The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT - by Russ Harris

PART 1: How You Set The Happiness Trap

  • Myth No.1: Happiness Is The Natural State For All Human Beings

  • Myth No.2: If You're Not Happy, You're Defective

  • Myth No.3: To Create A Better Life, We Must Get Rid Of Negative Feelings

  • Myth No.4: You Should Be Able To Control What You Think And Feel

The happiness trap is built through ineffective control strategies. In order to feel happy, we try hard to control what we're feeling. But these control strategies have three significant costs: 1. They take up a lot of time and energy and are usually ineffective in the long run. 2. We feel silly, defective, or weak-minded because the thoughts/feelings we're trying to get rid of keep coming back. 3. Many strategies that decrease unpleasant feelings in the short-term actually lower our quality of life over the long term. These unwanted outcomes lead to more unpleasant feelings, and thus even more attempts to control them. It's a vicious cycle. Psychologists have a technical term for this inappropriate or excessive use of control strategies: ‘experiential avoidance'. Experiential avoidance means the tendency to keep trying to avoid, change or get rid of your unwanted thoughts and feelings--even when doing so is harmful, costly, useless or destructive. Experiential avoidance is a major cause of depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol addiction, eating disorders and a vast number of other psychological problems.

So here is the happiness trap in a nutshell: to find happiness, we try to avoid or get rid of bad feelings--but the harder we try, the more bad feelings we create.

How Do I Escape The Happiness Trap?

Increasing your self-awareness is the first step. Notice all the little things you do each day to dodge, change or blot out unpleasant thoughts and feelings. And when you find yourself using these control strategies, notice the consequences. Keep a journal, or spend a few minutes each day reflecting on this. The faster you can recognise when you're stuck in the trap, the faster you can lift yourself out of it.

PART 2 Transforming Your Inner World

The Six Core Principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

  1. PRINCIPLE 1: DEFUSION. Defusion means relating to your thoughts in a new way, so they have much less impact and influence over you.

  2. PRINCIPLE 2: EXPANSION. Expansion means making room for unpleasant feelings, sensations and urges, instead of trying to suppress them or push them away.

  3. PRINCIPLE 3: CONNECTION. Connection means living in the present; focusing on and engaging fully in whatever you're doing.



  6. PRINCIPLE 6: COMMITTED ACTION. ‘committed action' is shorthand for ‘committed, effective, valued action'.

In ACT, our main interest in a thought is not whether it's true or false, but whether it's helpful; that is, does it help us create the life we want?


You can use this technique with any unpleasant thought. For instance, if your mind says, ‘Life sucks!' then simply acknowledge, ‘I'm having the thought that life sucks!' If your mind says, ‘I'll never get over this!' then simply acknowledge, ‘I'm having the thought that I'll never get over this!'

Using this phrase makes you aware of the process of thinking. This means you're less likely to take your thoughts literally. Instead, you can step back and see those thoughts for what they are: words passing through your head and nothing more. We call this process ‘cognitive defusion', or simply ‘defusion'. Cognitive fusion tells us that thoughts are the truth and very important. Cognitive defusion reminds us that thoughts are just words.

In ACT we don't try to change, avoid or get rid of the story. We know how ineffective that is. Instead we simply acknowledge: ‘This is a story.'


Identify your mind's favourite stories, then give them names, such as the ‘loser!' story, or the ‘my life sucks!' story, or the ‘I can't do it!' story. Often there will be several variations on a theme.

When your stories show up, acknowledge them by name. For example, you could say to yourself, ‘Ah yes. I recognise this. That old favourite, the "I'm a failure" story.' Or ‘Aha! Here comes the "I can't cope" story.' Once you've acknowledged a story, that's it--just let it be. You don't have to challenge it or push it away, nor do you have to give it much attention. Simply let it come and go as it pleases, while you channel your energy into doing something you value.

Use these techniques regularly with distressing thoughts, at least ten times a day when starting. Any time you're feeling stressed, anxious or depressed, ask yourself: ‘What story is my mind telling me now?' Then once you've identified it, defuse it.

When troublesome thoughts pop into your head, it may be useful to ask yourself one or more of the following questions: • Is this thought in any way useful or helpful? • Is this an old thought? Have I heard this one before? Do I gain anything useful from listening to it again? • Does this thought help me take effective action to improve my life? • What would I get for believing this thought?

