The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT


defuse methods = acceptance

  • thoughts (defuse)
    1. I’m having the thought that ____
    2. sing with thoughts as lyrics
    3. Thank you, mind!
    4. voice over thoughts
    5. deep breaths
  • images (defuse)
    1. television
    2. television screen + voice-overs
    3. television screen + subtitles
    4. Method 4: television screen + background music
    5. shift locations
    6. change genres
  • feeling

    1. expansion
    2. acceptance imagery
  • impulsion

    • expansion
  • self-esteem
    • let go

Title: The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT
Authors: Russ Harris
Edition: 1
Finished Date: 2019-04-25
Rating: 5
Language: English
Genres: Psychology
Level: Entry
Publishers: Trumpeter
Publication Date: 2008-06-03
ISBN: 978-1590305843
Format: ePub, Pdf
Pages: 240
Download: ePub Pdf

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

main goals

  1. to effectively handle painful thoughts and feelings => save energy/willpower and time
  2. to create a rich, full and meaningful life


  1. Is this thought helpful? Does it help me take action to create the life I want?

    • Yes: pay attention
    • No: defuse it
  2. methods above
  3. action

questions to decide whether the thoughts are helpful

  • Does it help me to be the person I want to be?
  • Does it help me to build the sort of relationships I’d like?
  • Does it help me to connect with what I truly value?
  • Does it help me to make the most of my life as it is in this moment?
  • Does it help me to take effective action to change my life for the better?
  • Does it help me, in a long run, to create a rich, full and meaningful life?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then the thought is helpful.

If the answer to all of them is no, then it’s not helpful.

Myth: You should be able to control what you think and feel

The overwhelming majority of self-help programs subscribe to the myth.

For example

  • identify negative thoughts and replace them with more positive ones
  • encourage the repetition of positive affirmations such as,
    • ‘Everything that happens is for my highest good and greatest joy’
    • ‘I am strong, able and capable at all times’.
  • encourage you to visualize what you want, to vividly imagine yourself the way you want to be, living the life you dream of.

The basic theme of all these approaches is this: if you challenge your negative thoughts or images and, instead, repeatedly fill your head with positive thoughts and images, you will find happiness.

common control strategies

flight strategies explanation example fight strategies explanation
hiding/escaping hide away or escape from situations or activities that might bring up uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. drop out of a course
avoid going to a social function
suppression suppress unwanted thoughts and feelings
distraction distract from thoughts and feelings by focusing on something else smoke a cigarette
go shopping
spend all night watching television
arguing argue back
zoning out/numbing make self numb medication
taking charge take charge of thoughts and feelings. example
‘Snap out of it!’
‘Stay calm’
Cheer up!

appropriate way with control

  • You use them in moderation
  • You use them only in situations where they can work
  • using them doesn’t stop you from doing the things you value.

the problem with control

  • You use them excessively.
  • You use them in situations where they can’t work
  • using them stops you from doing the things you truly value.

viscous circle: control => more unpleasant feelings => more attempts to control

How much control do we actually have?

The degree of control we have over our thoughts and feelings depends largely on how intense they are—the less intense the feelings, the more we can control them.

For instance

  • If we’re just dealing with the typical everyday stresses, a simple relaxation technique can make us feel calmer right away.
  • However, the more troubling our thoughts and feelings are, the less effective our attempts at control will be.
  • If you’re terrified, no relaxation technique known to humanity will calm you.

because many of the things we avoid are not that important, and because many of our negative thoughts and feelings are not that intense, we find that our control strategies can often make us feel better—at least for a little while. 不良coping routine形成的方法

3 significant costs

  1. They take up a lot of time and energy and are usually ineffective in the long run.
  2. We feel silly, defective, or weak-minded because the thoughts/feelings we’re trying to get rid of keep coming back.
  3. Many strategies that decrease unpleasant feelings in the short-term actually lower our quality of life over the long term.

list old coping routines

  1. list thoughts/feeling that you want to get rid of

    The thoughts/feelings I’d like to get rid of are ___

  2. go through list and for each item, answer questions

    1. Did it get rid of my painful thoughts and feelings in the long term?
    2. What did it cost me in time, energy, money and health and vitality?
    3. Did it bring me closer to a rich, full and meaningful life?

You will find:

  1. You have put a lot of time and effort into trying to change, get rid of or escape from unpleasant thoughts and feelings
  2. Most of the control strategies you have tried have not lessened your painful thoughts and feelings in the long term.
  3. Many of these control strategies have taken a toll.
  4. Many of these control strategies have actually taken you further away from the life you like.

6 core principles of ACT

Principle 1: defusion

defusion: relate to your thoughts in a new way, so they have much less impact and influence over you

Principle 2: Expansion

expansion: make room for unpleasant feelings, sensations and urges, instead of trying to suppress them or push them away.

