Exercise, meditation, prayer, and eating good food all sound like wonderful, emotional-baseline-raising activities. But depending on how you're doing them, they could also be a way to eliminate unwanted thoughts and feelings. Tony looks at "creative helplessness" and "emotional control strategies" and how they play into our search for happiness. Tony references Russ Harris' book ACT Made Simple https://amzn.to/3l3NeDJ
And follow Tony on the Virtual Couch YouTube channel to see a sneak preview of his upcoming podcast "Murder on the Couch," where True Crime meets therapy, co-hosted with his daughter Sydney. You can watch a pre-release clip here https://youtu.be/-RkRq8SrQy0
Subscribe to Tony's latest podcast, "Waking Up to Narcissism Q&A - Premium Podcast," on the Apple Podcast App. https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/waking-up-to-narcissism-q-a/id1667287384
Go to http://tonyoverbay.com/workshop to sign up for Tony's "Magnetize Your Marriage" virtual workshop. The cost is only $19, and you'll learn the top 3 things you can do NOW to create a Magnetic Marriage.
You can learn more about Tony's pornography recovery program, The Path Back, by visiting http://pathbackrecovery.com And visit http://tonyoverbay.com and sign up to receive updates on upcoming programs and podcasts.
Tony mentioned a product that he used to take out all of the "uh's" and "um's" that, in his words, "must be created by wizards and magic!" because it's that good! To learn more about Descript, click here https://descript.com?lmref=bSWcEQ
Hey, everybody. Welcome to episode 359 of the Virtual Couch. I am your host, Tony Overbay. I'm a licensed marriage and family therapist, certified mindful habit coach, writer, speaker, husband, father of four, and creator of The Path Back, which is an online pornography recovery program that is helping people turn away from turning to pornography as an unhealthy coping mechanism.
And a funny thing on the topic of pornography, which seems like a bit of an oxymoron, I received some texts a couple from people that are very close to me, who asked me about a post on my social media this week, that there was a mention of cornography that is as in corn, C O R N, or people talking about their corn addiction. Now, this is not a situation where people are literally addicted to the delicious yellow, I don't even know if it's a vegetable or a fruit, but it turns into popcorn, which is one of my favorite things in the entire world. I guess technically I could fall into a bit of a corn addiction if that is the case, but we're not talking about that type of corn.
Apparently, if you use the word porn or pornography on certain social media platforms, then that will be the end of you. Your account will be banned and you will be sent to outer darkness for time and all eternity. So in order to get around that and to try to help people, because I really feel like we need to be having better discussions around the challenges of people that are turning to pornography as an unhealthy coping mechanism, you have to refer to it as corn, corn addiction, and the coauthor of my book, He's a Porn Addict, Now what? An Expert and a Former Addict to Answer Your Questions, Joshua Shea, has a pretty big following, especially on Tik Tok. And he is known as that corn coach or the corn recovery coach. So I am meeting the social media platforms where they are at. And we're just going to embrace it. And I am going to help people turn away from unhealthy coping mechanisms, especially turning to corn or cornography to try to get that dopamine bump and have them tune out from feeling less connected in their relationships with their spouses or in their parenting, their faith, their health or their career. There's your gee whiz file tip for the day that you are going to hear me talk more about people and their addictions to corn. And, again, it is not the fruit and or vegetable.
But let's get to today's topic. I want to talk about happiness. And before I do that, let me just encourage you to go sign up for my newsletter. Go to tonyoverbay.com. And we will not inundate you with spam. As a matter of fact we will most likely, still continue to not send out the newsletter on a regular basis, but I'm working with my friends at the Yeah Yeah agency to get a template together and to just get that word out more on a regular basis, because there are so many exciting things that are coming. The Murder On The Couch podcast with my daughter, Sydney. I don't think I've ever put so much into the backend of putting something out in a better way. And I can't wait to release that. And there's a clip that's on my YouTube channel and I'll put the link in the show notes that is just a couple of minutes and it gives you a little bit of a preview of Sydney and my back and forth in this podcast. And I'm excited about this. We have a lot of episodes that have been recorded. And it's probably not exactly what you are anticipating. There's some true crime meets therapy. There's a, I feel like there's all these other things as well. A father, daughter relationship. And we'll get to more of that down the road, but I would encourage you to be on the lookout for Murder On The Couch and then sign up and subscribe and follow, however you follow all of your podcasts.