Thoughts Are Just Stories

But if thoughts are just stories, then how do we know which ones to believe? There are three parts to this answer. First, be wary of holding on to any belief too tightly. We all have beliefs, but the more tightly we hold on to them, the more inflexible we become in our attitudes and behaviours.

Second, if a thought helps you to create a rich, full and meaningful life, then use it. Pay attention to it, and use it for guidance and motivation-- and at the same time remember that it is still just a story; a bit of human language. So use it, but don't clutch it too tightly.

Third, one of the core principles of ACT involves learning to pay careful attention to what is actually happening, rather than just automatically believing what your mind says.


This is a simple and effective defusion technique. When your mind starts coming up with those same old stories, simply thank it. You could say to yourself (silently) things like, ‘Thank you, Mind! How very informative!' or ‘Thanks for sharing!' or ‘Is that right? How fascinating!' or simply, ‘Thanks, Mind!' When thanking your mind, don't do it sarcastically or aggressively. Do it with warmth and humour, and with a genuine appreciation for the amazing ability of your mind to produce a never-ending stream of thoughts. (You could also combine this technique with Naming the Story: ‘Ah yes, the "I'm a failure" story. Thanks so much, Mind!')


This technique is particularly good with recurrent negative self-judgements. Find a thought that upsets or bothers you. Focus on the thought for ten seconds, believing it as much as possible. Notice how it affects you. Then pick an animated cartoon character with a humorous voice, such as Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Shrek or Homer Simpson. Now bring the troubling thought to mind, but ‘hear' it in the cartoon character's voice, as if that character were speaking your thoughts out loud. Notice what happens.

When practising defusion, it's important to keep the following things in mind:

  • The aim of defusion is not to get rid of unpleasant thoughts, but rather to see them for what they are --just words--and to let go of struggling with them. At times they will go away and at times they won't. If you start expecting them to go, you are setting yourself up for disappointment or frustration.

  • Don't expect these techniques to make you feel good. Often when you defuse a troublesome thought, you will feel better. But this is just a beneficial byproduct, not the main goal.

  • Remember that you're human, so there will be plenty of times when you forget to use these new skills. And that's okay, because the moment you realise you've been reeled in by unhelpful thoughts, you can instantly use one of these techniques to unhook yourself.

  • Remember that no technique is foolproof. There may be times when you try them and defusion doesn't happen. If so, simply observe what it's like to be fused with your thoughts. Merely learning to tell the difference between fusion and defusion is useful in its own right.


Here's what we're aiming for with all these defusion skills:

  • If the thinking self is broadcasting something unhelpful, the observing self need not pay attention. The observing self can instead focus its attention on what you are doing here and now.

  • If the thinking self is broadcasting something useful or helpful, then the observing self can tune in and pay attention. This is very different from approaches such as positive thinking, which are like airing a second radio show, Radio Happy and Cheerful, alongside Radio Doom and Gloom, in the hope of drowning it out. It's pretty hard to stay focused on what you're doing when you have two radios playing different tunes in the background.


Take ten deep breaths, as slowly as possible. (You may prefer to do this with your eyes closed.) Now focus on the rise and fall of your rib cage, and the air moving in and out of your lungs. Notice the sensations as the air flows in: your chest rising, your shoulders lifting, your lungs expanding. Notice what you feel as the air flows out: your chest falling, your shoulders dropping, the breath leaving your nostrils. Focus on completely emptying your lungs. Push out every last bit of air, feeling your lungs deflate, and pause for a moment before breathing in again. As you breathe in, notice how your tummy gently pushes outward. Now let any thoughts and images come and go in the background, as if they were cars passing by outside your house. When a new thought or image appears, briefly acknowledge its presence, as if you were nodding at a passing motorist. As you do this, keep your attention on the breath, following the air, as it flows in and out of your lungs. You may find it helpful to silently say to yourself, ‘Thinking', whenever a thought or image appears.

By regularly practising this technique, you will learn three important skills: 1. How to let thoughts come and go without focusing on them. 2. How to recognise when you've been hooked by your thoughts. 3. How to gently unhook yourself from thoughts and refocus your attention. When practising this technique, notice the distinction between your thinking self and your observing self. (The observing self focuses on the breath, while the thinking self chatters away in the background.) Notice also that this is an acceptance strategy, not a control strategy. We aren't trying to change, avoid or get rid of unwanted thoughts; we're simply allowing them to be there, to come and go as they please.


So here's the point I'm trying to hammer home: although you have don't have much direct control over your feelings, you can directly control your actions.

