Happiness is not always about feeling good, says physician and therapist Russ Harris. He’s the author of “The Illustrated Happiness Trap,” out next month, with illustrations by Bev Aisbett. We talked to Harris about the enigma of that magical “H” word — and his attitude on what it means to be truly happy might surprise you.
Can you try to describe what happiness is? Unfortunately, most people think of happiness as a feeling or emotion; they believe that happiness equates to feeling good. But this common idea of happiness creates a trap for us; it sets us up to struggle with reality. Because the things that make life rich, full and meaningful — such as building intimate relationships, raising a family, developing a meaningful career, etc. — do not just give us good feelings; they also give us all plenty of painful feelings, such as anxiety, frustration, fear of failure, disappointment, anger, sadness and so on.
I would encourage people to redefine happiness as “living a rich, full and meaningful life, in which we feel the full range of human emotions, both pleasant and painful.”
How is this book different from all the other books about happiness? Well for a start, there’s nothing in about “positive thinking” or “positive affirmations” or “challenging negative thoughts.” It’s based on a scientifically proven model called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which uses cutting-edge psychological methods, especially a mental process known as mindfulness, which enables you to handle difficult thoughts and feelings more effectively, so they have much less impact and influence over you.
Is it normal to have self-doubt on the road to happiness? Self-doubt is normal and natural, and almost everyone has it to some extent; unfortunately most people don’t openly admit to it. If you are stepping out of your comfort zone into a challenging situation with an uncertain outcome, of course you will have self-doubt. How could you possibly not? ACT teaches you how to deal with this through developing mindfulness. In a mental state of mindfulness, you can let all those anxious thoughts and feelings flow through you, without getting caught up in them or swept away by them.
What are your three best tips for getting and staying happy? 1. Each morning, before you get out of bed, connect with your values. Ask yourself, “What kind of mom/dad/friend/worker/boss/student do I want to be today? As I go through my day, how do I want to treat myself, others and the world around me?”
2. Stop thinking of happiness as a good feeling. Instead of asking, “Do I feel happy?” ask, “Am I doing something meaningful, purposeful, aligned with my values?”
3. Bring your full attention to whatever you are doing; engage fully in the task at hand. The more you get distracted by your thoughts and feelings, the less satisfying your activity will be.