So back to this concept of happiness today, I want to look more into the book ACT Made Simple by my favorite acceptance and commitment therapy author, Russ Harris. We're going to dig into ACT Made Simple. And before I even get to ACT Made Simple, we're going to talk about a concept today in ACT that sounds negative, but it's called creative hopelessness. And I really feel like by the end of today's episode, you're going to have a better idea of why it can be difficult to feel happy. And what real happiness consists of. And then a way to start to achieve more of a legitimate, real internal feeling of happiness. And based on a, probably a different definition of happiness then you may be used to, but first let's go to story time. And this is from the book, The Confidence Gap. And this is from Russ Harris. “Why is it so difficult to be happy?” And actually this might be from his book, The Happiness Trap, one of one or two, one of those books that I recommend them both. Russ said, “The modern human mind's ability to analyze and plan, create and communicate was not initially a feel-good device so that we could tell jokes, write poems or say, I love you.”
And this is where I often like to think of the concept of a court jester that you had to bring someone in and basically tell them, hey, be funny, make us laugh. And if they were not funny, the court jester could be killed. But that was not the design of the human brain, that it wasn't this feel good device. It was more of a don't get killed device. So Russ said our minds grew up in a way to help us survive in a world that was fraught with danger. So early on your goal was to eat and drink and find shelter and have more kids and protect your family so that you could survive. So truly it was more of this don't get killed device, but he said that the better we became at anticipating and avoiding danger, the longer we lived and the more kids we had. So each generation of the human mind became increasingly skilled at predicting and avoiding danger.
So now our minds are constantly on the lookout. They are assessing and judging everything that we encounter. Is it good or bad? Is it safe or dangerous? Is it harmful or helpful? But now it's not as much about animals or packs of thieves, but it's about losing a job or being rejected or getting a speeding ticket or embarrassing ourselves in public. Or getting a terminal disease and a million other common worries. So as a result, he says that we spend a lot of our time worrying about things that more often than not, will not ever happen. And on that note before I get back to Russ's “Why it can be so difficult to be happy”, that worry, I think also is tied into just this desire we have for certainty.
I was talking with my wife about this last night and it can just be really a cause of such stress and anxiety for, I think a lot of us when we just want to know. I mean, it can be everything from, we want to know what our kids are going to do when they grow up. And we want to know what retirement is going to look like. We want to know who's going to win the super bowl in a couple of weeks. And we just have this desire to know, and we crave certainty. And if you really break it down, that desire to know is there to try and calm our anxiety that our brain feels like if I can just know, then I will be able to feel better. And I'll just be that, I'll be able to be more in the moment, be more present, but in reality, we have to be more present to be okay with the idea that we don't know, because we don't know who's going to win the super bowl. We don't know what retirement is going to look like. We can have a good idea. But one of the most certain things in life is that uncertainty. And in the book On Being Certain, which I just, I feel like is one of those books that I think really helped me reframe a lot of the things that I think, and the way that I act. It. Basically posits this idea that certainty is, in my words, “adorable” that our brain craves this certainty and that our brain is even trying to trick us into thinking, no, you can find it if you ruminate and you worry and you think, and you overthink. You'll find that certainty that you're looking for. So just, just keep at it. But then that is exactly what can keep us stuck. And I often say that it's that concept of, we want certainty and our brain will even say, okay, what's two plus two? Well, it's four. And that I'm pretty certain of. That is very certain.
And so that feeling of certainty is there in our brain somewhere. So I feel like the more that we are seeking certainty, then the more maddening it can become because our brain says no, you know what? It feels like, old man, keep ruminating, keep worrying. And you'll find that two plus two aha moment. Trust me. So we keep worrying and wondering and ruminating. But again, we spend a lot of this time worrying about things that more often than not, will not happen. So then Russ says that we also have this inherent need to belong to a group. And early on, if your clan booted you out, how long would it be before you were devoured by wolves? And he says sometimes, literally. So, how does the mind protect you from getting booted out? Well, by comparing you to other members of the clan. Am I fitting in? Or am I doing the right thing? Am I contributing enough? Am I as good as others? Am I doing anything that might get me rejected? So he says, does that sound familiar? Because our modern day minds are continually warning us of rejection and comparing ourselves to the rest of society. So no wonder we spend so much energy worrying about whether or not people will like us.