Emotions are like the weather--they're always present and constantly changing. They continually ebb and flow, from mild to intense, pleasant to unpleasant, predictable to utterly unexpected. A ‘mood' refers to the general tone of emotion across a period of time. A ‘feeling' refers to a discrete episode of emotion with distinctive, recognisable characteristics.

With the struggle switch OFF:

  • Our emotions are free to move.
  • We don't waste time and energy fighting or avoiding them.
  • We don't generate all that ‘dirty discomfort'.

With the struggle switch ON:

  • Our emotions are stuck.
  • We waste a huge amount of time and energy struggling with them.
  • We create a lot of painful and unhelpful ‘dirty discomfort'.

One strategy for dealing with judgements specifically is to label them as such. Suppose your mind says, ‘This anxiety is terrible.' You could then acknowledge, ‘I'm making the judgement "This anxiety is terrible".' Or suppose your mind says, ‘This guilt is awful.' You could then acknowledge, ‘I'm making the judgement "This guilt is awful".' Using this phrase makes you aware of the process of judging. Then you have a choice in how much you buy into those judgements. Alternatively, each time you notice a judgement you can silently say to yourself, ‘Judging...' and let it be. Notice that I said the aim is to let go of judging; I didn't say to stop judging. Your thinking self is an expert at judging, and it'll never stop doing it for long. But you can learn to let go of those judgements more and more, simply by defusing them, as in the above examples.

Body Awareness: Expansion

When practising expansion, let your thoughts come and go in the background, and keep your attention focused on your emotions. And remember: The essence of an emotion is a set of physical changes in the body. We primarily notice these changes as physical sensations. Expansion starts with noticing what we're feeling in our body (body awareness) and observing precisely where those sensations are located; it then progresses to studying those sensations in more detail. This is the first of three basic steps, outlined below.

The three basic steps of expansion are: observe your feelings, breathe into them, and allow them to come and go. Whenever you're struggling with an unpleasant emotion of any sort, follow these three steps:

STEP 1: OBSERVE. ‘Observe' means bring your awareness to the sensations in your body. Take a few seconds to scan yourself from head to toe. Notice what you're feeling, and where. As you do this, you will probably notice several uncomfortable sensations. Look for the one that bothers you the most.

Focus your attention on that sensation. Observe it with curiosity, like a scientist who has discovered some interesting new phenomenon. Observe it carefully. Notice where it starts and where it ends. If you had to draw a line around this sensation, what would it look like? Is it on the surface of the body or inside you or both? How far inside you does it go? Where is it the most intense? Where is it the weakest? How is it different in the centre from around the edges? Is there any pulsing or vibration within it? Is it light or heavy? Still or in motion? Warm or cool?

STEP 2: BREATHE. ‘Breathe' means you breathe into and around the sensation, as if making extra space for it. Begin with a few deep breaths--the slower the better--and make sure you fully empty your lungs before breathing in. So breathe slowly and deeply, and imagine that you are breathing directly into the sensation. Feel your breath flowing into and around it, as if you are somehow creating extra space within your body. Loosen up around this sensation. Give it some ‘room to move'.

STEP 3: ALLOW. ‘Allow' means you allow the sensation to be there, even though you don't like it or want it. In other words, you ‘let it be'. When your mind starts commenting on what's happening, just say, ‘Thanks, Mind!' and come back to observing.

Don't try to get rid of the sensation or alter it. If it changes by itself, that's okay. If it doesn't change, that's okay too. Changing or getting rid of it is not the goal. The goal is to make peace with it; to let it to be there, even if you don't like it or want it. You may need to focus on this sensation for anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, until you completely give up the struggle with it. Be patient; take as long as you need.


Q: I don't feel my emotions in my body. They're all in my head. A: Sometimes it seems as though you don't feel emotions in your body, but everybody does. If you can't readily feel them, it suggests you're very disconnected from your body. If this is the case, practise the Body Awareness exercise (see Chapter 13). Practise it for three or four minutes, twice a day, especially when you're feeling upset or stressed. Before long you'll be able to locate your feelings in your body. There are usually some key areas where we feel most intensely. Common ones include the forehead, temples, jaw, neck, shoulders, throat, chest and abdomen.

Q: How much practice do I need to do? A: Expansion is a very powerful acceptance skill, and obviously the more you practise, the better you get. So try it out with different feelings--both strong ones and mild ones. Use every opportunity. For example, if you're stuck in traffic, caught in a slow-moving line or waiting for a friend who's running late, use that time to practise expansion. Notice what you're feeling in that moment: is it boredom, anxiety, irritation? Whatever it is, observe, breathe and allow--and if you wish, visualise. At least then you'll be using your time constructively to develop a new skill, instead of merely struggling with your feelings.


