Chasing happiness and other feel-good emotions has the paradoxical effect of making those pleasant feelings further out of reach. This is partly because pleasant emotions like happiness (along with unpleasant ones) are transient by nature… We can’t hold on to them forever. But not only are we incapable of controlling how we feel, trying to chase pleasant feelings and run away from painful ones often sets us up for a cycle of disappointment and suffering (Check out part 1 of this series here to read more about this).
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is an evidence-based approach that takes a unique stab at the issue of happiness and psychological suffering. The focus is on living a rich, meaningful life through more effectively handling painful experiences and taking actions guided by our values. Rather than chasing an unattainable goal (like always feeling happy), clarifying what we stand for and acting in accordance with what truly matters to us provides us with a deeper sense of purpose and life satisfaction. Unlike the fleeting emotion of happiness, this sense of wellbeing is stable and constant.
What does a rich, meaningful life look like?
From the ACT perspective, we cultivate a fulfilling and meaningful life by:
Have you ever been snapped at mid-conversation for not listening because you were worlds away in your head? Being present means to flexibly pay attention to your experiences as they occur in the present moment. It can involve paying attention to our inner world (i.e. what’s going on in our mind and body) and/or the physical world around us, depending on what’s most useful.
In directing our attention inwards, we can observe what thoughts are popping up in our mind, what emotions/sensations we’re feeling, where those feelings are located in our body, and what judgments we’re making about our thoughts or feelings. In directing our attention back outwards, we can then notice our surroundings, who's around us, what we can see and hear, and what we’re physically doing. The intention is to strengthen our ability to connect with and fully engage in our experiences.
This involves accepting and making room for those unwanted thoughts, feelings, and sensations that inevitably arise in life (if you can’t beat ‘em, accept ‘em!). When we’re constantly trying to control our internal experiences and respond to unpleasant feelings with resistance, we end up feeling more frustrated, anxious, and unhappy (ex: “I’m feeling way too anxious right now. Why is this happening to me… I can’t be feeling this way! This needs to stop. Ok, maybe I’ll try to breathe… Nope, that didn’t work… why didn’t that work? I’m such a failure, I can’t do anything right! Now I’m even more anxious!!”). Rather than struggling with and fighting them, accepting and allowing our thoughts and feelings to come and go (because they inevitably will go!) contributes to greater psychological health.
When struggling with an unpleasant internal experience, start by taking a moment to observe the sensation that’s bothering you like you’re a curious scientist (For example: If it’s a knot in your stomach, ask yourself where does the feeling start and stop? Where is it most intense in your body? What could you call it?).
Then breathe deeply into this sensation and see if you can just allow the feeling to be there. Even though you might have the urge to push it away or fight it, try to open yourself up to it, make room for it in your body, and let it be there. Remember that this feeling is giving you some valuable information; that you’re a normal human being, that you care, that there may be some gap between what you want and what you’ve got.
This starts with clarifying our values: What truly matters to you? What kind of person do you want to be? What do you want to stand for in life? Our values serve as a compass to give us direction and guide our lives. Once we get clear on our values, we can commit to living authentically and doing what truly matters to us.
Taking back control
Life comes with the full range of human emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant. We can’t control our feelings and trying to do so only makes us suffer more. What we can control is where we place our attention (so as to be fully engaged and present in our lives), how we respond to our internal experiences (accepting feelings rather than struggling with them), and our actions (choosing to do what matters most to us). When we stop chasing what’s outside our control and re-focus our energy on what we can control, we gain the freedom to live a rich, purposeful, and satisfying life.