And even as little as a couple of decades ago, we only had to worry about the people in our church or in our neighborhood or in our school or in our work. But now all we have to do is pick up our phone or glance at a computer screen. And we can find a whole host of people who appear to be smarter, richer, slimmer, more famous, more powerful than we are. I can't even tell you, I feel like even more so over the last two or three years I've always had people come into the office and say that they see people on social media and everybody seems so happy and successful. And that's where as a therapist and when I get to work with so many of these people, and I will say, we all have our problems, without going into detail or breaking confidentiality. And it's interesting because I feel like that has amped up a little bit more in the last year or two of people putting on some very, very big “look at us”. We are doing everything and it's amazing and wonderful. We have no problems or no fears or no worries or no doubts. To the problem where then others are seeing those people put themselves out there as perfect. And then starting to feel again, like what is wrong with me? So I think that's exactly what Russ Harris is talking about. Because if I go back to this, he says that “When we compare ourselves to others, then we can feel inferior or disappointed or sad and depressed.” And then he said, “And to make it even worse,” and this is the part that I felt like it resonated with me in particular, “our minds are so sophisticated that we can even conjure up a fantasy image of the person that we believe we would like to be. So we can even compare ourselves to a version of ourselves that we assume would be much happier. And that just sounds exhausting. So, what he's saying in that scenario is I can even create this version of me that has these rock hard, six pack abs probably full hair transplants, no wrinkles, and then just able to quote the works of Shakespeare, as well as the works of ACT founder, Stephen Hayes, and then make sense of all of it. So why am I not that guy? What is wrong with me? I must, I must strive for that. Perfection. And so that is part of why it can be so difficult to be happy. So again, the brain is a don't get killed device.
And I will take every chance I can to then go from there and to the book Buddha Brain, where the author Rick Hanson says, “but here's the problem there too, that your brain preferentially scans for, registers, stores, recalls, and reacts to unpleasant experiences more than anything else,” he says, “the brain is like Velcro for the negative experiences and Teflon for the positive ones.” So consequently, even when positive experiences outnumber the negative ones, the pile of these negative implicit memories grows faster. So then this background feeling of what it feels like to be you can start to become undeservedly glum and pessimistic. So we seek this certainty. Our brain is this don't get killed device. Not a, I am falling in love and everything in the world is wonderful and amazing device. And so the acceptance of that is where we can start to grow. And now let's jump into this. What Russ Harris calls in the book ACT Made Simple, “the emotional control agenda”. So if we just, again, start out with, I just want to be happy. In the book ACT Made Simple, and I'm on chapter eight, he says, “Have you ever had a client who just wanted to be happy? And that is all that he or she wanted from therapy?” And he says, “Of course you have. And I'm sure you remember well, how challenging that is, or that was luckily from now on,” he says, “you will have something to help you with these clients. Creative hopelessness.”
And he says, “Please don't let the name put you off.” So creative hopelessness in a nutshell, in plain language, he says that creative hopelessness is a process where one becomes aware that trying hard to avoid or get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings tends to make life worse than better. So this is that concept where, when we are burning all these emotional calories seeking certainty, or trying to make sense of things that don't make sense or trying to prepare for a future version of events that more than likely will not happen, that is what can just start to feel like what is wrong with me, or I just don't feel happy. So that leads to this sense of hopelessness and the agenda of avoiding one's difficult thoughts and feelings. And out of that feeling of hopelessness can emerge a creative attitude toward finding new and different ways to deal with them. So if we look at hopelessness as where we find ourselves, when we're trying to control or avoid or get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings that can feel hopeless. We need to start to add a dose of creativity in there because now that I accept the fact that it feels that things can feel pretty hopeless. Well now, what am I going to do about that? So hopelessness, here we emerge a creative attitude toward finding a new and different way of dealing with this situation that we find ourselves in.
So Russ says, “The aim then is to increase the client's awareness of the emotional control agenda and the costs of the successive experiential avoidance,” which again, is doing anything other than the things that you feel would be good for you to do. And then to consciously start to recognize and acknowledge that clinging tightly to this agenda of control. This emotional control agenda is unworkable. So what do we have to do? We have to confront this agenda that you have, that you can control all of your thoughts and feelings and emotions. So while we look at what the client has done to avoid or get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings as a therapist, we start to help somebody examine how they work in the short-term and the long-term. So sometimes avoiding something works in the short term because it alleviates the feelings of uncomfortableness or anxiety, but then how's that working in the long haul? If you can avoid something in the very moment, then what do we typically do? Well, we'll do it later. We'll put it off until tomorrow. And if we hit the mid part of a day, then we'll do it tomorrow. And if we hit Wednesday or Thursday, we'll do it on Monday. And if we hit the 16th of the month, we'll do it next month. And when July hits, we'll do it next year. So when we know or suspect that a client, you know, as a therapist is excessively experientially avoidant and doing everything other than the things that they are claiming that they want to do, you recognize that they are so attached to this agenda of emotional control. They're saying, well, I need to feel good. I need to feel good before I can do these things that are important. Or I need to get rid of these unwanted thoughts and feelings, and then I can do it. But in reality, we have to do to actually start to feel good. Or we have to do, to bring along these unwanted thoughts and feelings. And show them actually, who is boss.
