a *fresh* technique for working out your life values

Posted on November 6th, 2011

This week in Sunday Life I find my sweet spot

Photo by klaus pichler

It always surprises me when I come back as a “glass half full” type in aptitude tests because there are few people more down on positive thinking than me. I blame it on vision boards. Seriously, those silly craft projects geared at manifesting husbands and mansions really sullied the whole movement.

But there’s also this, and it’s something the psychology fraternity is coming around to: shape-shifting our thoughts – turning frowns upside down and all that jazz – takes too much energy. And seems pointless, in the wash of it all.

Recently in this magazine New York writer Sara Eckel wrote about her time in the single wilderness bombarded with those messages about sunnier-fying your outlook to attract the bloke. Eventually she found her bloke. Not because she shape-shifted, but because she simply met the right bloke, the one who loved her for her sometimes cloudy outlook.

Sure, it’s no fun dragging around a ball and chain. But nor is trying to turn said ball into a bunch of bouncy pink balloons.

What about simply mustering strength, picking up the damn ball and continuing forward, carrying it close to your chest?  Yes! Continuing forward!

Crudely, this is the gist of the “new wave”of behavioural therapy. Called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), it goes beyond the positive psychology model and gets us to accept (rather than challenge) our emotions via mindfulness exercises, and to commit to life by identifying and following our values. Dozens of controlled studies show ACT to be more effective than other form of therapy for everything from eating disorders to schizophrenia.

I’ve been following the literature on the movement for a while. I like its “let’s just get on with it” vibe and the way it acknowledges that our brains are hardwired not to change and that finding a more realistic “it is what it is” path is more fruitful. Ironically, leaning towards what counts, rather than getting bogged down in challenging emotions, seems so much more, well, positive. Or let’s say, enriched. Don’t you reckon?

But how do you find your values? Abraham Maslow said, it’s part of the human condition to not know what we truly want. I know I struggle. I get into that “safe” rut of being steered by what’s expected of me. My commitments call me and my addiction to my busy-ness fuel my actions and my values get sidelined.

So this week I got me some ACT therapy. I’ve been meaning to for a while. Australian psychotherapist Russ Harris and author of The Happiness Trap talked me through techniques to drill down to what really steers my compass.

I liked his Sweet Spot exercise:

“Conjure a moment where life felt great, where you were in your sweet spot.” For me it was a random moment during a solo mountain bike trip in the Blue Mountains. Sweaty, my bike shorts sagging in the chamois gusset, I’d lain down in a hot patch of gravel overlooking a valley. I can’t think of a moment where I felt more enriched. Harris got me to reflect on what mattered and what personal qualities I possessed in that moment. I was up high, away from the busy-ness of the city; I had perspective and wasn’t “sucked in”. I was dusty and boldly being myself.  In an impassioned babble I outlined succinctly what my values were:

authenticity, boldness.

Another set of exercises exposed several more:

giving a shit and “being my message”.

It surprised me how clearly they emerged. It also surprised me how much better – and enriched – I felt afterwards and how effortlessly my values guided my decisions the rest of the week. Did blogging about throw cushions adhere to my values? Did haggling for a better price on my car take me to that sweet, un-sucked-in-by-it-all spot?  This connection with my values saw me bound out of bed in the morning, fired up to do and contribute stuff that counted.

And to my mind that is what does count: contributing and continuing forward. I come back to this so often: We only have 85 years or so on this planet; let’s get on with living it.

Happiness is a meaningful, “leaning forward”  life, not one bogged down with being bouncy.

I know I tend to spark debate when I say I’m not such a big fan of happiness…are you a fan? Or do value matters more? How do you get in touch with yours? I’d love to know. These ACT exercises were really quite effective…

 

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  • Mia

    THANK YOU!!

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  • Cc

    Brilliant, both yours and the other Sara’s article about finding love. Refreshing and soothing for my Sunday angst because am sitting at home on a beautiful sunny day, preferring to read, rest and be real than be outdoors, cos really…I just don’t feel like it. Thank you

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  • Cc

    In addition, just wanted to say that I used to be a glass half full kinda gal in my early 20s, then had a breakdown, sever depression and anxiety followed. I tried all sorts of talk therapy, Freudian psychoanalysis, where I felt like a hamster running the same wheel for a year and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which ironically I didn’t come away with one positive thing.

    Along the years, the only thing that started to work for me in shifting the depression and soothing the anxiety was energy work, body/mind medicine and intuitive healing, oh and I had some excellent existential counseling. I feel that taking the traditional theraputic route allowed me to realise what doesn’t work for me and what does. I don’t see a therapist now but I do adhere to the belief that in order to feel good, we have to just accept and feel how we are in this moment and allow ourselves, give ourselves permission to feel and be real.

