxiety shows up and it’s not that I like it or want it or approve of it, it’s an unpleasant emotion, but I’m just not gonna struggle with it.
I’m just gonna let the anxiety be there, I’ll notice this tightness in my chest and knots in my stomach, and I’ll notice radio doom and gloom in my head is broadcasting a lot of scary stories, and I’ll just allow that anxiety to flow through me, I’ll just let it come and stay and go, not fighting it, not struggling with it, and what happens is I find that the anxiety is then free to move. It may get higher if it’s a very challenging situation, it may get lower, it may move on quickly, it may move on slowly, but the point is it’s free to move and it doesn’t get amplified and stuck as when the struggle switches on.
So there’s a number of different skills in the book that teach people how to switch off this struggle switch, and when you learn how to do that, how to just turn towards your emotions with openness and curiosity and notice what they’re like in your body and breathe into them and make room for them, it’s so much easier to have them. Without these skills, these emotions are always gonna seem awful and unbearable and your default is always gonna be to fall back into the struggle strategies.
So when I talk about opening up, that’s just a metaphorical way of speaking, really, people have to learn these skills that are all about tuning into their body with openness and curiosity and noticing the different layers of the emotion and learning how to let that struggle dissipate. And the research on this again is very powerful, there’s so many… I mean there’s over 3000 published studies on the ACT approach with over 1000 randomized control trials, which is the gold standard of research, and what we see is people with anxiety disorders, as they learn how to open up and drop the struggle with anxiety and let it flow through, and what we see is that their symptoms of go down and down and down and down and down. But not from doing the common sense things, not from trying to control the anxiety, not from trying to push it away, not from trying to challenge the anxious thoughts or squish the anxious feelings or replace them with relaxation feelings, it’s not from any of that, it’s from just learning this new way of opening up and letting it flow through you, so it is paradoxical stuff.
Brett Mckay: So yeah, if you’re angry, the thing would be like hey, just notice I am feeling angry, and then just letting it be angry and then just getting curious about your anger, thinking like, “Well, where am I feeling my anger? What urges do I have now that I’m angry?” You’re being curious about the emotion you’re having, and what this does counter-intuitively, it diffuses the emotion.
Russ Harris: Yeah, absolutely. And then again, looking at what angry thoughts is my mind generating and if I go along with those in obey mode, if I obey those angry thoughts, where’s that gonna take me? It’s not gonna take me towards the life that I want to live or away from the life that I want to build, so then bringing in your unhooking skills to unhook from the angry thoughts while at the same time, using your opening up skills to let the angry feelings be there in your body. And what happens as you do that, is you massively reduce the impact of those thoughts and feelings, which then gives you a lot more control over your physical actions, so this is the committed action part of the model. Instead of letting my anger control what I do, I come back to my values and I use those to guide my actions and do things that are meaningful, important or life enhancing. So once I’ve learned how to do this, I can feel angry but act calmly, I can say in a calm voice, “I’m feeling furious right now,” and that’s gonna have a very different effect than if I start shouting and yelling while doing all the typical things we do when anger is just jerking us around all over the place.
Brett Mckay: And again, this is a skill that takes practice, it’s not gonna be a week, it might take months, years to practice this thing.
Russ Harris: Oh, look, you can always get better at it, but there’s lots of good research showing that people can get benefits say even within 10 weeks of regular practice of this stuff, so it’s not a miracle cure or anything. As you keep saying, and I’m glad you do, it needs practice, practice, practice, but at the same time, if you do practise it and embrace it, you can get some pretty effective results in a short space of time.
Brett Mckay: So we’ve been talking a lot about unhooking ourselves from these negative emotions, but as you said, ACT isn’t just about that, isn’t just about stopping the struggle with anxiety or anger, whatever, it’s about committing yourself to living a meaningful life, doing proactive positive things so you can live the life you want, and that requires knowing what your values are, so you walk people through how to figure out what’s important to them, that’s an important part of ACT. Let’s say someone’s done that, they figure out, “Okay, I want to live a healthy life,” and they list out of tasks that they wanna do, those are intentions we have, we all have good intentions, sometimes stuff gets in the way of those intentions, how can ACT help us to live up to our values when things get hard?
