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The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris

This is a book review of The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris.

Amazon Page – for more details and reader reviews of The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris.

My verdict: 4 out 5, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED


This was one of the first books where I finally understood the meaning of happiness. It’s unlike many other self help books, promoting positive thinking and chanting affirmations to make you feel better. Instead, it convinces the reader that fighting negative emotions is useless. It’s a nice little book, full of practical exercises that help you gain a more wholesome knowledge about yourself.

What is this book about and who it might benefit?

To give you a brief background, The Happiness Trap was written by Russ Harris a counselor and coach who’s a practitioner of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Which basically means true acceptance of where you are right now and committing to actions that help you live a rich and meaningful life.

Although the premises in the book stem from a particular theory of language (Relational Frame Theory), I found it fairly easy to read and relate to my every day life. In other words, it’s not filled with jargon and psychological theory. However, if you’ve never heard of ACT before, you’ll have to get used to some terms – linked to ACT in particular – though Russ explains these with the use of interesting metaphors.

He is very keen on discussing psychological issues in everyday language and it comes through clearly in his writing. He understands why people suffer emotionally and offers straightforward advice, that has been proven to work over and again.

If you’ve been living a limited and unhappy life, and seemingly nothing in your power makes a difference – this book could give you insights into getting to the root of the matter.

Main ideas

The Happiness Trap is broken into 3 sections;

  1. How unhappiness comes about
  2. Understanding your inner world
  3. Looking into the future

At the start of the book, we are immediately confronted by 4 big myths about happiness, which are a result of years of exposure to ‘fairy tales’ and cliches on living a life of perfect bliss. The author helps us see how this idea is flawed, but sadly rarely questioned. He particularly emphasizes how the desire to stop all negative emotions creates the opposite effect, and on the long term can make ones life a complete misery.

The heart of the content is focused around ‘The Six Core Principles of ACT’, that are largely based upon acquiring mindfulness skills.

The principles are:

  1. Defusion: distancing yourself from disturbing thoughts and emotions
  2. Expansion: allowing uncomfortable feelings to just be
  3. Connection: engaging with the present moment
  4. The observing self: getting in touch with your awareness
  5. Values: knowing what matters to you most
  6. Committed action: making a promise to yourself to take continued action

I have found the practical exercises especially useful. Up until I’ve read this book, I had a difficult time identifying and observing destructive thoughts in myself, coupled with the common idea, that you shouldn’t think negative thoughts. Because, according to the Happiness Trap, that kind of belief causes most of our emotional suffering.

But if we really ponder over our thoughts, it becomes obvious that they just appear out of seemingly nowhere, us having no choice in the nature of a thought presenting itself! So wouldn’t it be better if we stopped fighting them altogether, just observing them from a distance and let them be? The end result is that they will become less troubling over time.

Watch the below video for the ‘ACT in a nutshell’ analogy.

Profound quotes

“The mind never stops telling stories — not even when we’re asleep”

“Commitment means that when you do (inevitably) stumble or get off track, you pick yourself up, find your bearings, and carry on in the direction you want to go.”

“There’s no point in beating yourself up when you screw up or fail to follow through. Guilt trips and self-criticism don’t motivate you to make meaningful changes; they just keep you stuck, dwelling on the past.”

“The basic ACT formula: A = Accept your thoughts and feelings and be present. C = connect with your values. T = Take effective action.”

“Having negative thoughts and feeling means I’m a normal human being.”

Final thoughts

The reason I gave it 4 out of 5 because of the amount of new concepts someone has to familiarize themselves with in order to get through it. Which of course can be inevitable if a subject is written from a particular understanding in addition to acronyms that are loaded on top.

Yet the practical exercises make it a fantastically usable book and more than just for bed time reading!