03 Sep Is the pursuit of happiness making us miserable?
I don’t necessarily agree with everying in this happiness related article but in the interests of offering you different approaches to consider, I thought I’d post it anyway. I look forward to reading some comments!
Happy to be unhappy
August 31, 2007 12:00am
THE pursuit of happiness is making us miserable, a Melbourne therapist warns.
Dr Russ Harris said Western society was not only looking for happiness in all the wrong places but was chasing a false ideal.
The GP and psychotherapist said the Western world was trapped in the mistaken belief that positive thinking lit the path to happiness.
But he said the human mind was not designed to think positively and forcing it to do so was fuelling an epidemic of misery.
Dr Harris, author of a new book called The Happiness Trap, said the mind had evolved to think negatively as a kind of warning system, processing all conceivable threats to ensure survival.
“As a consequence, today you’ve got a mind that will pull you into scary scenarios about the future, will tell you ways in which you’re not equipped to handle it, will compare you to other people who are maybe better equipped,” he said.
“You’ve got a mind that will inherently automatically think negatively.
“But all the positive thinking in the world is not going to undo a hundred thousand years of evolution.”
UK-born Dr Harris, who migrated to Australia in 1991, said rather than finding happiness, people who tried to suppress or replace negative thoughts with positive ones found themselves in a constant struggle with their own human nature.
The key was learning to accept life’s pitfalls, challenges and disappointments and all the negative thoughts they generated, he said.
Dr Harris said a new therapy, known as acceptance and commitment therapy, was helping achieve just this.
Based on the ancient eastern practice of mindfulness, which promotes a deep mental state of awareness, openness and focus, ACT aims to help people deal with difficult and painful thoughts and feelings.
While mindfulness has been taught for thousands of years in disciplines like yoga, meditation and martial arts, Dr Harris said ACT’s simple techniques could be learned in just minutes.
“What you can do is learn to see negative thoughts for what they are: just words popping up in your head,” he said. ‘You don’t have to try to
get rid of them, you don’t have to try to struggle with them, or suppress them or replace them.
“Instead you learn how to allow them to be there without a fight.
“You massively reduce their impact and their influence so there’s no need to get rid of them.”
But Dr Harris said the way people pursued happiness was not the only stumbling block. They also needed to revise their definition of happiness, which was commonly thought to mean feeling good.
“Common ideas and beliefs about happiness are misleading and inaccurate, and actually contribute to the epidemic of depression and anxiety,” he said.
“Many of the most meaningful things you can do in life bring a whole range of feelings.
“Having kids, for example, brings the most wonderful feelings of love and joy, but also brings frustration, anxiety, fatigue and anger.
“As long as you are fixed on the popular idea that happiness is the same as feeling good, you are going to be struggling with reality.”
Dr Harris said ACT taught a definition of happiness as “living a rich, full and meaningful life, while experiencing the full range of human emotions”.
While it might sound new-age and touchy-feely, there is a growing body of scientific evidence of the benefit of ACT on a range of conditions, including depression, stress, obsessive compulsive disorder, chronic pain, anxiety and addictions.
A 2002 US study produced one of the most stunning results, with hospital re-admissions of schizophrenic patients treated with just four hours of ACT halving over the next six months.
Dr Harris said a person did not have to have a clinical condition to benefit, with everyday life throwing up many challenges.
“Whether it’s a confidence issue, whether it’s facing illness, whether it’s high stress, or whether it’s a recognised disorder, you are always faced with the same issues basically, difficult feelings and difficult thoughts,” he said.