Principle 3: connection

connection: living in the present

Principle 4: the observing self

Principle 5: values

Clarifying and connecting values with actions

things in mind

  • thoughts = words inside our heads
  • images = pictures inside our heads
  • sensations = feeling inside bodies


Most of thoughts are neither true or false.

how we see life

  • opinions
  • attitudes
  • judgments
  • ideals
  • beliefs
  • theories
  • morals

what we want to do with it

  • plans
  • strategies
  • goals
  • wishes
  • values

Focus on whether the thoughts are helpful or not and whether they help us create the life we want, not focus on whether they are true of false.

cognitive fusion

cognitive: a product of the mind, such as thought, image or memory

fusion: a blending or melding together

cognitive fusion: the thought and the thing it refers to become blended

cognitive defusion:

cognitive fusion explain cognitive defusion
Thoughts are reality as if what we’re thinking was actually happening. Thoughts are merely sounds, words, stories or bits of language.
Thoughts are the truth we completely believe them. Thoughts may or may not be true; we don’t automatically believe them.
Thoughts are important we take them seriously and give them our full attention. Thoughts may or may not be important; we pay attention only if they’re helpful.
Thoughts are orders we automatically obey them. Thoughts are definitely not orders; we certainly don’t have to obey them.
Thoughts are wise we assume they know best and we follow their advice. Thoughts may or may not be wise; we don’t automatically follow their advice.
Thoughts can be threats some thoughts can be deeply disturbing or frightening. Thoughts are never threats; even the most negative of thoughts is not deeply disturbing or frightening.

cognitive defusion: acceptance strategy, i.e., the opposite of a control strategy

acceptance: take what is offered. It doesn’t mean giving up or admitting defeat.

You don’t have to like a thought in order to accept it.

When practicing defusion, it’s important to keep the following things in mind:

  • The aim of defusion is not to get rid of unpleasant thoughts, but rather to see them for what they are —just words—and to let go of struggling with them.

  • Don’t expect these techniques to make you feel good. Often when you defuse a troublesome thought, you will feel better. But this is just a beneficial byproduct, not the main goal.

The main goal of defusion is to free you from the tyranny of your mind, so you can focus your attention on more important things. So when defusion does make you feel better, by all means enjoy it. But don’t expect it. And don’t start using it to try to control how you feel; otherwise, you’re stuck right back in the happiness trap.

method 1: I’m having the thought that ____

method 2: sing with thoughts as lyrics

take the thought and sing it to yourself to the tune of any song.

after singing

  • You did not take the thought seriously
  • You did not challenge the thought
  • You did not get rid of it
  • You did not debate it
  • You did not replace it with a positive thoughts

method 3: Thank you, mind!

method 4: voice over thoughts

method 5: deep breaths

by regularly practicing deep breaths, learn 3 skills

  1. How to let thoughts come and go without focusing on them.
  2. How to recognize when you’ve been hooked by your thoughts.
  3. How to gently unhook yourself from thoughts and refocus your attention.

When practicing this technique, notice the distinction between your thinking self and your observing self.

The observing self focuses on the breath, while the thinking self chatters away in the background.

When relaxation occurs, remember, it’s merely a beneficial byproduct, not the main aim.


  1. Aren’t positive thoughts better than negative thoughts?

    Not necessarily. Remember, the most important question is: ‘Is this thought helpful?’ ”

  2. Should you believe any of your thoughts?

    Yes, but only if they’re helpful—and hold those beliefs lightly.

thinking self & observing self

thinking self: the part of you that thinks, plans, judges, compares, creates, imagines, visualizes, analyses, remembers, day dreams, and fantasies.

observing self: doesn’t think; it is the part of you that is responsible for focus, attention and awareness. It can observe or pay attention to thoughts, but it can’t produce them.

mind in this book: the thinking self

attention, awareness, observing, noticing, direct experience: various aspects of the observing self

goals of defusion skills

  • If the thinking self is broadcasting something unhelpful, the observing self need not pay attention. The observing self can instead focus its attention on what you are doing here and now.
  • If the thinking self is broadcasting something useful or helpful, then the observing self can tune in and pay attention.


cognitive fusion cognitive defusion
take these images seriously recognize that images are nothing more than pictures
give them all our attention pay attention to them only if they are helpful.
react to them as if they are actually happening
treat them as if they are an accurate prediction of the future.

Defusion techniques help us to see these images for what they are: nothing more than colorful pictures.

Acceptance means we no longer waste our precious energy on struggling with them. And ultimately, acceptance means we can focus on something more constructive.