So this creative hopelessness, it's part of the ACT model that we bring. If we know for a fact, or we feel pretty sure that a client is really cleaning tightly to an agenda of emotional control, that I have to control how I feel I have to get rid of these unwanted, unpleasant and difficult thoughts or feelings or emotions or memories. And I have to replace these things with good, pleasant, desirable ones. Here is one of those problems that I really do have with the mental health field in general. And I was one of these therapists for years, that just said, okay, but what is going right for you? Or, you know, that thought leads to an emotion and that emotion leads to a behavior. So just change the thought, like you just need to be happy or if somebody doesn't call you back, instead of being frustrated or angry, just think, oh, maybe they dropped their phone in the lake. Maybe that's it. And so that would lead to an emotion of, oh, okay maybe I'm not so bad in the behavior. I can go about my day.
But then the person might leave the office and think, wait. I just paid for that guy to tell me that maybe my friend dropped their phone in a lake when in reality, I think that my friend just doesn't really care for me. So in other words, we can try to just say, okay, don't think that, or we can try to say, well, maybe it's not as bad as I think it is. And at that point, maybe I'm wrong and maybe everybody does love me and they just all forgot about me and that's completely okay. But in reality, we're still trying to control. We have this agenda of emotional control that I have to control how I feel. I have to get rid of the unwanted or unpleasant or difficult thoughts or feelings or emotions. And I just have to replace them with good and pleasant and desirable ones. So Russ says we've all got this agenda to some extent. It's normal. And we even talk about when you really dig deep and to act as much as I like to talk about this concept of experiential avoidance, and that's doing anything other than the things that I feel like I want to do or must do. That in reality, a little bit of experiential avoidance and moderation doesn't ruin our entire lives or our days.
But when a client is clinging desperately to this agenda of trying to have this emotional control, well, then at that point, then the experiential avoidance is high. And at that point it really does become very problematic. And again just by way of making sure that I realize I assumed that everybody has listened to everything and they know exactly what experiential avoidance is in the world of acceptance and commitment therapy this is a really powerful concept. So experiential avoidance and I'll stay in this text of ACT Made Simple. So Russ Harris says, “Let's look at another core process that gets people hooked on their thoughts and their feelings, it's experiential avoidance, and this term refers to our desire to avoid or get rid of any of these unwanted experiences and then anything that we do to try to make that happen.” Now these experiences in ACT, we call them private experiences and a private experience means any experience that you have that nobody else knows about unless you tell them. So that's your thoughts, your feelings, your memories, your images, your emotions, your urges, your impulses, your desires, your sensations.
So all humans are experientially avoidant to some degree. And why shouldn't they be? And there's an ACT metaphor that explains this I think in a little bit more detail, it's called the problem solving machine. So as a therapist, I would say if we had to pick one ability of the human mind that has enabled us to be so successful as a species, it would probably have to be problem solving, which basically boils down to this. A problem is something unwanted. And a solution means we avoid it or get rid of it. Now in the physical world, problem solving works really well. If you have a wolf outside of your door, you get rid of it, either with rocks or you throw spears at it. Or you shoot it, or if there's snow or rain or hail, when you can't get rid of those things, but you can avoid them, hiding in a cave or building a shelter or wearing protective clothing. So a dry arid ground, you can get rid of it by irrigation and fertilization, or you can avoid it by moving to a better location.
So the human mind is a problem solving machine and it's really good at its job. And given that problem solving works so well in the material world, then it's only natural that our mind tries to do the same with our inner world. So this world of thoughts and feelings, memories, and sensations and urges. But unfortunately when we try to avoid or get rid of unwanted thoughts or feelings, it doesn't work. And if it does, we end up creating a lot of new problems that can make life even harder. So experiential avoidance then actually increases our suffering. So he says we'll return to this problem solving machine metaphor later, but for now, consider how experiential avoidance increases suffering. Addiction provides one of the most obvious examples. So many addictions begin as an attempt to avoid or get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings. Such as boredom or loneliness or anxiety, guilt, anger, sadness. So in the short run, gambling, drugs, alcohol, sex, cigarettes, will often help people to avoid or get rid of these feelings temporarily.
