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Summary: The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living by Russ Harris

  • “The Happiness Trap” challenges the traditional view of happiness as the absence of negative emotions and introduces Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) principles for a more balanced approach.
  • Russ Harris provides practical exercises and real-life examples to help readers develop psychological flexibility, accept their emotions, and live according to their core values.
  • The book offers valuable insights and tools for those seeking a more meaningful and content life by redefining the pursuit of happiness.

The Happiness Trap (2007) is a self-help guide to pursuing a richer and more rewarding life instead of fleeting feelings of happiness. It outlines the six core principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy that can help you tackle unpleasant thoughts and feelings and build a fulfilling life.

Introduction: Escape from the happiness trap with the help of the six principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

Cinderella found her prince. Harry Potter defeated the wicked Voldemort. Ross and Rachel finally got back together on Friends.

Notice a common theme? They’re all happy endings. And while we all aspire to live our own happy endings, life, unfortunately, often doesn’t cooperate.

You’ll experience unpleasant thoughts and feelings at some point in your life. It’s just a part of being human. But here’s the thing: that unpleasantness isn’t the real problem. The problem comes when you try to get rid of those bad feelings just so you can feel happy. Doing so gets you stuck in the so-called “happiness trap,” a never-ending loop in which you try to eliminate the unpleasant thoughts and feelings, only to end up more miserable in the end.

Take Danielle’s case, for instance. She’s so unhappy with her weight that she turns to chocolates to feel better. At first, it seems to do the trick – but only until she gets hounded by thoughts of gaining more weight. This makes her feel even worse than before. And what does she do to try to feel better again? You guessed it – she goes for more chocolates.

So how do you break out of the happiness trap? Through Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT for short. It’s a research-based therapy developed by American clinical psychologist Steven Hayes that has helped patients with all sorts of problems – from something as serious as chronic schizophrenia to everyday issues like stress at work.

ACT isn’t about seeking the fleeting kind of happiness. Instead, it teaches you ways to deal with unpleasant thoughts and feelings effectively, so you can lead a meaningful life. In this summary, we’ll tackle ACT’s six core principles in detail. Let’s get started!

Book Summary: The Happiness Trap - How to Stop Struggling and Start Living

Principle #1. Using your observing self, not your thinking self

Suppose you’re on a nature trail. You’re looking at the butterflies flit from flower to flower. You’re listening to the rustling of the leaves of the towering trees. You’re feeling the summer breeze as it whooshes past you. You’re observing, watching, surveying the scenery with a clear and quiet mind.

Then, a few seconds in, lots of thoughts start popping up in your head. Wow, I haven’t seen such a beautiful butterfly! Oh, that’s a pretty strong wind. The sun’s too hot –I should’ve brought an umbrella.

These are the two parts of yourself in action: the observing self and the thinking self.

The observing self is the one doing all the watching. It doesn’t think or generate thoughts and opinions about the nature trail. It simply observes. When you’re tuned in to your observing self, you become aware of and focus on the experience rather than thinking about the experience.

The other part of you in action is the thinking self. It judges the couple walking ahead of you on the nature trail. It remembers how many steps you’ve taken so far. It tells you things like how annoying the heat is. Essentially, any thought or image that comes up in your head is the work of your thinking self.

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy – or ACT, for short – the observing self is what matters more. It is with this that you can see the things you do and the things around you with no sort of analysis or opinion whatsoever.

The observing self is always readily accessible to us, but because it is hidden by the non-stop thoughts created by the thinking self, we sometimes forget that it’s there. To help you tune in to your observing self, try this exercise.

Look around you and pick something to observe. It may be the sound of the crying baby next door or the sight of your foot dangling from the chair. Observe it as if it’s a brand new thing for you. Then, take note of who is doing the observation. Yes, obviously it’s you, but specifically, it’s your observing self. It’s your observing self who’s listening closely to the baby’s cries and watching your foot hanging from the chair.

But how exactly can the observing self help you escape the happiness trap? That’s what you’ll find out in the next sections.