A key skill in dealing with urges is learning to be aware of them: to notice where they are happening and what they feel like. (Yes, this is more about body awareness!) So the next time you feel an urge to eat, drink, smoke, yell or run away, take a moment to scan your body from head to toe and notice where you feel it. If you pay close attention, you'll detect a variety of vague sensations. For example, if you focus in on ‘restless legs', you'll notice that some of the muscles feel tense or springy as they contract in readiness to move. You may also notice feelings of warmth or tingling, caused by increased blood flow and altered electrical activity in the nerves. It takes a little practice (that word again!) to get really good at tuning in to your urges, but as you do, you'll find that they have two main components: 1. Vague sensations that tell you your body is preparing for action. 2. Associated thoughts and images about the sort of action you want to take.

To Act Or Not To Act?

Once you are aware of a strong urge, you need to ask yourself: If I act on this urge, will I be acting like the person I want to be? Will it help take my life in the direction I want to go?

Whatever the urge, the first step is to notice it. (It often helps to acknowledge silently, ‘I'm having the urge to do X.') The second step is to check in with your values: ‘Will acting on this urge help me be the person I want to be? Will it help me take my life in the direction I want?' If the answer is yes, then go ahead and act, using that urge to guide you and give you momentum. But if the answer is no, then instead take some action that's more in line with your values.

We often get into a struggle with our urges; that's why people talk of ‘resisting' them or ‘giving in' to them. In urge surfing, though, we aren't trying to resist or control our urges--we're just giving them space. If you give an ocean wave enough space, it will reach a crest and then harmlessly subside. But what happens if the wave encounters resistance? Well, ever seen a wave crash onto the beach or smash against the rocks? It's loud, messy and potentially destructive! Urge surfing is a simple but effective technique in which we treat our urges like waves; that is, we surf them until they dissipate.

To surf an urge rather than be wiped out by it, all you need to do is pay careful attention and:

  • Observe where in your body you feel the urge most strongly.

  • Acknowledge, ‘I'm having the urge to ... X, Y, Z.'

  • Just watch it rise and watch it fall.

  • Don't try to suppress it or get rid of it.

  • Breathe into it; make room for it.

  • When your mind starts judging or criticising this urge or telling you other unhelpful stories (such as ‘You can't handle it'), just allow those thoughts to come and go without focusing on them.

  • Some urges rise and fall rapidly; others linger. Allow your urge to rise and fall in its own sweet time.

  • You may find it helpful to score the urge on a scale of 1 to 10. For example, ‘I'm having the urge to smoke and it's a 7.'

  • No matter how huge that urge gets, you have room for it. And eventually it will crest and then it will subside. So observe it, breathe into it and allow it.

The OBSERVE Acronym

O=Observe B=Breathe S=Surf E=Expand R=Refocus V=Values E=Engage

There's always a simpler acronym you can stick to--ACT: Accept your internal experience. Choose a valued direction. Take action.

During the next week, pick two or three difficult situations that naturally occur when you take your life in a valued direction. These situations could be anything: getting some exercise, attending a class, asking someone out on a date or attempting something new at work. Once you're in those situations, notice your urges, surf them and stay fully engaged in what you're doing.

What demons can you expect to find clambering up on deck as you steer your boat in a valued direction? What feelings, urges and sensations might possibly act as obstacles? What thoughts and images might possibly act as obstacles?

The next step is to make some time to practise defusion and/or expansion with these demons. What valued activities can you do in the next few days that will give you a chance to meet these demons, see them for what they are and make peace with them? Set yourself a few goals: specify the time, the place and the activity you'll do. Then engage yourself fully in that activity.


The thinking self is rather like a time machine: it continually pulls us into the future and the past. We spend a huge amount of time worrying about, planning for or dreaming of the future, and a huge amount of time rehashing the past.

What Is ‘Connection'? ‘Connection' is the process of making full contact with your experience in this moment. ‘Connection' means being fully aware of your here-and-now experience and being interested, open and receptive to that experience. In practising connection, we pull ourselves out of the past or the future and bring ourselves back to this moment, right here, right now, with openness, receptiveness and interest.

