The happiness trap

New therapeutic approaches to depression have focused on the social and cultural attitudes which may make people more vulnerable to depression. A key problem is confusing ‘happiness’ with ‘pleasure’.

Depression is telling us something

Many people who have moved on from depression say that in hindsight the depression was a ‘wake up call’, forcing them to recognise unsustainable or harmful ways of living and to make important fundamental changes in their lives.

Some of the very successful new therapeutic approaches* being used to help with depression have taken such ideas more seriously. They draw attention to some of the social and cultural attitudes which may be setting people up for greater vulnerability to depression – particularly our ideas about what ‘happiness’ consists of… A key problem is a tendency, in western culture particularly, to confuse ‘happiness’ with ‘pleasure’.

Struggling against basic human experience

Happiness becomes defined as the absence of anything difficult or challenging, or mistakenly seen as a steady state of being rather than one of the many fleeting feelings which combine in the rich tapestry of a full life. As well as chasing possessions and achievements in the vain hope that they will provide this state of happiness, we also get drawn into a vain struggle to avoid experiencing any of the painful or distressing feelings which are also an inevitable component of a rich, full life.

Unfortunately, this avoidance of full experiencing and struggle against difficult feelings tends to simply pull us down further into a depression habit spiral. And as we struggle against the depression, perhaps getting angry with ourselves and taking up a self-bullying attitude, this just pulls us down even further! Without effectively escaping the difficult feelings we also generate additional suffering through this struggle (see ‘Depression and the meaning of life’).

Many of the habits of depressed thinking – perfectionism, self-bullying, ‘disappointment insurance’ – as well as many types of anxiety-based avoidance and withdrawal are examples of ways in which we get caught up in this struggle.

Creating a life worth living

Newer therapeutic approaches to depression focus on cultivating a different approach to life. This perspective:

  • accepts that feelings of pain and distress are normal (and often appropriate!) components of a full, rich life alongside happier feelings
  • treats all feelings as legitimate and worthy of compassionate interest and kindness
  • aims to develop the life skill of mindfulness – an attitude of attentive focus on and engagement with the present moment in all its fullness

You can read more about these ideas and the therapeutic approaches of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), and Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT) in some of the books listed on the Books page, including:

  • The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris
  • The Mindful Way through Depression by Mark Williams et al
  • The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert

Besides attitudes towards happiness there are many other social and cultural factors which may play a role in vulnerability to depression. Depression is a growing global phenomenon and factors within modern global culture may reinforce the dangers posed by the happiness trap. The next page looks more closely at social and cultural factors in depression.

Next: A depression-inducing society?


Identifying depressed thinking
Taking action for happiness