Too many people are striving for a quick and dirty way to feel hedonistic bliss without accepting the negative feelings they have, says Steven Hayes.This was originally tagged onto my last post which spoke about Bhutan Buddhism, but I decided to make it into a separate post. I'm not sure if it is the right thing for this site, but I think Mike Norman wanted a wider range of topics so I thought I throw this in and see. I think it is relevant because in my opinion Western society is not very well.
I'm beginning to think that our society can bring unhappiness because the never ending pursuit of status and material things can bring about not only boredom, but also distress. I used to have an A type personality always at work, and I searched for pleasure by acquiring more and more things.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) was developed by scientists and psychologists whose research showed that it is very difficult for many people to feel happy, at least for significant amounts of time. It is a mindfulness based behavior therapy, which is distinctively different to Cognitive Behavior therapy, (CBT), or even mindfulness based CBT. It is an active, get out and about and do things therapy, but this is done very gently because distressed people are often very easily overwhelmed.
For many people happiness tends to be fleeting, where we all desire more things and it never feels like we have got enough. We always want a better job, a bigger house, better car, more money, more promotion, more romance, etc. So we work harder and harder and strive for more and more until in the end some people's only momentary pleasure comes only from a bit of wine in the evenings, or a few beers at the weekend. And now one in ten people are on antidepressant medications.
As the scientists developed ACT they realized how close their therapy was to Buddhist teaching. Their research showed that one of the reasons humans have conquered the world is because we always want more and are never really fully satisfied, and so this led to striving, but this can also lead to unhappiness and discontentment. The Buddhists discovered this centuries ago.
ACT also showed that the way we deal with outer reality does not work with inner reality. We tend to be very practical creatures and if we are not happy about something we will go and alter it, like cut down a tree if it is blocking all the sunlight from entering our house. But if we have unwanted thoughts and feelings we don't like we can't just make them go away by forcing them out of the mind, which actually makes them come back more. Try your best to not think of water melons for the next five minutes. Make sure no thoughts of water melons ever enter your mind.
The ACT practitioners found that through acceptance of negative, unpleasant feelings and thoughts we can reduce fear so that then some peace, contentment, and happiness are more likely to develop. This can bring about healing. But accepting things to try to make the pain go away doesn't work because that is not true acceptance. Buddhism is all about 'radical acceptance' and non-striving - although you still work hard (if you want to), go to college and get good grades, excel at sports, etc, it's just done with a different attitude with far less perfectionism.
ACT can also help people cope with chronic, physical pain and it has been shown that mindfulness and acceptance actually changes how are our brains are wired which reduces the sensation pain.
Steven Hayes is the founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.