Connection happens through the observing self. It involves bringing our full attention to what is happening here and now, without getting distracted or influenced by the thinking self. The observing self is by nature non-judgemental. It can't judge our experience, because judgements are thoughts and therefore a product of the thinking self. The observing self doesn't get into a struggle with reality; it sees things as they are, without resisting. It's only when we start judging things as bad or wrong or unfair that we resist them.

A Few Simple Connection Exercises

To improve your ability to stay present and notice what is happening a round you, practise the following two exercises on a daily basis.

Notice Five Things

  1. Pause for a moment.
  2. Look around and notice five objects you can see.
  3. Listen carefully and notice five sounds you can hear.
  4. Notice five things you can physically feel.

You can develop this skill further by going for a daily walk and spending the whole time noticing what you can see, hear, smell and physically feel (and refocusing whenever you realise you've been ‘disconnected').

Connecting With Your Morning Routine

Pick an activity that's part of your daily morning routine, such as brushing your teeth, combing your hair or taking a shower. Totally focus on what you are doing, using all your five senses. For example, when you're in the shower notice the different sounds of the water: as it sprays out of the nozzle, as it hits your body, as it gurgles down the drain. Notice the temperature of the water and the feel of it in your hair. Notice the sensations of the water running down your back and legs. Notice the smell of the soap and the shampoo and how they feel against your skin. Notice the visual patterns of the water on the walls or curtain. Notice the clouds of steam billowing upward. Notice the movements of your arms as you scrub or shampoo. When thoughts and feelings arise, acknowledge them, let them be and refocus on the shower. As soon as you realise that your attention has wandered off, thank your mind and refocus on the shower. For starters, practise connecting with one part of your morning routine each day. Then, as your ability improves, extend it to other parts.

Connection With Pleasant Experiences

To appreciate connection, practise it with at least one pleasant activity each day. Make sure it's a values-driven activity, not an avoidance-driven activity--that is, it's something you're doing because it's important or meaningful, or a genuinely valued part of your life, and not just an attempt to avoid ‘bad feelings'. As you do this activity, imagine that this is the first time you've ever done it. Really pay attention to what you can see, hear, smell, touch and taste. Savour every moment. And the moment you realise you've disconnected, thank your mind and refocus on what you're doing.

Connection With A Useful Chore

Pick a chore that you don't like but that you know is helpful in the long run. Then each time you do it, practise connection. Have no expectations; just notice what happens.

Connection With A Task You've Been Avoiding

Pick a task you've been putting off for a while. Set aside twenty minutes to make a start on it. During that time, focus completely on the experience. Connect with it fully, through the five senses, while making room for your feelings and defusing your thoughts. After twenty minutes, feel free either to stop or to continue. Do this for twenty minutes every day, until your task is completed.

So from now on, instead of the Ten Deep Breaths technique (from Chapter 7), start Breathing to Connect throughout the day. Practise it at traffic lights, while waiting in line, before you get out of bed in the morning, during your lunchbreak, while your computer is booting up, while you're waiting for your husband to get ready to go out. In particular, start Breathing to Connect whenever you're stressed or whenever you realise you're all caught up in thoughts and feelings. In the midst of a tense situation, even one deep breath can give you precious seconds to collect your wits.


In using the thinking self to assist in connection, we need to consciously put aside judgemental ways of talking, and instead use factual descriptions.

When we make negative judgements about our experience, we can easily get into a struggle. But when we describe our experience in terms of facts, it helps us connect with what is actually happening. Now, you've already been doing this to some degree, for example, when you use terms like: ‘I'm having the thought that...', ‘I'm getting the image of...', ‘I'm having the feeling of...', ‘I'm having the urge to...', ‘I'm making the judgement that...' These are all factual descriptions of your current experience. In each case you are simply stating what is currently happening: that in this moment you're having a thought, image, feeling, urge or judgement. This allows you to stay connected with what is happening, to be present, open and self-aware. We can build on this skill by giving a running commentary. By ‘running commentary' I mean an ongoing factual description, not a judgemental one, of what is taking place from moment to moment. Doing this can help us stay present, even in the midst of powerful feelings.


Qualities Of The Observing Self

The observing self is there from birth to death and is unchanging. It observes everything you do, but never judges you. It cannot be hurt or damaged in any way. It is always there, even if we forget about it or know nothing of it. It is the source of true acceptance. It is not a ‘thing'. It is not made of physical matter. It cannot be improved on in any way; therefore, it is perfect.