    All this positive thinking business has us so in our heads whereas allowing ourselves to feel whatever it is in the moment, is bringing our awareness back into our hearts and bodies. As Nietzsche said, ‘There is more wisdom in our bodies than our deepest philosophy. ‘

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    Jane Reply:

    Thanks for sharing, I’ve had a similar experience and enjoy hearing about others’ success.

    Good on you, and all the best with the future! Oh, and thanks for the Nietzche quote… spot on.

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    Dani Reply:

    I will never forget the sweet moment of relief when, after 18 months of wretched misery, anxiety and depression, my new therapist looked kindly at me and said: “Well, of course we can work through some of this, but it sounds like you’ve just got a good dose of existential angst!”

    All the best to you for the future :)

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    Jane Reply:

    CC you said this so very well,”All this positive thinking business has us so in our heads whereas allowing ourselves to feel whatever it is in the moment, is bringing our awareness back into our hearts and bodies. ”

    Positive thinking (and maybe it’s just me) led me to ignore what I was feeling and probably contributed to my being able to numb myself and my emotions. It’s taken me months of hard work to feel like me again and for the record ACT was a valuable part of that process.

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    Mia Bluegirl Reply:

    Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is amazing for addiction, and issues where you NEED to get into your head to sort out your patterns, but I never thought about how it might be too much “in-your-head-ness” for other things. Fascinating!

    Positive thinking in an effort to be happy ALL the time sounds like too much damn effort. And the catharsis of sobbing to sad videos on Youtube while curled up in a blanket in the dark is kind of pleasurable in its own way. xx

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  • Jacquie

    Interesting that your apptitude tests have you on the higher side of optimism. Over the past few months, I have been reading your blogs in sequence from 2009 and certainly wouldn’t have picked as a ‘glass half full’ person. (I think it was your mum who said you had an overactive tear duct and someone else described you a “sad sack”).

    I am really enjoying the intestity and deepness of your personality and what I find enjoyable is that you readily admit when life is shit, don’t live ‘happy land’ and make the most out of whatever life throws at you (which is different to “positive thinking”).

    I’m now into the mid 2010 blogs, so look forward to seeing how you evolve!

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  • Narelle

    Thanks Sarah, great essay. It sounds like you’re living from your heart instead of your head. Doing/being that which makes you feel expanded instead of contracted. Weighing up options around whether they make you feel heavy-hearted or light-hearted. That’s what I’m aiming for at the moment too. It’s a philosophy that provides plenty of food for thought!

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  • Cc

    “Doing/being that which makes you feel expanded instead of contracted.” well said Narelle

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  • Vic

    Just curious, what makes you not such a fan of happiness?

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    Sarah Wilson

    Sarah WilsonSarah Wilson Reply:

    I’ve written a number of blogs on this. Click the “happiness” link in the “hot topics” right

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  • http://cleegan.wordpress.com Clare

    Great article, Sarah.
    I would have to say that I am not such a huge fan of happiness. Like Cc, I have had my own battles with depression and have found that coming through it I have not succeeded by grasping for happiness, but by allowing myself to be content. This may sound like I am just settling for second rate, but for myself, I think because of the depression, full blown happiness is simply too exhausting. I have my moments, but as long as I am content with where I am in life, who I am with, and what I am doing, I know I will be okay, and that everything is going the way it should be.
    :)

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    GiGi Reply:

    Just had an ah-ha moment. I spend too much time wondering if I’m happy enough – and not just by my own standards, but do I look happy enough to other people – why?? – when most of the time I’m just grateful not to be depressed. As long as I’m not miserable, I should be happy with that.

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  • Mia Bluegirl

    To truly embrace life and the universe you must cherish both the light and the dark sides. Happiness is beautiful. Sorrow is beautiful. Sadness and joy and empathy and frustration and anger are all beautiful in their own way. Any one of these on their own for too long unbalances us. This balance is what it means to be alive.

    Great article Sarah. xx

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  • http://theworklifebalancecoach.com.au Bill

    Love this converastion thread! When working with clients I seek to find ‘meaning within meanings’ and do values exercise with them. But this approach seems way more fun! So thanks heaps, and I’ll go explore the book. From my own personal experience, when I’m working ‘from my flame’ rather than ‘in the wax’, my life is completely different and I feel at my most alive. For me, happiness comes from that place and it’s always connected to my core values. My challenge is what I do when I wander ‘into the jungle’. Pardon me for mixing my metaphors, but hey, I love variety!