Method 1: television screen

  1. imagine there’s a small television screen across the room
  2. Place your image on the television screen.
  3. Play around with the image:

    • flip it upside down
    • turn it on its side
    • spin it around and around
    • stre-e-e-etch it sideways
    • If it’s a moving ‘video clip’, play it in slow motion.
    • play it backwards in slow motion.
    • play it forwards at double speed
    • reverse it at double speed.
    • Turn the color down, so it’s all in black-and-white.
    • Turn the color and brightness up until it’s ridiculously lurid (so the people have bright orange skin and the clouds are hot pink).

The idea is not to get rid of this image but to see it for what it is: a harmless picture.

Method 2: television screen + voice-overs

Method 3: television screen + subtitles

Method 4: television screen + background music

  • jazz
  • hip-hop
  • classical
  • rock

Method 5: television screen + shift locations

Visualize this image in a variety of different locations. Stay with each scenario for twenty-seconds before shifting to a new one.

  • Visualize your image on the T-shirt of a jogger or a rock star.
  • Visualize it painted on a canvas, or on a banner, flying behind an airplane.
  • Visualize it as a bumper sticker, as a magazine photo, or as a tattoo on someone’s back.
  • Visualize it as a ‘pop-up’ on a computer screen or as a poster in a teenager’s bedroom.
  • Visualize it as the image on a postage stamp or as a drawing in a comic book.

Use your imagination with this; the sky’s the limit.

Method 5: television screen + change genres

  1. convert the image into a short ‘video clip’
  2. visualize it on a television screen
  3. different film genres

    • gangster
    • Western
    • soap opera
    • sci-fi thriller
    • Disney cartoon
    • musical

Keep the basic story exactly the same. Play it over and over in different genres until you can truly see that this is just a moving picture and nothing more.


The more we try to fight feelings, the more they smother us.

Method 1: expansion

expand: to increase in extent, size, volume, scope; to spread, unfold or develop. making room for feelings. If we give unpleasant feelings enough space, they no longer stretch us

  1. use defusion strategy deal with unhelpful thoughts about feelings
  2. what you need to do is have a direct experience of them, to connect with them directly via your observing self, rather than automatically believing the stories of your thinking self.

awareness of the body: the noticing of the different sensations, urges, movements and positions using observing self.

Let your thoughts come and go in the background, and keep your attention focused on your emotions. And remember:

  • The essence of an emotion is a set of physical changes in the body.
  • We primarily notice these changes as physical sensations.

3 steps

  1. observe your feelings

    observe: bring awareness to the sensations of the body.

    1. notice several uncomfortable sensations
    2. choose a place
    3. observe it carefully

      • where it starts and where it ends
      • draw a line around the sensation
      • what would it look like
      • Is it on the surface of the body or inside you or both?
      • How far inside you does it go?
      • Where is it the most intense?
      • Where is it the weakest?
      • How is it different in the centre from around the edges?
      • Is there any pulsing or vibration within it?
      • Is it light or heavy?
      • Still or in motion?
      • Warm or cool
  2. breathe into feelings

    breathe: you breathe into and around the sensation, as if making extra space for it. begin with a few deep breaths

  3. allow feelings to come and go

    allow: allow the sensation to be there, even though you don’t like it or want it. In other words, you “let it be”

You may need to focus on this sensation for anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, until you completely give up the struggle with it. Be patient; take as long as you need. You’re learning a valuable skill. Once you’ve done this, scan your body again and see if there’s another sensation that’s bothering you. If so, repeat the procedure with this one, too. You can do this with as many different sensations as necessary. Keep going until you have a sense of no longer struggling with your feelings. As you practice this technique one of two things will happen: either your feelings will change or they won’t. It doesn’t matter either way, because this technique is not about changing your feelings—it’s about accepting them.


  • Okay. I’ve accepted my feelings. Now what?

    A: Having accepted your emotions, choose an area of your life that is important to you and take effective action in line with your values.

  • Q: Why do you keep coming back to actions and values?

A: Actions are important because, unlike your thoughts and feelings, you can have direct control over them. Values are important because they can guide you and motivate you through situations where your feelings might lead you off course. Acting in accordance with your own deepest values is inherently satisfying and fulfilling—even though it often forces you to face your fears.

Pleasant feelings such as satisfaction, joy and love are natural byproducts of living by your values. But they aren’t the only ones. Other byproducts include uncomfortable emotions such as fear, sadness, anger, frustration and disappointment. You can’t have just the pleasant feelings without all the others. That’s why it’s important to learn how to accept all your feelings—pleasant, neutral and unpleasant.

Remember: we’re always talking about a twofold process: acceptance and action. So accepting these bodily reactions is the first step. Then, if something effective can be done about them, by all means do so. And if there is no effective remedy, acceptance is your best option.