Russ Harris: No matter how good you get at doing this stuff, there will be times where you just don’t live up to your values, where you do get hooked by your thoughts and feelings and pulled into self-defeating patterns of behavior, and when that happens, boy does it hurt, so we don’t wanna fall back into beating ourselves up, we wanna acknowledge it hurts and be there in a kind, caring way for ourself. However, we can get a lot better at living by our values, so there’s all sorts of little ways to bring them into your everyday life, you could start your day, each day by thinking of two or three values that you just wanna sprinkle into the day ahead, maybe loving and caring, playful, for example, and then you go through your day and look for little opportunities to be loving or caring or playful.
When we start translating our values into goals and action plans, it can be very useful to write those down, what are my goals, what are my actions, and to really tune into the values underlying them and to recognize that even if I don’t achieve this particular goal, there still 1000 other ways that I can live the value underneath it. If the value is being loving, there’s thousands of ways that I can translate that into different goals and actions. Life will often get in the way of one particular goal, but doesn’t mean we have to give up on the value of being loving or being kind or being playful or whatever value it is that we’re choosing to bring more into our life for that day.
And then another part of this is, is predicting how your mind and your body is gonna make this hard for you, what’s your mind likely to say to try and talk you out of this and what unhooking skill are you gonna use to take the power and impact out of that when your mind says it, and what uncomfortable feelings are likely to show up? When we really start living a values-based life, that means we face up to our challenges, we face up to our difficulties. It’s not a… Going back to the start of the interview, when we live a meaningful life, it’s not a life that’s just full of pleasant, enjoyable feelings, a meaningful life asks more of us, asks us to step up to our challenges and do the uncomfortable, difficult stuff. And so of course, difficult feelings and emotions are gonna arise, and that’s when we want to use our opening up skills to open up and let those feelings be there and let them flow through us.
Brett Mckay: That idea of when you set a goal and it doesn’t work out the way you’d hope, everyone experiences that, and I like the idea where ACT recognizes that just as your emotions aren’t in your complete control, you have to give up on that, just accept you’re gonna have these bad emotions, you also have to accept that outcomes that you have in life aren’t under your complete control, and the only control you have is just trying to live up to your values like you said. Even if you set a goal to, I don’t know, lose 20 pounds, maybe you don’t lose 20 pounds in the time you set, but you did in the process, every day try to live a healthy life in taking walks, watching what you eat and that’s a success.
Russ Harris: Yeah, absolutely. So let’s suppose the value is self-care, the goal is to lose a certain amount of weight, well, if you’re living the value of self-care through exercising and through eating well and so forth, even if you don’t achieve the particular weight loss you want, you’re improving your health and you’re improving your day-to-day quality of life through being self-caring. So yeah, we’ve all experienced that, that we don’t follow through on our goals, and we’ve all experienced how disappointing that can be, but that doesn’t mean we give up on our values.
And the goal-focused life is a life of misery, it’s always about achieving the goal, achieve, achieve, achieve and then if you do achieve the goal, a brief glimmer of some happy feelings, and then there’s the next goal and the next one. Whereas the values-focused life, we get to appreciate living our values from moment to moment, from day-to day. So we still set goals, they’re useful for motivation, but it’s about living those values, and if we embrace this concept, we can have instant success. If my aim is to live the value of being loving, I can do that right now and I don’t have to wait until the day I’ve achieved a particular goal. If I wanna live the value of being playful, I can do that right now, I don’t have to wait until the day that I achieve whatever goal it is I’ve set around being playful and so forth. So again, it’s very liberating, [chuckle] and then the goal-focused life can be very constraining.
Brett Mckay: Well, Russ, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Russ Harris: Well, so the Happiness Trap… And very importantly, that folks check that you’re getting the second edition, I rewrote it recently, this has got about 50% new material compared to the first edition, so just check. Second Edition is available in all good bookstores and even in some of the bad bookstores and my website, thehappinesstrap.com, there’s more information there.
Brett Mckay: Fantastic. Well, Russ Harris, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Russ Harris: Thank you so much, it was a pleasure for me too.
Brett Mckay: My guest today was Russ Harris, he’s the author of the book The Happiness Trap, it’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, thehappinesstrap.com, also check out our show notes at aom.is/happinesstrap, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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