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  • Hayley

    Crazy. Just finished ‘The Happiness Trap’ this week :)

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  • Jazzy J

    Be like melting snow. Wash yourself of yourself.
    Mawlana Jalal-ad-Din Rumi

    xx

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    Sarah Wilson

    Sarah WilsonSarah Wilson Reply:

    Nice one JJ x

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  • Andrew Witney

    Nice thoughts Sarah. I think this kind of approach is ‘genuinely’ optimistic too. Rather than being pollyannaish in some generic, self-effacing fashion, it allows us to be ourselves whilst optimizing the potential inherent within that.

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    Sarah Wilson

    Sarah WilsonSarah Wilson Reply:

    Optimistic is not the same as “trying to be happy”, hey!

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  • Nikki

    So timely, Sarah!!
    Someone was just telling me about ACT yesterday! I thought at the time that maybe it would be a good idea to think a little about about what my values are.
    Also, love the Sara Eckel article. We don’t “need to be fixed”. And I spent far longer then I should have in a less-than-fulfilling relationship because of that type of thinking.

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  • http://www.littleadelaidekate.com Kate

    Love it! Thanks for sharing this. I think it’s so important to allow ourselves to feel unhappy, sad, angry etc but also important to get back in touch with why we’re feeling that way. How good does it feel when you really figure out why it is your feeling a certain way! I love that ACT teaches to accept your feelings and allow yourself to be angry, but that it helps you to identify change that fits with your values.

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  • Alana

    The ACT therapy sounds very interesting and I am glad you found it so helpful.

    For me, I have actually found that intentionally being positive and happy has improved my outlook exponentially. A few years I very much felt a victim and I was depressed and always anxious. By reading a lot of material about choosing my thoughts and choosing to be happy I feel like I gained myself back and got rid of a lot of the anxiety I felt a lot of the time. Some of this work included vision boards and what some people would call silly mantras etc. However this helped me to uncover my values and what I wanted, which for lots of reasons I had never thought about before. Each to their own of course, and I still get sad :) but I feel ok about it.

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  • picardie.girl

    I like this article, although would like to say that the comment about vision boards seemed unnecessarily cynical. I had never heard of vision boards prior to taking an ‘art therapy’ class earlier in the year (and that’s not the term they used for what we did, either), but putting pictures down on paper illuminated things for me in a way that words and active thinking didn’t. Once I looked at the images I had chosen, I found that I could say out loud things I had never even considered before. So it can be a great way to think about your innermost thoughts and values and in my experience, has nothing to do with getting husbands or mansions.

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  • Wade

    This must be one of the best articles I’ve read in a long time explaining “Be Yourself”. After all, who else are you going to be? I’ve been through a failed marriage because I essentially wasn’t being myself.

    As for finding my sweet spot: one of several is driving my old sports car, even through suburban backstreet. It is a humble Porsche 924, and it’s been a task and a half getting it registered, but damn it’s a nice drive.

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  • http://www.healthcoachlydia.com Lydia

    Those who seek interestingness rarely settle into happiness. If you settle into complacency naturally and easily, good for you. Not the life for me, though I sometimes truly wish that it were.

    There’s an amazing poem called “Curiosity” (a reference to the cat’s) that makes me feel much better about seeking interestingness over happiness when at times it makes me crazy.

    I can’t help but post it here…

    “Curiosity” by Alastair Reid

    may have killed the cat; more likely
    the cat was just unlucky, or else curious
    to see what death was like, having no cause
    to go on licking paws, or fathering
    litter on litter of kittens, predictably.

    Nevertheless, to be curious
    is dangerous enough. To distrust
    what is always said, what seems
    to ask odd questions, interfere in dreams,
    leave home, smell rats, have hunches
    do not endear cats to those doggy circles
    where well-smelt baskets, suitable wives, good lunches
    are the order of things, and where prevails
    much wagging of incurious heads and tails.
    Face it. Curiosity
    will not cause us to die–
    only lack of it will.
    Never to want to see
    the other side of the hill
    or that improbable country
    where living is an idyll
    (although a probable hell)
    would kill us all.
    Only the curious
    have, if they live, a tale
    worth telling at all.

    Dogs say cats love too much, are irresponsible,
    are changeable, marry too many wives,
    desert their children, chill all dinner tables
    with tales of their nine lives.
    Well, they are lucky. Let them be
    nine-lived and contradictory,
    curious enough to change, prepared to pay
    the cat price, which is to die
    and die again and again,
    each time with no less pain.
    A cat minority of one
    is all that can be counted on
    to tell the truth. And what cats have to tell
    on each return from hell
    is this: that dying is what the living do,
    that dying is what the loving do,
    and that dead dogs are those who do not know
    that dying is what, to live, each has to do.

