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In The Happiness Trap, therapist and life coach Russ Harris argues that the human pursuit of happiness makes us miserable today, leading to widespread anxiety, stress, and depression. Harris contends the real answer to escape the “happiness trap” is through the techniques of ACT, or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
Here is a selection of passages with explanations to help you put them into context.
The Happiness Trap: Stop Struggling, Start Living
In The Happiness Trap, therapist and life coach Russ Harris argues that humans are hardwired to relentlessly pursue happiness. But this instinct makes us miserable today, leading to widespread anxiety, stress, and depression. We’re caught in a happiness trap, where the harder we try to be happy, the less happy we become. Harris contends the answer to happiness and fulfillment is practicing the techniques of ACT, or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. The techniques—rooted in behavioral psychology and mindfulness—help you escape the happiness trap by accepting painful thoughts and emotions as part of life, while clarifying and living your values.
The following The Happiness Trap quotes highlight some of the key ideas discussed in the book.
“So here is the happiness trap in a nutshell: to find happiness, we try to avoid or get rid of bad feelings, but the harder we try, the more bad feelings we create.”
According to Harris, our pursuit of happiness is, paradoxically enough, one of the main causes of unhappiness. Our instincts hardwired us to relentlessly pursue happiness but these same instincts make us miserable today—our continual efforts to be happy lead instead to stress, anxiety, and greater unhappiness. We’re caught in a happiness trap.
“In ACT, our main interest in a thought is not whether it’s true or false, but whether it’s helpful; that is, if we pay attention to this thought, will it help us create the life we want?”
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, the goal is not to determine the veracity of a thought—whether it is true or false. Rather, it is to identify thoughts that are helpful, that is, whether they align with our goals and values. Harris advises asking, “Is this thought helpful?” If yes, then the observing self gives you the power to allow that thought to guide you toward effective action. If no, then the observing self gives you the power to let the thought go and refocus your attention somewhere more helpful.
“Basically, expansion means making room for our feelings. If we give unpleasant feelings enough space, they no longer stretch us or strain us.”
In ACT, expansion is a technique that uses our observing self to create space in our body to accept our emotions, rather than fight against them. Harris identifies four steps to expansion:
Step 1: Use your observing self to connect with the sensations in your body. Take a few moments and notice the sensations or discomfort in each area of your body. Remember that we register emotions as physical sensations—essentially you’re scanning your body for negative emotions so that you can respond to them.
Focus on the least comfortable sensation in your body. Notice its dimensions: Is it large or small? Uniform or irregular? How deeply do you feel the sensation? If you can, visualize this sensation as a distinct object with its own material and properties.
Step 2: Use deep breathing to explore the sensation. As you scan the uncomfortable sensation, focus on breathing deeply. Your deep breathing should decrease the tension in your body. As your tension decreases, imagine your deep breath forming an eggshell-like shelter around the discomfort.
Step 3: Make additional room in your body for the sensation. Imagine that eggshell growing in size until your body can freely accommodate the discomfort. Rather than the feeling that the sensation is trapped in your body, causing disruption and tension, you should feel that the sensation has room to move and grow, because your breathing can accommodate it.
Step 4: Tolerate the sensation, and give it space to exist. Accept the emotion, rather than entertaining your thinking self, which might be saying that the emotion is a threat (and therefore something you need to eliminate).
If your thinking self is still active, use it to reinforce the goal of expansion: acceptance. This is called “acceptance self-talk.” For instance, you could say out loud, “This is a difficult feeling, but there’s enough space in my body to accommodate it.” While, eventually, you want to be able to practice expansion using only your observing self, these words can help in the interim.
“Thus, evolution has shaped our brains so that we are hardwired to suffer psychologically: to compare, evaluate, and criticize ourselves, to focus on what we’re lacking, to rapidly become dissatisfied with what we have, and to imagine all sorts of frightening scenarios, most of which will never happen. No wonder humans find it hard to be happy!”
Harris argues the natural state for humans is psychological discomfort rather than happiness. He notes that the human brain has evolved with three traits that primitive humans needed to survive:
- The ability to detect threats and avoid them.
- The ability to fit into a group. A primitive human couldn’t afford to be kicked out and left to fend for himself.
- An accumulate-and-improve mentality. A primitive human needed to accumulate enough food to last his clan through lean times.
These traits have persisted on the evolutionary time scale, although they’re not helpful to us today because:
1. We no longer need threat detection and avoidance to protect us from predators in the wild. Instead, this instinct makes us detect imaginary threats, such as the possibility that we’ll never get married, or that a random ache is a symptom of a serious disease.
2. The ability to fit in is no longer the deciding factor in whether we starve to death, but we still compare ourselves to others and worry about whether we are normal. In the world of social media, where everybody is pushing an idealized version of themselves, this part of our brain looks at others and makes us worry that we compare unfavorably.
3. Our ability to accumulate and improve no longer determines whether we live or die. Still, our brains drive us to constantly accumulate more wealth, status, and happiness and to improve our lives as much as possible—but even when we accomplish these goals and improve our lives, the satisfaction doesn’t last long. So we quickly return to the cycle of accumulation and try to get even more.
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Happiness Trap summary :
- Why trying to be happy is making you unhappy
- How to practice ACT, or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, to become happier
- How to develop “psychological flexibility” toward negative feelings instead of eliminating them