The happiness trap and ACT

I picked up the book “The Happiness Trap” by Dr Russ Harris yesterday and read it in the afternoon. By the end of it, I was thinking that this is one of those very rare self-help books that could actually deliver what they all promise to do – to change the reader’s life. I am biased however. There are so many similarities between the book’s basic premises and Buddhism that the chapter in which the author asserts that the foundation of the book, an approach called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, was developed independently of Buddhist influence feels implausible.

But harping on about the similarities between ACT and Buddhist psychology is pointless. In at least one key way, in the final step of its approach, ACT has evolved past Buddhism. The path towards this final step will be familiar to most who know the basics of Buddhist beliefs and who’ve practiced Buddhist meditation techniques: accepting that suffering is part of life, that through cultivating mindfulness, one can stop reacting to suffering and live a meaningful life.

In Buddhist traditions, the meaningful life is a Buddhist life. Its values are pretty well set out in the wisdom and ethics sections of the eight-fold path: right view, right intention, right speech, right action and right livelihood. The practice is set out in the concentration section of the eight-fold path: right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

What ACT has done that is so amazing and yet so obvious, is to leave the identifying of what a meaningful life is to the person. The final part of “The Happiness Trap” describes some exercises to help define one’s values (especially helpful by setting out various domains that values can apply to) and then setting goals that are in line with those values. When I tried to do this, I found it surprisingly difficult in some key domains – employment especially. A bit ironic seeing as I’m supposedly a nominal Buddhist and the right livelihood section is quite clear.

Anyway, I did get there eventually. And yes, I highly recommend this book.

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