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  • http://www.boda.com.au Tara

    Great article yet again Sarah.

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  • http://www.blossom.net.nz Tracy

    Great article Sarah,

    Happiness and values are important to me, once I uncovered my values, my life became more joyful. Living a life around my values definitely lights my inner flame. Over the last year, I’ve begun to accept that all the emotions I feel are OK to feel not just the positive one. Since connecting with my values I’ve gotten to know what makes me tick, which has allowed me to accept that I have down days and I cry… about happy and sad situations. To me it’s about being true to how I’m feeling and doing what will bring me joy… going for the long term gain rather than the short term fix.

    Vision boards are something i love too. They’re not so much about getting the man and mansion, rather a reminder about balance, family, contentment, laughter, shinning… everything I love…

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  • Christine

    When I keep promises to myself I’m happy. More and more I’m just asking (nicely!) for what I want and just being…me. I used to put on this facade of always being bouncy and full of energy, why and for whom I’m not sure. I guess I felt I needed to pretend so people would like me. It all comes down to what Louise L. Hay says about feeling ‘good enough.’ Give yourself permission I say. Know that you are enough. It’s funny because now I actually feel what I used to pretend.

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  • http://www.valuestest.com tim

    “How do you find your values?” I wanted a good method a few years ago to support my work, and couldn’t find one. So I developed an online values questionnaire for identifying your values and evaluating the degree to which you are living them in your life and your work. It can be found at http://www.valuestest.com . There is a special offer for people to complete one for only $10 (usually $60)
    Great article Sarah!

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  • Anna

    First of all, I want to say I love happiness, but people and self-help ‘gurus’ make out likes it’s some state of being – ummmm – nope! It’s an emotion (and, at that, one that simply cannot be permanently attainable). Just like being sad, tense, angry, or anxious, one can be happy, in any given moment. But, like every other emotion you experience, it comes and goes. Once people accept that, they can perhaps, experience more ‘moments’ of this lovely fuzzy emotion and stop trying to find it. It comes and goes… let it come naturally. (Last paragraph a tip about how to achieve more of it!).
    Secondly, I want to say, give vision boards a fair go. They’ve worked for thousands around the world and I’d like to share why they’ve also worked for me. A vision board and, visualising my future in general, is pretty much the only ‘self-help’ exercise that has actually produced results for me. I feel they serve a very powerful purpose: to illustrate a person’s goals. A vision board or book, or simply a picture pinned up somewhere (ie. The front of my refrigerator!) has helped me bring my desired goals into fruition – many times now. Rather than just wanting something for the future, I start the process, I visualise myself already there. I start to create the life I want before I have it. A vision board simply helps me to accelerate that process. For eg. If I want a certain job, I put a picture of that job on a board or in a book and look at it often. It helps me stay on the path of getting there… to that goal. It makes me positive about that goal. It’s pulls me forward, just like you believe, Sarah. That’s all it is. It’s not some voodoo magic gimmick someone thought of.
    Finally, I’m going to be so blunt and direct here. I’d like to say that I feel that more moments of happiness can be achieved (ie. and, as a consequence, less depression, anxiety, fear, anger and all sorts of other horrid emotions) if people would apply a simple formula for every day and situation: live YOUR life. Do what YOU want. Most people, in my opinion, who experience negative emotions, which can lead to depression and illness, are drama kings or queens, pleasing others out of an obsession of acceptance, or fear, or feeling of inferiority. When life goes wrong, they blame others and don’t accept any responsibility for their own lives, sitting on their back-sides complaining about how hard life is. Sure, if you care for another like a child, ill person etc, you can’t always do what you want but you need to learn to grab at the situations you CAN control, and, in that situation, do what makes you happy. Then in your down time, live life how you want it when you can make space for what you want. I also feel that we are all responsible for at least 70-80% of how your life has turned out. I can’t accept when I hear people complain about having to give up your social life or your career in exchange for changing dirty nappies for instance. You decided to be a mum – so do it and just fit in a night out or two once a month and find a great baby sitter. Or people who incessantly complain about their jobs. Go find a new one! Again, sorry for being so direct but really wanted to share my thoughts. This is just what I have learned after 37 years, and I’m pretty confident that that is most people’s problem – pleasing others and caring what others think. Used to be mine! So, give it up people! Stop whingeing and start living. Life is too short.

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  • Elizabeth

    Interesting! (Long time Sarah Wilson blog reader, first time commenter here.)

    I really related to Sara’s Eckel’s article. I was 32 when I met my partner. To be honest I was pretty at peace with my past failed relationships (some of which were completely and utterly spectacular in their failure) but after meeting my partner (almost four years ago) it really hit home that failures in the past were purely that I hadn’t met the right bloke. Simple as that.