Tuning in to your observing self is very simple to do. Choose anything you are aware of: a sight, sound, smell, taste, sensation, thought, feeling, movement, body part, material object--literally anything. Focus on that thing and observe it as if you were a curious scientist. As you're observing it, notice who's doing the observing. That's all there is to it. In that moment, when you observe the observing, you are the observing self. In that moment, you are awareness of awareness; consciousness of consciousness.

PART 3 Creating A Life Worth Living

Values Versus Goals

It's important to recognise that values are not the same as goals. A value is a direction we desire to keep moving in; an ongoing process that never reaches an end. For example, the desire to be a loving and caring partner is a value. It's ongoing for the rest of your life. The moment you stop being loving and caring, you are no longer living by that value. A goal is a desired outcome that can be achieved or completed. For example, the desire to get married is a goal. Once achieved, it's ‘done' and can be crossed off the list.

A value is like heading west. No matter how far you travel, there's always farther west you can go. A goal is like a mountain or river you wish to cross on your westward journey. Once you've gone over it, it's a ‘done deal'.

Values Make Life Worth Living

Connecting with our values gives us a sense that our hard work is worth the effort.

Many of my clients ask questions like, ‘What's the point of life?', ‘Is this all there is?', ‘Why don't I feel excited about anything?' Others say things like, ‘Maybe the world would be better off without me', ‘I have nothing to offer', ‘Sometimes I wish I could go to bed and never wake up again.' Such thoughts are commonplace not just among the 10 per cent of adults who suffer from depression at any given time, but also among the rest of the population. Values provide a powerful antidote: a way to give your life purpose, meaning and passion.


It's preferable that you actually write down your answers. Writing concentrates your thinking and helps you to consciously remember what you answer.

Values Domain No.1: Family

  1. What sort of brother/sister, son/daughter, father/mother (or other relative) do you want to be?

  2. What personal qualities would you like to bring to these relationships?

  3. How would you treat others if you were the ‘ideal you' in these relationships?

  4. What sort of ongoing activities do you want to do with your relatives?

  5. What sort of relationships do you want to build?

Values Domain No.2: Marriage and Other Intimate Relationships

  1. What sort of partner would you like to be in an intimate relationship?

  2. What personal qualities would you like to develop within this relationship?

  3. How would you treat your partner if you were the ‘ideal you' in this relationship?

  4. What sort of relationship do you want to build?

  5. What sort of ongoing activities do you want to do with your partner?

Values Domain No.3: Friendships

  1. What does it mean to you to be a good friend?

  2. If you could be the ‘ideal you', how would you behave toward your friends?

  3. What personal qualities would you like to bring to these friendships?

  4. What sort of friendships do you want to build?

  5. What sort of ongoing activities do you want to do with your friends?

Values Domain No.4: Employment

  1. What sort of worker or employer would you like to be?

  2. What personal qualities would you like to bring to the workplace?

  3. How would you treat your co-workers/colleagues/employees if you were the ‘ideal you' in your workplace?

  4. What sort of relationships do you want to build with your workers/colleagues/employees?

  5. What sort of ongoing activities do you want to do with your workers/colleagues/employees?

  6. What would make your work more meaningful (regardless of whether you like it)?

Values Domain No.5: Education and Personal Development

  1. What do you value about learning, education or training?

  2. What new skills or knowledge would you like to gain?

  3. What further education or training appeals to you?

  4. What sort of student/trainee would you like to be?

  5. What personal qualities would you like to bring to your studies or training?

  6. What sort of relationships would you like to build with other students/trainees?

Values Domain No.6: Recreation, Fun and Leisure

  1. What sorts of hobbies, sports or leisure activities do you want to participate in?

  2. On an ongoing basis, how do you wish to relax and unwind?

  3. On an ongoing basis, how do you wish to have fun?

  4. How do you wish to be creative?

  5. What sorts of new activities would you like to try?

  6. What old activities would you like to take up again or do more of?

Values Domain No.7: Spirituality

  1. What is important to you in this area of life?

  2. What spiritual activities would you like to do on an ongoing basis? The word ‘spirituality' has different meanings for different people. It may mean getting out into nature, dancing, meditating, practising yoga or participating in an organised religion. Whatever it means to you is fine.

Values Domain No.8: Community Life

  1. How would you like to contribute to your community (for instance, through volunteering, recycling or helping an elderly neighbour)?

  2. What interest groups, charities or political parties would you like to support or become actively involved in?

Values Domain No.9: Environment and Nature

  1. What aspects of nature would you like to connect with?

  2. What environments would you like to spend more time in?

  3. How would you like to care for, change or contribute to the variety of environments around you--in nature, at work and at home?