But over time, a huge amount of pain and suffering results. So the more time and energy that we spend trying to avoid or get rid of unwanted private experiences, the things that are happening internally to you, your thoughts, your feelings, your emotions, your beliefs, all of these things. The more we're likely to suffer psychologically in the long run and, and things like anxiety disorders. He says provide another good example. It's not the presence of anxiety that creates an anxiety disorder. Because after all anxiety is a normal human emotion that we all experienced. Anxiety can be there as a warning. It truly can. But at the core of any anxiety disorder lies this excessive experiential avoidance. Of trying to avoid or run away from these feelings, thoughts, uncomfortable feelings that are happening inside of us. So Russ Harris says a life dominated by trying hard to avoid or get rid of anxiety, that actually then increases your anxiety. So he says, for example, suppose I feel anxious in social situations. So in order to avoid those feelings of anxiety, I stopped socializing. But my anxiety gets deeper and more acute. And now I have a social phobia. There's an obvious short-term benefit of avoiding social situations. They get to avoid anxious thoughts and feelings, but the long-term cost is huge. You become isolated. Your life quote gets smaller. And then people find themselves stuck in this vicious cycle. And he says, alternatively, I might try to reduce my anxiety in social situations by playing the role of a good listener.
So I become very empathetic and caring toward others. And I discover a lot of information about the thoughts and feelings and desires of other people. The other people I'm talking to, but I reveal very little or nothing of myself. Again, this helps in the short term to reduce my fear of being judged or rejected. But in the long term, it means that my relationships lack intimacy or openness or authenticity. Now Russ goes on to say, he says, suppose I take Valium or some other mood altering substance to reduce my anxiety. Again. The short term benefit is obvious, less anxiety. But the long term costs of relying on he quotes “benzodiazepines or antidepressants or marijuana or alcohol” to reduce our anxiety, could include A, a psychological dependence on the substance, or B, even a physical addiction, C, physical and emotional side effects, and D, financial costs. And failure to learn more effective responses to anxiety and which therefore maintains or can even exacerbate the issue. So he says that another way that I might respond to social anxiety would be to grit my teeth and socialize, despite my anxiety, that is to tolerate the feelings, even though I'm distressed by them.
So from an ACT perspective, and this is what I love. I love this about ACT. That sounds like that exposure. I just need to get in there and do it. But from an ACT perspective, this too would be experiential avoidance. Why? Because although I am not avoiding the situation, I am definitely struggling with my feelings and desperately hoping that they'll go away. So this is tolerance, not acceptance. And there's a big difference between tolerance and acceptance. He says, “Would you want people you love to tolerate you while you're present, hoping you'll soon go away and frequently checking to see if you've left yet? Or would you prefer them to completely and totally accept you as you are with all of your flaws and foibles and be willing to have you around for as long as you choose to stay?”
So, Russ Harris says the cost of tolerating social anxiety, that is gritting my teeth and putting up with it, is that it takes a huge amount of effort and energy, which makes it hard to fully engage in any social interaction. So as a consequence, you start to miss out on much of the pleasure and fulfillment that accompany socializing of just being in the moment, being present, observing, noticing, being open, vulnerable, funny, charismatic, connecting. This in turn then will increase your anxiety about future social events. Because you're already predicting that I won't enjoy this or it'll feel awful or it's too much effort. He says, “Sadly, the more importance that we place on avoiding anxiety, the more we deeply have anxiety and we develop anxiety about our anxiety.” And it becomes this vicious cycle and it's at the center of any anxiety disorder. Because he says after all, what is it? The core of a panic attack, if not anxiety, about anxiety. So again, attempts to avoid unwanted thoughts and feelings. I can actually increase them. There's the paradox.