Principle #2. Defusing your unhelpful thoughts

The mind is an incredible thing. It helps you shape your environment to your exact liking and conjures solutions to your most complex problems.

However, your mind can also lead to your downfall. That’s because of the thinking self’s never-ending broadcast of thoughts and images, most of which are unhelpful and don’t motivate you to build the fulfilling life you’re after.

Say you’re coming in for a job interview. As you wait for the interviewer to call you, your mind starts racing with thoughts like “You’re just wasting your time,” “You won’t get hired,” and “You’re not even qualified for the job.”

The moment you start believing that these thoughts are the absolute truth, you trap yourself in a state of cognitive fusion. Cognitive fusion is when you blend the words in your head (in other words, your thoughts) with reality. You react to these words as if they’re true and they’re what is actually happening in real life. The thoughts then overwhelm you, and you end up failing the interview – which, in turn, gives rise to more unhelpful thoughts.

In reality, these thoughts are merely words crossing your mind. You just can’t see them that way because of cognitive fusion. This is where the second core principle, defusion, comes into play.

Defusion allow you to start regarding thoughts as nothing more than letters and symbols. They’re just part of language. By treating thoughts as mere words, you significantly lessen their impact on you. The less effect they have, the more you can focus on creating the life you want.

There are several techniques you can use to defuse your thoughts. The first is adding “I’m having the thought that” in front of your thought. For instance, your thought says, “I’m a loser.” You then say, “I’m having the thought that I’m a loser.” This makes you aware that the thought is just that – a product of your thinking self.

Another defusion technique uses your observing self. Take ten deep breaths, and for each one, just observe the rising and falling of your chest. Every time a thought comes up, acknowledge it as if nodding to a stranger on the street, but remain focused on your breathing.

A shorter and easier defusion method is thanking your mind. Whenever an unhelpful thought arises, say, “Thanks, Mind!” or “Thanks for sharing.” But remember not to do it in a sarcastic or aggressive way. Be genuinely thankful for how brilliant your mind is at coming up with a multitude of thoughts. By thanking your mind, you will take your thoughts less seriously.

However, don’t expect your thoughts to magically disappear after you defuse them. They will always be there because the mind is naturally wired to make them. What defusion does is help you accept the thoughts and let them be there in your head – but you won’t be consumed by them anymore because you’ll know that they are merely words.

Principle #3. Expanding yourself to give your unpleasant feelings space

This may come as a surprise, but emotions are not what you think they are. Just as thoughts are merely words, emotions are merely sensations – physical changes happening in your body. These sensations then get labeled by the thinking self, and this label, in turn, becomes the word that we associate with that sensation. For instance, your thinking self says that sweaty hands and a fast heartbeat mean anxiety, or that a jittery stomach means you’re in love. Take away those judgments and opinions, and what you get is simply complex body changes.

Emotions play a big part in your journey to creating a fulfilling life because there will inevitably be times when you encounter difficult emotions like fear, sadness, and embarrassment. No matter how hard you try, you can never get rid of them entirely. What you can do, however, is stop wasting time wallowing in your unpleasant feelings and instead redirect your attention to what really matters.

How exactly can you deal with difficult emotions? The answer is simple: through expansion. To expand yourself means to give these emotions ample space. Rather than squeezing them out of their system, you’re creating enough space for them to move, thus relieving the strain they place on you.

You can do expansion with three easy steps. The first one is observing your feelings via your observing self. Pick the most uncomfortable sensation you’re currently feeling, be that a lump in your throat or shaking legs. Give all your attention to this sensation and observe it as if you’re a researcher taking notes.

The next step is to take a few slow, deep breaths. Then, visualize your breath flowing into and around the sensation to loosen the space around it and give it enough room.

Finally, just let the sensation be there. Don’t struggle, resist, or even try to change it. Simply allow it to exist in your body. Accept that it’s there. After a few seconds or minutes, you will find yourself at peace with the sensation – and then you can move on to the other uncomfortable sensations you’re feeling.

Principle #4. Connecting with the present moment

Have you ever found yourself lost in thought? Say you’re on a fancy dinner date. Your attention isn’t on the food or what your partner is saying. It’s on the meeting with your boss yesterday, or the movie you’ll be watching later that night.

