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Essential Reading Series: The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris

Welcome to the Essential Reading Series! My first featured book is The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris.

I highly recommend this book if, like most of us, you suffer from the human condition and want to do something about it.

I’ll sum it up in a couple of reader-friendly bullet points for ya:

Key points

  • It’s impossible and impractical to feel happy/positive all the time. We are hard-wired to experience negative thoughts and feelings, such as unhappiness, anxiety, fear, and grief.
  • We should stop trying to avoid or escape them. This only creates more negative thoughts and feelings, and sometimes even physical pain and illness.
  • To live a full life, we must experience, and accept, the full range of emotions.

Why is The Happiness Trap essential?

  • We writers are often slaves to our emotions, like self-doubt, fear, inadequacy, etc.
  • Learning to accept, rather than control, our thoughts and emotions will decrease their power over us so we can focus on writing.

Essential Reading Series

Harris opens the book with a discussion on human evolution. Like many animals, our minds evolved to identify and avoid danger.

But, unlike many animals, our survival needs are not only met, but fulfilled in excess. Now, many of the dangers we face are emotional, or at least tied to emotions, like stress, anxiety, and fear.

Here’s the Happiness Trap in a nutshell: we don’t like negative thoughts and feelings, and will do just about anything to escape or avoid them. Many escape strategies are destructive, and just create more negative feelings. And so the cycle continues.

The problem, though, isn’t in the thoughts or feelings themselves, but how we fuse with them, to borrow a term from Harris.

Fusion: the story is not the event

We often treat our thoughts as absolute truth. When we think to ourselves, “I’m worthless,” we believe it as though it’s written in the stars.

It’s often difficult to realize that our thoughts are just words in our heads. Things start to get messy when we fuse with those thoughts, and treat them as absolute, unalterable truth.

Harris uses a brilliant analogy for this. Think about a shooting, and a newspaper’s article on the shooting. The shooting is the event. The article is just the story that reports what happened — in essence, it’s just words.

Fusion, says Harris, is “the story and the event stuck together.”

We know that it’s easy for stories to get twisted. We know that a publication’s bias distorts its content to reflect certain views. We know that news stories often leave out details.

Most importantly, we know that we can’t always trust the news to tell us the whole truth and nothing but.

Truth vs. helpfulness

Here’s the thing about fusing, especially with negative thoughts: it doesn’t provide a solution for the core problem.

Say, for instance, you think, “I’m not a good writer.” Maybe you truly believe that you’ll never be a good writer no matter what you do.

(If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably already thought this too many times to count, and it’s probably stopped or discouraged you from writing.)

And you know what? It might be true. You might not be a good writer. But beating yourself up or giving up doesn’t do anything to solve the problem, does it?

To paraphrase Harris: Even if a thought is true but unhelpful, why spend time or energy on it? Why obsess over it?

However, he emphasizes that fusion isn’t the enemy; it’s only a problem when it stops you from living a full life.

He offers some golden advice: ask yourself if the thought you’re having inspires you to act and create the life you want. If so, then the thought is helpful, even if it’s negative and makes you uncomfortable.

But, he warns, don’t cling too tightly even to helpful thoughts.

All this sounds great on paper, but the key to defusion is repetition and practice. This book won’t change your life unless you do the accompanying exercises as often as you can, and put Harris’ ideas into practice.

I won’t go into the exercises here, though; read the darn book! (But don’t go into it thinking that you can read between the lines to find some secret recipe for eternal happiness — you’ll be thoroughly disappointed.)

This book is part of the Essential Reading Series, a compilation of book recommendations to help you live your best life and write your best work.

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