    I’ve always thought its worth aiming for happiness and wellness in my daily life but my mother always told me that unhappiness and pain were just as much part of life and we have to recognise that. Wise woman my mum!

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  • Richard

    I loved your article and have now been researching ACT on the Internet. I’ve used CBT in the past but during a recent “downer” it was suggested that I was spending too much time in my head (cognitive) and needed to get more in touch with my feelings. ACT seems to fit the bill admirably.

    Does anyone know if there are any ACT “Introductory Workshops” – for common folk like me rather than therapists of health professionals – in the Northern Rivers / Gold Coast area.

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    Paul Reply:

    http://www.actmindfully.com.au/workshops

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  • Cc

    I just had one of those aha moments today while cleaning a ceiling of all things – gives you time to fonder and process – and it hit me how EXHAUSTING people pleasing is. To realise this and drop the load feels like such a release and relief. Someone said above, just live YOUR life and I agree that part of people’s stress and some, not all, negative emotion is in relation to trying to do things OTHER people’s way.

    I also feel that people pleasing is a way to control other people’s responses about you and we all know that there is no way to change or control how others react and think. So yes, best do your own thing and allow others the same freedom. It’s a work in progress but I start today x

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  • Alex

    I love this article! Just wrote about ACT in an exam a few weeks ago actually. I am quite a cautious, tending towards cynical/sceptical and I am actually quite content with it. Trying to be pollyanna is a recipe for unhappiness for me.

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  • Bernadette

    I am a therapist and have been using ACT/mindfulness in my practice for about 2 years now. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is the treatment of choice for many therapists but it has never quite sat well with me. ACT is a vastly different approach and one which immediately resonated with me. I am thrilled that you are writing about ACT Sarah because you are bringing this wonderful approach to a wider audience. Russ Harris is great – he runs workshops for clinicians and also for the general public. I also use mindfulness in my own life and it has helped me so much. Thankyou Sarah for bringing ACT to a wider audience. The
    ‘sweet spot’ exercise is one of my favourites!

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  • Stephanie

    THanks very much for this. I’ve been doing something similar, solely on an intuitive basis, but it’s interesting to know that this therapy exists.

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  • kimberley

    The word “happiness” seems so overused and empty. I think I much prefer “content” which some might think is not so great, but for me, its perfect. I am currently in CBT and we focus a lot on mindfulness. I’ve read that affirmations and vision boards can actually make you more miserable because you feel like a big fat failure. I feel like turning the tide and focusing on life as it is, and you as you are, is great news.

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  • Merryn

    Hi Sarah, I have been following your blog for a while and thoroughly enjoy reading all your great posts…I was introduced to ‘The happiness Trap’ by my psych whilst undergoing ACT for severe depression and anxiety…that was twelve months ago and I have never felt better!! It’s amazing that I now know how to ride the waves of life and to start ‘accepting’ not fighting my emotions…It has allowed me to start questioning my life and give me the freedom to do things that allows me to be happy instead of forgoing my own happiness to make other people in my life happy. Keep up the great work Sarah..xx

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  • Kate

    I have been to a Russ Harris workshop and cannot speak highly enough of it, really life changing stuff. I also found CBT kept me too locked up in my own head. If there aren’t any workshops near you there are books and tapes on the ACT website and links to psych’s that practise it. Understanding your own values is amazing, its made me realise loads of stuff about why doing certain things makes me really unhappy. Great article Sarah!

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  • Ava

    I looove this article :) it’s like the harder we try to be happy, the more we confirm to our subconscious that we are not happy, you know? Happiness should not be heralded as this state we should be constantly trying to reach… it is an emotion that comes and goes. I like this article because if we act according to our values, we will have more of a sense of contentment within ourselves … which is much sweeter than happiness anyways

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  • Sarah Wilson

    test

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    Jen Reply:

    Passed :-)

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  • Trevor Otto

    Sarah,

    Thanks for the honesty in your writings. It’s seems that our generation which has been worshipping at the altar of the ‘Concept of Freedom’ and which has been using that concept as the driver and excuse for all sorts of behaviours is starting to reap the karma of such singlemindedness. The Acceptance and Commitment Therapy sounds like a description of marriage yet that previous cultural normality has been disappearing fast with more and more living alone (something like 35% of households) and lonely. It’s been said that true freedom is being in harmony with what surrounds one as opposed to being a selfcentred pursuit and perhaps if we can create a culture with this kind of freedom with some acceptance and commitment added we just may get somewhere… progressive,

    Regards, Trevor

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