That’s exactly the work of your thinking self. All throughout the day, it incessantly throws random thoughts at you, either about the past or the future. At least one of those would surely reel you in.

The moment you do give that thought more attention than necessary, you become disconnected from yourself and the world. You’ll be less involved in what you’re currently doing, and you won’t even notice the things happening around you.

This highlights the importance of practicing connection with the present moment. When you’re immersed in the here and now, you’re fully aware of what’s going on, making it easier to take effective actions toward a fulfilling life.

Developing awareness of and connecting entirely with the present moment require practice. Here are some simple exercises you can do.

A quick one is noting five things around you. At any moment of your day, just pause and look around. Notice five objects you can see, five sounds you can hear, and five things you can feel. Do this repeatedly throughout the day.

If this exercise seems too bothersome, you can also integrate your connection exercise with your existing routine. Select a mundane activity from your morning routine like taking a shower or drinking coffee. Then, use all your five senses to take the activity in. Give it all your attention.

You can then use your newfound connecting ability with defusion and expansion whenever you’re dealing with unpleasant thoughts and feelings. First, observe the thoughts and let them be. Then, observe your feelings and give them space. Finally, connect with your surroundings. By the end of that, you’ll be in a much better psychological state to focus on important things.

Principle #5. Determining your values

A rich and fulfilling life is one driven by values. But what exactly are values?

At its core, a value is something you stand for – it’s what’s important to you, and speaks to what sort of person you want to be. It’s what gives you a sense of purpose.

Yes, it may be challenging to identify what your values are, but an easy way to narrow it down is to imagine yourself as an 80-year-old. What are the things you wish you’d spent more time on? What are the things you would have done if you could go back in time? Your answers reflect the things that truly matter to you. You may value spending quality time with your family or helping others or meeting new people.

When you know what your values are, it will be easier for you to know what kind of action to take to have a fulfilling life. For instance, if you value being a loving spouse, you will make an effort to plan date nights. If you value building meaningful relationships, you will go out of your way to meet new friends. Connect with your values so you can align your actions with them; only then will you be able to live a fulfilling life.

Principle #6. Acting in accordance with your values and being persistent

You’re finally at the last principle of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. You already know how to tune in to your observing self and how to use defusion, expansion, and connection to change the way you view unpleasant thoughts and feelings. You’re also done determining what your values are.

Now it’s time for the last principle – taking values-guided action. This starts with writing down your values. Yes, identify them again – but this time, list only the ones from which you feel most disconnected. These are the values you want to have but aren’t putting into practice yet. You’ll be working on them first.

Then, with your values identified, think of your immediate, short-term, medium-range, and long-term goals. Immediate goals are the simplest tasks you can accomplish today that demonstrate those values. Short-term goals are ones you can reach over the next couple of days or weeks. Medium-range goals are the bigger things you can accomplish over the next few weeks and months. Finally, long-term goals are major things you want to achieve in the next several years. When setting your goals, remember to keep them aligned with the values you identified.

After goal-setting, your next step is creating an action plan. This involves three elements: the specific steps you’ll take to reach the goal, the materials or skills you need to carry out the steps, and the date and time you will perform the steps. Write your action plan down – and follow through with it.

However, it’s important to note that having an action plan in place doesn’t guarantee you’ll achieve your goal. Obstacles are an inevitable part of life. You need to be willing to push through and be committed to getting back up after each setback.

You should also be aware that although you’ve determined your goals, you shouldn’t be entirely fixated on achieving them. You should be fixated on living out your values instead. After all, you may or may not achieve your goal, so if your happiness depends on reaching them, you will never be truly satisfied.

When you focus on living out your values instead, life becomes more rewarding because you get to practice those values in all the small ways. Yes, you’ll still work on your goals, but you’ll be living a fulfilling life while doing so.


Unpleasant thoughts and feelings will come up in your pursuit of a rich and meaningful life – but with the help of the six core principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, you can change the way you handle these thoughts and feelings.