For example, research shows that suppression of unwanted thoughts leads to the rebound effect, meaning that it will increase the unwanted thoughts, both in intensity and frequency of the unwanted thoughts. Other studies show that training to suppress a mood will actually intensify it in a self amplifying loop. So there's a large and growing body of research that shows a higher experiential avoidance is associated with anxiety disorders. But again, that doesn't mean you can just jump in there and just exposure therapy yourself into happiness. Because is that tolerance or are you truly learning to accept and be in the moment? So talking about this growing body of research, showing that higher experiential avoidance is associated with anxiety disorders, excessive worrying, depression, poor work performance, higher levels of substance abuse, lower quality of life, high risk of acting out sexually can lead to concepts like borderline personality disorder, or a greater severity of post-traumatic stress disorder. Long-term disability, higher degrees of overall psychopathology. So it's hardly surprising that he says that then a core component of most ACT protocols involves getting a client in touch with the costs and futility of experiential avoidance. I mean, this is often an essential first step to pave the way. For a radically different agenda, experiential acceptance.
But, of course, you know, that is going to take work. And I'm not trying to say that just because you're aware, hear what I'm saying, that is going to be easy because it's going to be a little bit of a long road ahead. But then what's the key? It is learning how to figure out what matters to us. Here comes those values. And then throw in a nice dose of mindfulness and learning how to pause and slow down your heart rate and get out of your fight or flight of your brain, your amygdala. And learning how to be in the moment and live by things that are of value and importance. But that doesn't mean that your anxiety goes away. As a matter of fact, it'll probably still be there. But you'll learn more of a concept around acceptance. And not that you have to then have this avoidance.
So back to this concept of creative hopelessness. So now we can maybe understand a little bit more where creative hopelessness gets its name. Because what we aim to do is to create a sense of hopelessness in the agenda of controlling your feelings. So it's not about hopelessness in your future or yourself or in your life. It's hopelessness and the agenda of controlling your feelings. Therefore let's get creative. So we aim to undermine this agenda so we can open our clients as therapists up to a whole new one and agenda of acceptance. And a lot of the ACT textbooks often refer to this new agenda as willingness. So once we identify the hopelessness of trying to control, let's get creative and let's start to lean into willingness. That is the willingness to have your difficult thoughts and feelings. As opposed to fighting with them or avoiding them. So creative hopelessness is rarely a one-off intervention. Russ Harris says, “It's usually something you need to revisit session after session as a therapist. But usually each time you revisit it, it gets a little quicker and a little easier to do.” And so, it's interesting and I love before he goes deeper into the concepts around creative hopelessness. He says, okay, we need to get clear on a couple of concepts. So one is the emotional control strategies.
So emotional control strategies or anything that we do primarily to try and get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings or overt or covert behavior that's predominantly motivated by experiential avoidance. So these emotional control strategies can include everything from exercise, guilty, prayer, meditation, alcohol, heroin, suicide attempts. And he makes a note that if exercise or prayer or meditation are predominantly motivated by values, then we would not call those emotional control strategies. So, I have a value of fitness. That's a core value of mine. So exercise is a vehicle. So I moved that into, okay. That is living my value based life. If I am turning more to exercise instead of ruminating, worrying, beating myself up about things. So you really call things emotional control strategies, only if the main intention of those activities is to avoid or get rid of unwanted feelings. And creative hopelessness work will ask a client to look openly and non-judgmentally at all the emotional control strategies that they're using, but we don't judge those as good or bad or right. Or wrong or positive or negative.
Because we really want to just see if those strategies are working or not in terms of creating a better life. And this is where I love the fact that at the core of ACT is you. You are you, you are the only version of you and we can take in data from the peanut gallery or those that we really do appreciate and care about, and we do want to know what other people think it's just kind of in our nature. But ultimately you're the only one who knows how you feel. So I may ask others for their opinion or what do you think I should do or do you think this is good? But at the end of the day, this is where ultimately you and I love that you can look at a concept like exercise. And is that an emotional control strategy or is that a value? And that is completely up to you. And when I talk about value based living, I give this pretty dramatic example of a value of honesty, that if you grew up in a home. And that home, there was no honesty. Then you may have a value of almost, I want to say brutal honesty. But then your brain is going to say, okay, well, yeah, but you might hurt somebody's feelings. And in the world of ACT, well, I'm not even arguing that, that's not, we're not arguing the truthfulness of that statement. It may very well be true and probably is true, but is that a workable thought toward my value based goal of honesty?
