The Happiness Trap

Its a topic of conversation that I find myself in on a regular basis -- mindfulness. Chatting to a friend this week, we spoke about maintaining that beautiful state of presence and mindfulness when you are in a place that is anything but peaceful.

Conflicting deadlines, unwell or demanding children, piles of washing and housework mounting up, study or work deadlines creeping up with little, to no progress in meeting them.... we've all been there right!?

She reminded me about a book that I haven't picked up in a few years -- The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris. I picked it up and started to peruse the pages. The theory, put in a very simple way, is that the 'trap' our society lives in, is that we have been told for so long that happiness is a state that is natural and normal, and that we can feel the joy and presence happiness brings by filling our minds with positive thoughts. The author demonstrates through numerous ways that this is a fallacy that we have been told and sold for a long time, but that now medical and scientific research is supporting that this is not actually true and that its a trap we have created for ourselves.

If we look back to the times of the cave man, our mind was programmed to keep us alive against all sorts of dangers, we were programmed to think in a negative way -- "this, that or the other will kill me, look out for danger, you must survive because at any moment something terrible and life threatening may happen..."

Today we don't have the same struggles that our ancestors had, in fact we don't face any predatory dangers that they faced then, our living standards are incredibly high. Yet the mind hasn't evolved to accommodate this life. It still works in the same ways, only seeing dangers not to life anymore, but to happiness. The author explains this in a much better way than I can in a few paragraphs, but the above gives an essence of what its all about.

So once we understand this, the author goes on to discuss what this means for us, and its not the doom and gloom that you may start to be thinking. The author discusses that it is possible to remove ourselves from the trap of trying to be happy, we can indeed experience joy and delight in the everyday, on a consistent basis through a simple (yet challenging) practice...

He describes this as;

Making room for uncomfortable thoughts, feelings and emotions while still living a meaningful and full life and facing challenging situations.

The methods discussed in the book include breathing exercises, visualisation and expansion practices -- we all experience reoccurring bouts of self-defeating habits, doubts or insecurities or feelings of being unfulfilled, and some of us are affected by experiences of anxiety or depression, learning to live with and around these 'negative' aspects is the goal of the author.

What makes this most appealing to me personally, is that it isn't aimed at changing you or making you try to work against the place you are in; it embraces you, as you are and works on changing perceptions of your natural thought processes. It talks about giving yourself space from the thought to see it for what it really is -- a series of words that appear in your mind. Then with the benefits of the breathing and expansion techniques -- simular to meditation -- you learn to live more comfortably with uncomfortable feelings.

I am working on a few different projects at the moment, and my frustrations have arisen from not being able to have enough hours in the day to pay these projects more attention,  living away from family and friends has its obvious difficulties. Our situation is not uncommon to many others, partners working long hours away and even weekends, and the feeling of being vulnerable and overwhelmed with little or no time out, we all have been there.

So I hope that the following awareness practice will benefit you as much as it has me...

Take a moment. Wherever you are, breath slowly and with intention. Fully fill and empty your lungs. Bring your attention to your body and notice any feelings or thoughts that are arising. If your mind wanders, once you notice that it has, gently bring your focus back to your breath and continue scanning through your body. Try not to judge what you feel as good or bad or other. Notice it and allow yourself to 'create space' around the area or thought that has arisen, if it helps you can visualise the thought or feeling with -- colour, brightness, shape etc. Don't try to rid yourself of the feeling or thought, just notice it and allow it. Continue the practice in this way until you feel ready to stop.

You may notice that you felt tightness in your throat or chest, shoulders or jaw. Once you finish the practice you may notice that the feeling has been removed, however the removal of the feeling or thought is not the intention of the practice, its just about being mindful and experiencing your body and mind as it is, while creating space.

As with anything, the practice takes time for it to feel natural, I hope you find it useful.

If you have a spare 30 minutes here is a great interview where the author explains his concepts and gives much more meaning to what I have written above.

Love, J x