Just reading about the six core principles isn’t enough, however. You need to apply them to your daily life as well. Take action. A life of purpose and satisfaction awaits.

About the author

DR. RUSS HARRIS is a world-renowned trainer of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). As a physician he became increasingly interested in the psychological aspects of health and well-being, which led to a total career change. He now works in two different yet complementary roles as a therapist and a coach, and he is the author of numerous books. He lives in Melbourne, Australia.


Psychology, Mindfulness, Happiness, Personal Development, Self Help, Nonfiction, Mental Health, Philosophy, Counselling, Unfinished, Social Work, Success, Motivation, Self-Esteem, Relationships, Personal Growth, Stress Management Self-Help, Cognitive Psychology, Happiness Self-Help

Table of Contents

What’s New in Edition Two? ix

Part 1 Why Is It Hard To Be Happy?
1 Life Is Difficult 3
2 The Choice Point 12
3 The Black Hole of Control 26
4 Dropping the Struggle 47

Part 2 How to Handle Difficult thoughts and Feelings
5 How to Drop Anchor 55
6 The Never-Ending Stories 69
7 Off the Hook 84
8 Frightening Images, Painful Memories 98
9 The Stage Show of Life 105
10 Leaving the Comfort Zone 114
11 The Value of Kindness 124
12 Hooked on a Feeling 133
13 The Struggle Switch 141
14 Making Room 144
15 TAME It with Kindness 157
16 Being Present 163
17 Reinhabiting Your Body 175
18 Worrying, Ruminating, Obsessing 179
19 The Documentary of You 189
20 Healing the Past 196
21 The Art of Appreciation 202

Part 3 How to Make Life Meaningful
22 A Life Worth Living 209
23 One Step at a Time 221
24 The HARD Barriers 232
25 Difficult Decisions 238
26 Breaking Bad Habits 244
27 Staying the Distance 252
28 Breaking the Rules 259
29 Ups and Downs 267
30 A Daring Adventure 275

Acknowledgments 283
Resources 285
Index 289
About the Author 299


Russ Harris begins by addressing the common belief that happiness is the absence of negative emotions or life difficulties. He argues that this “happiness myth” creates a constant struggle for people as they attempt to avoid discomfort and unhappiness. Instead, he introduces the concept of “psychological flexibility,” which is the ability to embrace both positive and negative emotions and experiences without judgment.

The book outlines the six core principles of ACT:

  1. Defusion: Learning to detach from your thoughts and view them objectively.
  2. Acceptance: Embracing your emotions and experiences, even the painful ones.
  3. Present Moment: Focusing on the here and now rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.
  4. Self-as-Context: Developing a flexible and mindful sense of self.
  5. Values: Clarifying your values and what truly matters to you.
  6. Committed Action: Taking meaningful steps toward your values despite any obstacles.

Throughout the book, Harris provides practical exercises and examples to help readers understand and implement these principles in their own lives. He emphasizes the importance of setting personal values and using them as a guide for making choices that align with one’s authentic self.

Review: “The Happiness Trap” is a valuable resource for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of happiness and well-being. It challenges the conventional wisdom that happiness is synonymous with the absence of negative emotions, offering a more balanced and realistic perspective. The book’s strength lies in its practicality, providing readers with actionable exercises and techniques to develop psychological flexibility.

Harris’ writing is clear and accessible, making complex psychological concepts understandable for a general audience. The use of relatable anecdotes and real-life examples further enhances the book’s appeal. The ACT principles, when applied, can genuinely help individuals better manage their emotional struggles and lead a more fulfilling life.

One potential drawback is that some readers may find the book repetitive, as it revisits the same core principles and concepts throughout. However, this repetition serves a pedagogical purpose, reinforcing key ideas and practices.

In conclusion, “The Happiness Trap” is a thought-provoking and practical guide for individuals seeking to break free from the pursuit of an unattainable, perpetually happy state. By learning the principles of ACT, readers can gain a deeper understanding of themselves, become more psychologically flexible, and take meaningful steps towards a more meaningful and content life.

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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