I read The Happiness Trap by Dr Russ Harris earlier this year, and it made such an impact on me that I’ve re-read it in the last month.
Based on the psychology of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), the book is centred on dispelling the widely sought after goal of chasing a constant state of happiness. It also addresses the belief that negative thoughts get in the way of happiness and need to be eliminated or controlled.
As the name suggests, ACT teaches us how to stop struggling with negativity and accept negative thoughts as part of the complexity of our minds.
Here are some revelations I had while reading the book, and strategies you can use yourself.
1. Your thoughts are not the truth
I literally shrieked this across the room to my husband when I read this (the things he puts up with…). The passage reads:
Thoughts are merely sounds, words, stories or bits of language. Thoughts may or may not be true; we don’t automatically believe them. Thoughts may or may not be important; we pay attention only if they’re helpful. Thoughts are definitely not orders; we certainly don’t have to obey them. Thoughts may or may not be wise; we don’t automatically follow their advice.
I think this struck a chord with me as I’d never really not trusted my own thoughts, even when I knew they might not be right. It felt great to acknowledge they are not the absolute truth and I don’t have to always believe or follow them.
2. Distance yourself from the thought
Dr Harris talks a lot about the ‘observing self’ throughout the book and I’ve found this one of the easiest strategies to implement.
When you’re in a negativity spiral take a step back and observe the thought from afar.
So rather than “I’m hopeless at XYZ” turn the thought into “I’m having the thought that I am hopeless at XYZ”.
It gives the thought less power and lets you view it in a more detached way.
3. Name regular negative stories (or give them silly voices)
Identify your mind’s favourite stories, then give them names, such as the ‘loser!’ story, or the ‘my life sucks!’ story, or the ‘I can’t do it!’ story.
Again, in the spirit of detachment (or cognitive defusion as it’s known), this is a good device for thoughts that come up again and again. Rather than following them down the rabbit hole, name the story. “Oh yes, the ‘I’m lazy’ story is back, I remember this one”.
Dr Harris also suggests giving your negative thoughts a silly celebrity or character’s voice.
When I use this one I put the thoughts to Eddie Murphy’s voice circa Delirious or Raw in the 1980s, and I literally cannot take them seriously anymore.
4. Make room for negative thoughts
The book goes into this in far more depth, but the purpose of this insight is not to fight the thoughts (as clearly that rarely works and they always come back).
Rather than denying the thoughts, acknowledge they are there and although you don’t like the feeling, make room for it. It will likely come and go if you accept it.
Basically, expansion means making room for our feelings. If we give unpleasant feelings enough space, they no longer stretch us or strain us.
5. Ask yourself these questions
Lastly, although there are many questions you can ask yourself when in a negative thought spiral, my two favourites are:
- Is the thought useful or helpful?
- Does it help me be the person I want to be?
If the answer is no (and let’s be honest, it usually is), I make room for the thought, give it the Eddie Murphy treatment and can often move on with my day.
Have you read The Happiness Trap? What strategies do you use to help work through negative thinking?