Method 2: acceptance imagery

  1. scan your body and pick the sensation that bothers you the most.
  2. Observe it the way a curious scientist might.
  3. visualize that sensation as an object.

    • What is the size and shape of it?
    • Is it liquid, solid or gaseous?
    • Is it transparent or opaque?
    • What color is it?
    • Does the color vary?
    • What is its temperature?
    • Is it light, heavy or weightless?
    • How does the surface feel to the touch: rough, smooth, wet, dry, sticky, spiky, hot, cold? Is there any sound associated with it?
    • Is there any vibration, pulsation or movement within it? Is its position fixed or shifting?
  4. Take a few slow, deep breaths. Breathe into and around this object. Make some room for it.

    If it changes by itself, that’s okay. If it doesn’t change, that’s okay, too. The aim is to accept it, not get rid of it.

Repeat this with as many other sensations as you need to, until you have a sense of no longer struggling with these feelings.

  1. Isn’t it unhealthy to keep focusing on unpleasant feelings?

    A: I ask you to focus on unpleasant feelings only so you can develop better acceptance skills. In everyday life, focusing too much on your feelings will just create problems; it will distract your attention from more important things. The ultimate aim of all this practice is:

    • to be aware of your feelings but not preoccupied with them

    • to accept them fully and allow them to come and go

    • to focus on them if and when they’re helpful
    • otherwise, to keep your focus on doing what you value.


When uncomfortable emotions arise, we often feel strong impulsion to use control strategies.

your impulsion affect certain parts of your body far more than others—it all depends on which part of your body is preparing for action.

If you pay attention to your body, you can feel these ‘preparations’ taking place.

once you are aware of a strong urge, you need to ask yourself:


  1. notice it
  2. check with values

    • If I act on this impulsion, will I be acting like the person I want to be?
    • Will it help take my life in the direction I want to go?

      If yes, use impulsion to guide you

  3. If no

    1. Observe where in your body you feel the urge most strongly.
    2. Acknowledge, ‘I’m having the urge to … X, Y, Z.’
    3. Just watch it rise and watch it fall.

      Don’t try to suppress it or get rid of it.

    4. Breathe into it; make room for it.
    5. When your mind starts judging or criticizing this urge or telling you other unhelpful stories (such as ‘You can’t handle it’), just allow those thoughts to come and go without focusing on them.

      Some urges rise and fall rapidly; others linger. Allow your urge to rise and fall in its own sweet time.
      You may find it helpful to score the urge on a scale of 1 to 10. For example, ‘I’m having the urge to smoke and it’s a 7.’
      No matter how huge that urge gets, you have room for it. And eventually it will crest and then it will subside.

  1. Vague sensations that tell you your body is preparing for action.
  2. Associated thoughts and images about the sort of action you want to take.


  • If your self-esteem is low, you feel miserable
  • But if it’s high, you’re constantly straining to maintain it.


  • *Q: Don’t I need high self-esteem in order to create a rich and meaningful life?

    A: No, you don’t. All you need to do is connect with your values and act accordingly.

  • Doesn’t high self-esteem make that easier to do?

    A: Sometimes it does, but all too often it doesn’t.

  • Q: Why not?

    A: Because continually trying to maintain that high self-esteem can actually pull you away from what you value. Remember Michelle, working late at the office to improve her sense of worthiness, but missing out on spending time with her family? High self-esteem may give you some pleasant feelings in the short term, but in the long run, trying to maintain it will probably exhaust you. Because of the way the human mind has evolved, the ‘not good enough’ story will always return in one form or another. Do you want to spend the rest of your life battling it? Why bother when you can have a fulfilling life without exerting all that effort?

  • Q: But aren’t people with high self-esteem happier?

    A: Not necessarily. Having high self-esteem can create all sorts of problems for people. It can easily lead to arrogance, righteousness, selfishness, egotism, narcissism or a false sense of superiority. The sort of happiness we’re talking about in this book—leading a rich, full and meaningful life—doesn’t depend on self-esteem in the slightest.

  • Q: So what are you suggesting as an alternative?

    A: Don’t try to prove yourself. Don’t try to think of yourself as a ‘good person’.

Don’t try to justify your self-worth. Whatever judgements your thinking self makes of you, just see them for what they are and let them go.

And at the same time take action in line with your values. Enhance your life by acting on what is meaningful.

And when you slip up and stray off course from those values—which I guarantee you will do over and over again—then don’t buy into all those harsh self-judgements. Let those negative judgements come and go. Instead, accept that it has happened and that there’s no going back. Then connect with where you are and what you’re doing; choose a valued direction and take action.

If you step out of the battle to win self-esteem, then what you are left with is…