But if you grew up in a home where there was an insane amount of brutal honesty, then maybe you have more of a value of compassion. So then your brain is going to “yeah, but” you and say, well, yeah, but you may not be honest. And at that point, then if you are the only version of you and you know what that means for you, then I'm not even arguing if that's a true or false statement. It's true. I'm not going to be completely honest at times because I have this value of compassion. So I love that we can even carry that over into these emotional control strategies that something like exercise. Is it a value or is it an attempt to control or move away from our run from your emotions? He talks about targeting all emotional control strategies. So, in a word, you know, Russ says, do we target all emotional control strategies? And he says in a word, no, with a whole bunch of O's. Because he says, “Recall that the whole ACT model rests on the concept of things being workable, workability.”
So is this behavior working to help you build a rich and meaningful life? So if your emotional control strategies are working to enrich and enhance your life, then keep doing them by all means. Keep doing the exercise away. If you have a value of knowledge, then Google everything. But if you do not have a value of knowledge, then Googling things can be a form of experiential avoidance. He said, “However, the reality is that most human beings overly rely on emotional control strategies. And when we use them excessively rigidly or inappropriately, our quality of life will suffer.” And he says, take eating chocolate for an example. He said, when we mindfully eat a piece of good quality chocolate appreciating and savoring it, we feel good. Assuming that we like chocolate. So if we use this as an emotional control strategy, flexibly and moderately, it enriches our life. It is workable, but if we do it excessively, then it might start to have a cost of health, such as weight gain. Plus if we are in intense, emotional pain and we eat chocolate to try and distract ourselves from it, then it's unlikely to work. And I love that he then goes back to this example of exercise, and for example he says, when we exercise, we often feel better. At least afterward. He says, if not at the time.
And exercise also improves our quality of life. Therefore, if we exercise as an emotional control strategy and we do so flexibly and moderately, then that's generally workable and good. But if it becomes excessive, like the client with anorexia spends three hours a day in the gym to keep their body in a state of wasted thinness, then even something as positive as exercise will have its costs. And in addition, he says, ACT postulates that even life enhancing activities such as exercise or meditation or healthy eating will be more satisfying and rewarding when they're motivated by values such as self care. Rather than being motivated by experiential avoidance or trying to escape these unwanted feelings. And I will say openly and honestly that the reason, I so appreciate talking about ACT and exercise in this framework, as a former ultra marathon runner and running a dozen races of a hundred miles or more and six times around a track for 24 hours and doing up to 125 miles. And I don't know, a hundred, 150 marathons and ultra marathons, that I know that there was a period of my life and it was when I was doing a career that I really didn't care for in the computer industry that I didn't even know how much that I didn't enjoy that. Because I didn't even know how much I would enjoy doing something that I find value in of therapy, writing, podcasting, or helping people. I now understand that that was why I turned to ultra marathon running. In that scenario, then my exercise was a form of experiential avoidance, trying to escape feelings. And then there is nothing quite like the pain of mile 80 at two in the morning of a race when you even question your own sanity of why on earth am I doing this?
And heading down a little hill, the feeling in your quads or a calf. So just the, I can't even describe what that feels like, but boy, I'll tell you what I'm not thinking about in that moment, going back to work on Monday. So I know that that exercise in those moments truly was a form of experiential avoidance. He also gives the example. He said, for example, have you ever eaten yummy food primarily to push away feelings such as boredom or stress or anxiety? And a few weeks ago, I did an episode, I think I called it “The Psychology of the Churro”, and I really had that feeling in Disneyland recently. It was fascinating that if I was bored, I could go get a churro and it would be amazing and it would push away those unwanted feelings of boredom and it was a satisfying experience when I can slow myself down. But then at that point, when that was my third or fourth chiro after eating also the beignets and also eating whatever huge lunch that I had, not so satisfying. So he says, contrast that with occasions when your eating was motivated by value is around savoring and appreciating your food or connecting and sharing with loved ones. And which one was more rewarding, you know, was it inhaling a churro? Or was it sitting and enjoying an experience and savoring a meal with loved ones?
Similarly, he said, if you do charity work motivated by values, around sharing and caring and giving and helping you'll likely find that far more rewarding than if you're mainly motivated by trying to avoid feelings of guilt or worthlessness. So if you are giving to the homeless man on the corner, because you feel guilty, that's going to be a completely different experience than if you are giving to that person, because you have a value of charity. So then as therapists, we try to help clients take action guided by your values, rather than by experiential avoidance. Rather than trying to just avoid these feelings or thoughts. So we want to get clients consciously moving toward what is meaningful rather than simply running from what is unwanted. So he said to really hammer this point home, suppose you exercise primarily motivated by values, such as self care. Or you pray motivated by values around connecting with God. He said we wouldn't class those as emotional control strategies because your primary aim isn't to control how you feel. But we would classify them as emotional control strategies. If your main purpose in doing them is to get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings. You know, I work a lot in religious contexts with the concepts around scrupulosity which is this OCD of religious thought. So if you go back to the way that Russ just pointed that out, if we pray and we do spiritual things, because we have a value around our spirituality or connection with God, then that's a completely different experience of prayer or confession. As a purpose of doing that to get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings of guilt or shame.
