A life should be unblemished happiness, right? And if you’re not happy, then you’re not trying hard enough.
“Society tells us that happiness is just within reach, if we read the right books and eat the right food,” says Registered Counselling Therapist Erin Montgomery. But the truth is that nonstop happiness is not the normal experience for the vast majority of people.
Erin presented the workshop “ACTing as our best selves” during the Atlantic Family Forum in Nova Scotia. As a counsellor, one of her approaches is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and her workshop provided an introduction.
Society’s focus on happiness “suggests that pain is not ‘normal’. It’s a problem to be solved,” Erin told the group. ACT philosophy is that human suffering is the normal state of affairs, and it is psychologically healthy to have unpleasant thoughts and feelings as well as pleasant ones. But we can choose how we behave in response to our negative feelings and emotions.
ACT also stands for “Accept, Choose, Take action” and those were the steps Erin reviewed with the group.
Acceptance means accepting what you are experiencing – whether that’s grief, memories, or other emotions, she explained. It doesn’t mean that what happened to you is okay or that we have to accept workplace tragedy or injustice, or just live with pain. It does mean that we “move away from judging our thoughts, and instead ask whether they are working, or whether they’re stressful or unhelpful.”
It’s important to slow down and “feel what you’re feeling”, Erin said. Being mindful helps us to acknowledge our thoughts and emotions, without labeling them as bad or good.
It’s also critical to know our own values, and Erin led the group through exercises to identify values, by thinking about what we’d like people to say about us at our 90th birthday party. Values are like a lighthouse or compass that guides us, and “being aware of our values means we can make choices about how we will react or behave.”
This is the “choose” step of ACT, Erin explained. “We slow ourselves down enough to realize we’re at a ‘choice point’. We can choose to act in a way that moves us closer to our values.”
For example, you might wake up in the morning feeling sad and tired. You don’t feel much like meeting your friend for lunch – but if one of your important values is friendship, then you could accept your sadness and tiredness, acknowledge that’s how you’re feeling, but still choose to have lunch with your friend because that moves you closer to living out your values.
“When we’re feeling pain or anxiety, most of us tend to avoid or withdraw,” Erin said. “This leads to more difficult thoughts and feelings, and then we get stuck in a loop.”
Using the ACT model can be an opportunity to escape that loop. It might not bring unending happiness, but it could help achieve the satisfaction of knowing we’ve behaved in a way that is true to what we want our life to stand for.
For more information about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Erin recommends The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris and the companion website: www.thehappinesstrap.com.
Her background is in journalism, public relations and health and safety.