By Laxmi Venkat
The Happiness Trap
By Dr Russ Harris and Bev Aisbett
PAN ( Pan Macmillan India)
INR 199; 158 pages
The title is intriguing enough to warrant a second look. And then one realises that this is no regular book. It is in fact a manual that guides you patiently through certain misconceptions about happiness that you may have harboured all your life.
The book is actually an illustrated, simplified version of the original publication, The Happiness Trap, based on the principles of ACT, or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a mindfulness-based model developed by researchers of behavioural psychology.
For regular book readers, this kind of blurb-ridden work with cartoonish illustrations may be a little distracting. But slowly the reader is drawn into the exercises and begins to be engaged. In fact, the authors recommend that the exercises should be practised.
The book starts by defining happiness, and then by laying out the myths that surround it. One, that happiness is the natural state for all human beings. Two, that you are defective if you aren’t happy. Three, that it is imperative to get rid of all negative feelings. Four, that one should be able to control what one thinks and feels. These myths are the foundation for most of our struggles, and they lead us into what the author calls the “happiness trap”, a vicious cycle where we try to escape from unpleasant thoughts and feelings by seeking refuge in a supposedly “happy place”, which is most often built from temporary or even toxic things, and this in turn leads us to more of the same unpleasant thoughts and feelings.
The authors go on now to explain the two cardinal principles on which ACT is based, namely “mindfulness” and “values”. Mindfulness involves three skills, defusion, expansion and connection. “Defusion” is when we observe our thoughts and not allow ourselves to “fuse” with them. “Expansion” is making room for painful thoughts and allowing them to flow through us without getting swept away. “Connection” is to live completely in the present.
In the next few chapters, we are taught how we can acquire these three skills. And the teaching happens through simple little exercises that almost anyone can comprehend and try out. After every chapter on each of these three skills we are also taught to troubleshoot these skills, thus reinforcing the lessons through multiple sets of exercises.
The author then moves on to make us examine our “values”, which they define as “our heart’s deepest desires for how we want to behave, what we stand for in life and how we want to treat ourselves, others and the world around us”. They then make the distinction between “values” and “goals”, wherein a value is an ongoing process, whereas a goal is like an item on a checklist, to be achieved and then ticked off the list. Here again, the reader is asked to express various wishes, and examine whether they are values or goals.
The book then goes on to give a list of 40 values, and asks the reader to rank them in order of how important they are to him or her. The reader is then asked to “act” on these values, one lot at a time, by deciding which goals are immediate, and which can happen later.
And by the end of the book, it dawns on the reader that he or she has been brought to where a rich, full and meaningful life suddenly seems possible. Which is really what happiness should be all about.
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