So then back to this creative hopelessness as an intervention based on workability. We're going to ask a client to take a good, long, honest, and mindful look at all of your emotional control strategies and see what they cost you. I would love for you to connect with the reality that our emotional control strategies often work in the short run to make somebody feel better, but they don't work in the long run to make your life rich, full and meaningful. So I said at the beginning that I wanted to challenge the definition of happiness and this by no shock comes from another Russ Harris book called The Happiness Trap. And there are two definitions that he mentions. And the happiness trap of happiness. And I feel like these are again some of those times where I don't want to just say that the light bulb came on the concept around why I just love acceptance and commitment therapy so much, but there are two very, very different ideas of happiness in the world. So Russ says, “What exactly is happiness? We all want it. We all crave it. We all strive for it. Even the Dalai Lama has said the very purpose of life is to seek happiness. But what exactly is it?” He said the word happiness has two very different meanings. The common meaning of the word is feeling good. In other words, feeling a sense of pleasure or gladness or gratification. We all enjoy these feelings. So it is no surprise that we chase these feelings. However, like all human emotions, feelings of happiness don't last. No matter how hard we try to hold onto them. They slip away every time as we'll see a life spent in pursuit of those good feelings is in the long-term, deeply unsatisfying.
In fact, the harder we chase after pleasurable feelings, the more we are likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. This is that concept of where “I'll be happy when”. I'll be happy when I get a hundred grand, I'll be happy when I get a nice car, I'll be happy when I graduate college, I'll be happy when I have a family. And while those things may bring this pleasurable feeling, but then like all good feelings in the long term, they go away. And so then we're chasing the next good feeling. The next good feeling. So he says the other far less common meaning of happiness is living a rich, full and meaningful life. So when we take action on the things that truly matter deep in our hearts, we move in directions that we consider valuable and worthy. And we clarify what we stand for in life and we act accordingly. Then our lives will become rich and powerful and meaningful, and we experience a powerful sense of vitality.
And he says this isn't some fleeting feeling. It's a profound sense of a life well lived and all those such a life will undoubtedly still give us many pleasurable feelings. It'll also give us uncomfortable ones, such as sadness and fear and anger. Because again, like we've talked about today, the goal is not to avoid those and not to try to run away from those. Because he says, this is only to be expected. If we live a full life, we will feel the full range of human emotion. So this is that part where I just feel like I want to shout from the rooftops. I want to testify. I want to sing the praises of just finding the real version of you, what it means to be you, your values. What you are all about, what you like, what you don't like. And the more you can learn to find that what really makes you tick and understand that is still going to come with all the highs and lows and ups and downs in life. But as you start to take action on the things that matter and really lean into your values and then acknowledge the fact that if I am experientially avoiding things just to avoid pain or discomfort, then I'm going to continually live in this world of fear and avoidance. But when I learn what really matters to me and I start to lean into what it feels like to be me, is to take action on the things that matter, the anxiety or the fear isn't going to completely disappear. But you're going to start to create a whole new relationship with it. And it is just going to become another thought or another feeling. And there it is. And I have lots of thoughts and I have lots of feelings. But I'm starting to do, I'm starting to do things that really make a difference for me, or matter for me.
And that will allow me to be more present in my life. And that is back to this definition that is feeling this full range of human emotion. But it's also going to just give us this profound sense of a life well lived, and I cannot say enough that that is something that we don't know what that is like until we do. And so it is worth it to take the effort and work to get to that point and really find this just true happiness in life, because I know that life can be challenging and difficult to say the least, so that's why I desperately want to talk about ACT every chance I get, because I want each and every one of you to have this profound sense of a life well lived because it does make everything just more worth living.
Taking us out per usual, the wonderful, the talented Aurora Florence, and it's more than ever, I feel like the song “It's Wonderful” is needed when we talk about things, the way that we talked about them today, because when you start to figure out what it feels like to be you, then in fact life really can be wonderful. All right, we'll see you next week on the Virtual Couch.