  4. What activities would you like to do that get you out into nature?

  5. What activities would you like to do that alter your environment at home or at work in creative, helpful or pleasing ways?

Values Domain No.10: Health and Body

  1. How would you like to care for your body?

  2. What sort of physical health do you want to build?

  3. What sort of ongoing activities do you want to do in terms of connecting with and taking care of your body?

  4. How do you want to look after your health with regard to sleep, diet, exercise, smoking, alcohol?

Ask yourself: Which of the above values are the most important to me? Which of them am I actively living by, right now? Which of them am I most neglecting? Which are the most important to start working on right away? Write your answers down and hold on to them.


Setting Meaningful Goals

Step 1: Summarise Your Values. Write a brief description of the domain and the values you're going to work on. For example, ‘In the domain of family, I value being open, honest, loving and supportive.'

Step 2: Set An Immediate Goal. Ask yourself: ‘What's the smallest, easiest thing I can do today that is consistent with this value?' It's always good to boost your confidence by starting with a small, easy goal--one that can be accomplished straightaway.

Step 3: Set Some Short-term Goals. Ask yourself: ‘What small things can I do over the next few days and weeks that are consistent with this value?' Remember: be specific. What actions will you take? When and where will you do them?

Step 4: Set Some Medium-range Goals. Ask yourself: ‘What larger challenges can I set for the next few weeks and months that will take me in my valued direction?' Again, be specific.

Step 5: Set Some Long-term Goals. Ask yourself: ‘What major challenges can I set for the next few years, which will take me in my valued direction?' This is where you dare to think big. What would you like to achieve in the next few years? Where would you like to be five years from now?

Imagine Yourself Taking Effective Action (‘visualisation')

Once you've set a goal, close your eyes and spend a few moments vividly imagining yourself taking effective action. Imagine this in any way that comes naturally. See yourself, feel yourself and hear yourself taking effective action to achieve your goal. Notice what you're saying and what you're doing. Keep rehearsing, until it's clear to you what your actions are.

Action Plans

Once you've identified your goals, you need to break them down into an action plan. Ask yourself: What smaller steps are required in order to complete this goal? What resources (if any) do I need in order to take these steps? When, specifically, will I carry out these actions?

Does This Sound A Bit Contrived?

There's plenty of room for spontaneity once your boat is sailing in the right direction, but first you've got to choose where you're heading, then use a map and compass to plot your course. And, of course, you mustn't forget to appreciate the voyage. Change happens in an instant. The moment you steer that ship toward shore, you are successfully creating a meaningful life. Your mind will try to tell you that the most important thing is to reach the shore, but that's not really the case. The most important thing is sailing toward shore. When you're drifting aimlessly at sea, you feel half-dead. But when you're heading for shore, you feel alive. As renowned author and educator Helen Keller put it: ‘Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.'

When we move in a valued direction, every moment of our journey becomes meaningful. So engage fully in everything you do along the way. Practise your mindfulness skills: be open to and interested in your experience. That way, you'll find it stimulating, satisfying and invigorating, even during those times when the going gets tough.


It's All About Connection

The more you open your eyes and notice the things you've taken for granted, and the more you live by what you value while appreciating what you have, the richer, fuller and more meaningful your life becomes. Mindfulness skills help you cultivate an attitude of openness, interest and receptiveness toward the world around you. This attitude in itself will make life more rewarding. You'll notice more opportunities, you'll be more stimulated and interested, you'll find more contentment and your relationships will improve. I like to put it like this: Life gives most to those who make the most out of what life gives.

One of the hardest things about mindfulness is remembering to practise it. Steven Hayes likens it to riding a bicycle. When you're on a bike, you're always about to fall over; you're always catching yourself, continually adjusting your balance. So it is with mindfulness. No matter how deeply connected we are with our here-and-now experience, our thoughts will continually pull us out of it. We have to keep catching ourselves--realising our mind has pulled us off-balance yet again.


Are you taking action? Making some meaningful changes in your life? If not, you've probably come up against at least one of the four major obstacles to change. These obstacles are so universal, they even form their own acronym--FEAR: Fusion with unhelpful thoughts. Expectations that are unrealistic. Avoidance of uncomfortable feelings. Remoteness from your values.

  • F: Fusion With Unhelpful Thoughts. The solution is to use your defusion skills: see these thoughts for what they are (just words), let them come and go, and return your focus to taking effective action.

