The Evolutionary Psychology of Happiness

In contrast to the popular lore about achieving happiness by changing your thoughts, there’s a new theory in town.

Steven HayesRuss Harris, and others are popularizing a new kind of therapy called Acceptance and Commitment therapy (ACT). It has roots in both evolutionary psychology and mindfulness.

The evolutionary psychology piece comes in when you start to realize that humans evolved to: first, not get killed, and second, worry about rejection by the tribe, danger in unfamiliar territory, and accumulating as much of value as possible.

Although we don’t live in our ancestral habitats any more, the evolutionary wiring remains, so we fear rejection, get anxious in new situations, and are never satisfied, no matter how much stuff we have. Happiness is just not a normal state for humans, or arguably any life form for that matter.

The mindfulness piece of ACT helps you to recognize and accept the protective negative bias of your brain, to let the thoughts be there and give them space, but not to necessarily listen to them or do anything about them. Notice the thoughts and then let them pass, with great compassion and gentleness for yourself.

Here’s an excerpt from Russ Harris’ website and book The Happiness Trap, the clearest guide to ACT I’ve read:

“There are six core processes in ACT:

  1. Connection means being in the present moment: connecting fully with whatever is happening right here, right now.
  2. Defusion means learning to step back or detach from unhelpful thoughts and worries and memories: instead of getting caught up in your thoughts, or pushed around by them, or struggling to get rid of them, you learn how to let them come and go – as if they were just cars driving past outside your house. You learn how to step back and watch your thinking, so you can respond effectively – instead of getting tangled up or lost inside your thinking.
  3. Expansion means opening up and making room for painful feelings and sensations.  You learn how to drop the struggle with them, give them some breathing space, and let them be there without getting all caught up in them, or overwhelmed by them; the more you can open up, and give them room to move, the easier it is for your feelings to come and go without draining you or holding you back.
  4. The Observing Self is the part of you that is responsible for awareness and attention. We don’t have a word for it in common everyday language – we normally just talk about the ‘mind’. But there are two parts to the mind: the thinking self – i.e. the part that is always thinking; the part that is responsible for all your thoughts, beliefs, memories, judgments, fantasies etc. And then there’s the observing self – the part of your mind that is able to be aware of whatever you are thinking or feeling or doing at any moment. Without it, you couldn’t develop those mindfulness skills. And the more you practice those mindfulness skills, the more you’ll become aware of this part of your mind, and able to access it when you need it.
  5. Values are what you want your life to be about, deep in your heart. What you want to stand for. What you want to do with your time on this planet. What ultimately matters to you in the big picture. What you would like to be remembered for by the people you love.
  6. Committed action means taking action guided by your values – doing what matters – even if it’s difficult or uncomfortable

When you put all these things together, you develop something called psychological flexibility. This is the ability to be in the present moment, with awareness and openness, and take action, guided by your values. In other words, it’s the ability to be present, open up, and do what matters. The greater your ability to do that, the greater your quality of life – the greater your sense of vitality, wellbeing and fulfillment.”

This “psychological flexibility” sounds like an important step in building resilience, which we talk about often in the Health Horizons Program at IFTF. ACT offers a new look at happiness that includes negative emotions instead of suppressing them, an approach that I find refreshing and also very helpful in my own quest for happiness.

Original post at http://iftf.org/node/3626

Advertisements