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Happiness is not normal

Steve Hayes discusses his new book ‘Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life’ (coauthored with Spencer Smith) in today’s Salon . It has nice ideas that ring bells for me about the facts of suffering and of the need to accept suffering. Happiness is often an unconscious process of accepting things without thought – it is unhappiness that makes us think. The thesis is also important in the modern substance abuse and addiction literature which views substance abuse as self-medication.

‘People suffer’. Pain is ubiquitous and suffering is normal. People do not enjoy their lives partly because the ways they try to feel good limit the possibilities for living the way they want to live. It can be liberating to understand that one should not exhaust oneself trying to achieve the unachievable but rather ‘ratchet down … expectations for self-improvement and fulfillment’.

Substance abuse, addiction, self-control problems and even suicide problems arise because most people aren’t living the ways they want to be living, and that comes from how they’re managing life’s pains. We don’t get good training in how to ‘sit with pain’. Western culture promotes ‘feel-goodism’ partly as a side-effect of having technology to make things easier or to feel better and partly through an ethic fostered by commercialism and medications – eat the right pill, drink the right beer, drive the right car and you won’t suffer.

The recommendation is to ‘find a middle path….Accept your history, feel your feelings, notice your thoughts, and carry all that forward down a path that you value that’s neither indulgence nor suppression’. This is, of course, very old hat in the psychology and self-help literature.

The approach differs from cognitive therapy which believes you should you should monitor and change your negative thoughts to live better. The difference with the proposed approach is that instead of a sequence in which you get your thoughts and feelings lined up and then live better, you are now saying that to live better you need to carry your thoughts and feelings with you.

This model of accepting feelings, disentangling yourself from your mind, connecting with your values, showing up in this moment and getting your feet moving in accordance with your values – is claimed to help a broad range of problems, from chronic pain and epilepsy to doing well at work, dealing with anxiety, depression and substance abuse.

Life includes lots of pain, and lots of living. But if you are not prepared to accept the pain you are not going to get quality living. This is little more than common sense but not unimportant for that reason. The book is substantively reviewed in Time (subsciption required).

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