  • E: Expectations That Are Unrealistic. If this has happened to you, the solution is to break your goals down into smaller bites. Ask yourself: ‘What's the smallest, easiest step I could take that would bring me a little closer to achieving this goal?' Then do it. Once you've taken that step, ask the same question: ‘What's the next small, easy step that would bring me a little bit closer to my goal?'

  • A: Avoidance Of Uncomfortable Feelings. The only effective solution is true acceptance (not tolerance or ‘putting up with it'). Therefore, practise your expansion skills, make room for your discomfort and focus on taking effective action.

  • R: Remoteness From Your Values. The solution? Connect with your values. If you haven't already done so, write them down. Read them through and change them as required. Share them with someone you trust. Re-read them on a regular basis. First thing in the morning, mentally go over them. At the end of each week, take a few minutes to check in with yourself and ask: ‘How true have I been to my values?'

How Do You Tell An Excuse From A Fact?

if you're genuinely unsure whether the thought is merely an excuse for inaction or a statement of fact about something that truly is impossible, just ask yourself this question: ‘If the person you care about more than anyone else in the world were kidnapped, and the kidnappers told you they will never release that person until you take a particular action toward your goals, would you then take action?' If the answer is yes, then you know that any reason (for not taking that action) is merely an excuse.

‘Ah, yes,' you may be saying, ‘but that's just a silly hypothetical question. In the real world, the person I love has not been kidnapped.' Right you are. But what's at stake in the real world is something equally important: your life! Do you want to live a life in which you do the things that are really meaningful to you? Or do you want to live a life of drifting aimlessly, letting your demons run the ship?

‘But it's not that easy. These reasons seem so convincing.' That's right. They do seem convincing if you fuse with them. So you need to remember, they're just thoughts. You can then defuse them in a number of different ways:

  • You can simply notice them and label them. Each time a reason pops into your head, acknowledge it by silently saying, ‘Reason-giving'.

  • You can say to yourself, ‘Thanks mind!'

  • You can acknowledge, ‘I'm having the thought "I can't do this because..."'

  • You can ask yourself the kidnap question: ‘If the life of a loved one depended on it, could I attempt this goal, even with all these "reasons" not to?'

  • You can name the stories underlying the reasons: ‘Aha! The "too tired" story or the "not enough time" story.'

  • You can simply let these thoughts come and go, like passing cars, while you focus your attention on taking action.


Willingness doesn't mean you like, want, enjoy, desire or approve of something. Willingness means you'll allow it, make room for it or let it be, in order to do something that you value.

Willingness means we make room for the negative side effects, such as unpleasant thoughts and feelings, in order to create a meaningful life. (And this, in turn, gives us plenty of positive side effects.) But willingness doesn't mean merely tolerating, gritting our teeth or being able to stand it. It means actively embracing our experience, even though we don't like it.

Willingness is essential because it's the only effective way to deal with life's obstacles. Whenever an obstacle presents itself, you can either say yes or no. If you say no, your life gets smaller. If you say yes, your life gets bigger. If you keep saying yes, there's no guarantee life will get easier because the next obstacle may be just as difficult or even tougher! But saying yes becomes more of a habit, and the experience you gain from saying yes gives you a reservoir of strength.

The Willingness-and-Action Plan

  • My goal is to...

  • The values underlying my goal are...

  • The thoughts, feelings, sensations and urges I'm willing to have in order to achieve this goal are...

  • It would be useful to remind myself that I can break this goal down into smaller steps, such as...

  • The smallest, easiest step I can begin with is...

  • The time, day and date that I will take that first step, is...


Commitment isn't about being perfect, always following through or never going astray. ‘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.

Redefining Success

Success in life means living by your values. Adopting this definition means you can be successful right now, whether or not you've achieved your major goals. Fulfilment is here, in this moment--anytime you act in line with your values. And you are free from the need for other people's approval.

No matter what sort of problematic situation you encounter, there are only ever two sensible courses of action: 1. accept it 2. take effective action to improve it. If no effective action is possible right now, then the only option is to accept it until you can take action.

Focus On What's In Your Control

Mainly two things: your actions and your attention. You can control the actions you take, no matter what your thoughts and feelings may be telling you (as long as you are aware of your internal experience and you focus on what you're doing). And you can control how you direct your attention; that is, what you focus on and whether you do so with openness, interest and receptiveness.

Life gives most to those who make the most out of what life gives.