My family and I love to play board games, especially around the festive season. And given the competitive nature of my upbringing, when we play, we play to win. I guess that’s what any board game promises; that victory is possible. One person, at the end of the game, will win. They will walk away with a stash of colored bank notes and immeasurable pride.
Imagine this past Christmas we found a new board game. This board game is called ‘The Happiness Game’. However this game is not one that we selectively choose to play every now then but a game that we play every day. And we don’t play this game against other people, but on our own. When we are feeling down we are losing at the game, and when we are happy we are winning. This game, like others, also makes the promise of victory. It promises that we can win at ‘The Happiness Game’. And with this promise we continue to plug away. Spending many hours chasing Happiness. Spending many hours trying to move our counter closer to the end goal.
But what if the game is rigged? What if we can’t win at ‘The Happiness Game’? What if Happiness is a feeling that comes and goes like the clouds regardless of how much we want it to stick around? What if happiness is something that we just cannot control? This makes sense at some level, because if it were possible to control happiness, everyone in the world would click their fingers and miraculously be happy. But that doesn’t happen. And it’s not for our lack of trying. When we are playing ‘The Happiness Game’ we do everything we can to get rid of unwanted and negative thoughts that take us away from Happiness; anti-depressants, alcohol, drugs or any other form of avoidance. The problem with avoidance-based techniques is that although they move us 5 steps forward at the time, by the next morning we have moved 10 steps back.
The major problem with ‘The Happiness Game’ is not that it falsely promises us victory and dominion over this elusive enemy. The problem is that when we are playing the game we make many decisions based on the need to feel good, rather than the need to live well. The hard fact of the matter is that some of the most important things in our lives can be really difficult. And when we try to achieve them, lots of unwanted negative thoughts and feelings are going to appear. If we are playing ‘The Happiness Game’, when those thoughts and feelings come along, we will probably move away from what is important to us.
To give an example, imagine Billy values friendship. He wants to build relationships with people. Unfortunately, however, Billy has this story about himself; he is socially awkward. One day Billy is invited to a party. He musters up the courage to go. However, on his way to the party Billy starts experiencing some awful feelings. He feels anxious, inadequate, and different to everyone else. If, when these feelings come along, Billy is playing ‘The Happiness Game’, he will turn around and go back to his room in the service of avoiding uncomfortable feelings. In doing so he would have moved away from something important to him; the development of friendship.
Now imagine a new game; it’s called ‘The Life Game’. In this game we don’t chase happiness, we don’t chase feeling good, we don’t avoid feeling bad. In fact, feelings are just not that important any more. And although they exist, playing in the background like a radio, we don’t pay them much attention when they are not being helpful and we don’t get bullied by them. Instead we live a life in which we move towards the things that are important to us, regardless of what feelings show up along the way. We live a life free to choose how to act, without the pull of feeling good constantly clouding our decisions.
These principles form the basis of a unique therapeutic approach named Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Much of my blogging activities from this point will involve discussing the principles of this approach. An approach that primarily aims to help people retire from ‘The Happiness Game’ and engage in ‘The Life Game’.