Gretchen Rubin

“I Wanted to Be in a Field that Could Promote Creativity, Joy, Connection, and Living to One’s Highest Potential.”

“I Wanted to Be in a Field that Could Promote Creativity, Joy, Connection, and Living to One’s Highest Potential.”

Interview: Steven Hayes.

Steven Hayes is Nevada Foundation Professor in the Behavior Analysis program at the Department of Psychology at the University of Nevada. He's extraordinarily prolific—author of 44 books and nearly 600 scientific articles—and his career has focused on understanding human language and cognition and the alleviation of human suffering. He developed the Relational Frame Theory, an account of human higher cognition, and has guided its extension to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a popular evidence-based form of psychotherapy that uses mindfulness, acceptance, and values-based methods.

His new book is A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters.

He's thought so much about happiness—I was very interested to hear what he had to say.

Gretchen: What is something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

Steven: As a young adult, I thought happiness was a feeling; one you always liked. Happiness made you feel, well, happy!

However, it is a deceptive idea—one with just enough truth in it to hide its toxic nature.

The mind hears this simple idea as “I want to be happy, and NOT sad” or “happy and NOT anxious.” Once your mind goes there, it seems logical to try to be happy by getting rid of negative emotions.

Your job is then no longer to just learn to be happy in life…it is also to learn how NOT to be sad, mad, afraid, uncertain, bored, confused, anxious, guilty, embarrassed, ashamed, and so on…and on.

What a terrible idea!

First, there are no healthy ways of getting rid of natural emotions. It always comes with unwanted side effects (e.g. fast food, gambling, drugs, etc.)

Second, trying to get rid of feelings is one of the least happy things you could do! I struggled for years trying to rid my life of panic and social anxiety, and it only made my anxiety worse, leading to self-amplifying loops of panic and social anxiety.

Third, every single emotion has a role in life. We pay good money to feel every one of them in the movies we watch, the songs we listen to, the books we read, or the art we display. Why limit our lives in such a way that these wonderful things called feelings are something we can’t have?

Fourth, we hurt where we care. I was socially anxious because I cared about being with people. Flip over your pain and see if it doesn’t whisper to you about your caring. If you deny your feelings, you run the risk of becoming numb to what you actually care about.

The final flaw, however, is most fundamental. Happiness is not just an emotion! Or at least it is not simply an emotion. It's a posture toward your life that, yes, produces a felt sense in the long term, but that feeling comes as a natural by-product of taking action in a meaningful direction and learning to be kind and open with yourself and others. The sooner you see what it is and where it comes from, the sooner you can have a chance to produce it. 

That is one of the deep lessons of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (or “ACT”…said as the word “act”). ACT is one of the most researched “new” forms of psychotherapy and behavior change over the last 20 years, with over 3,000 studies on its methods and the underlying model. I originated and co-developed it, and what I write below is based in part on that large body of evidence.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

I walk through the pivotal point in my life in my first TEDx talk, and I write in more detail about it in my new book, A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters (which came out several weeks go).

In the winter of 1980, at the depth of a three-year spiral into panic disorder, I hit a moment at 2 o’clock in the morning when I was certain I was having a heart attack...only to realize that this was just a new sick form of a panic attack.

If you watch my TEDx talk, you will hear a horrifying scream as I re-enact that realization. The weird breathy scream that comes out of my mouth only happened three times in my life: Once as a young man when I was caught deep inside an enormous machine in an aluminum foil factory and was nearly chopped in half before they heard my screams and turned it off (my hip still has a visible dent in it from that day); that horrifying night of the “heart attack” when I realize this is just a panic attack; and the TEDx talk.

It will never ever come out of my mouth again.

It is a scream of desperation and death—like someone falling off a cliff in a Tarzan movie. The scream made a statement.

No. Way. Out.

About 10 minutes before the TED talk I told my wife tearfully “I can’t do this.”

It was not the talk—it was the scream. I was going to fully visit a moment when all is lost; when there is no future. I felt I had to do the scream in that talk, but I refused to rehearse it. I felt I had to go into that moment fully—but only once and only for the good of others. Just moments before the talk began I did not think I was up to it.

My wife looked me in my eyes and said “just be yourself.”

Just be Steve.

No show. No performance.

God, I love my wife. That was so right on.

I did the talk. I did the “the scream.”

I’m thankful for that scream. Not just in the talk, but also in that horrible and wonderful, painful and pivotal night when I hit bottom and admitted fully I had no way out. That scream said “no more!”

And then—magically, mystically MY peak experience happened. No, I did not magically find a way out. I magically found a way in.

I will leave the rest of the story to YouTube or the book, except to say this: From that day to this, now nearly 40 years later, I have tried to live a promise I made only minutes later, and to bring that promise into the lives of others.

“Never again. I will not run from me.”

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?

We have distilled our entire body of 40 years of research down into a simple model called Psychological Flexibility. In my book I tell the personal story of my struggle with panic, and the science story of this work, and how flexibility processes apply everywhere a human mind goes.

Psychological flexibility contains six processes of change, or what I call in the book “pivots.” I call them that because there are six toxic ways of adjusting to life’s challenges linked to six healthy ways. They form toxic and healthy pairs, each driven by similar yearnings.

A limiting sense of self (e.g. I’m not a person who can do xzy) is paired with a flexible, transcendent sense of self. In the area of emotion, avoidance of uncomfortable feelings (a toxic way) is paired with acceptance of uncomfortable experiences (a healthy alternative).

In the area of cognition, entanglement with difficult thoughts pairs with cognitive defusion, a process that loosens the grip of the inner dictator. In the area of attention, ruminating on the past and worrying about the future, pairs with flexible and voluntary focus on the present moment.

In the area of motivation, unhealthy forms of compliance or avoidance are paired with chosen goals and values. And in the behavioral area, perfectionism, impulsivity, or procrastination are paired with committed action and building healthy habits.

Each of these pairings is connected by a deep human yearning: belonging, feeling, understanding, orienting, meaning, and competence. When you understand what you are really yearning for in your misery, it is far easier to find out how to pivot that same energy—that same yearning—in the direction of true prosperity.

Let me give an example.

We come into the world yearning to belong, but human thinking itself eventually suggests that we will only be admitted into the group if we can create the right story about ourselves. We put on a mask, that says “I’m so great, you need me” or  “I am so needy, you must take me in!”

But even if it “works” it means we are special. We are different.

We are alone.

In A Liberated Mind I show how we can satisfy a yearning to belong by touching a more spiritual aspect of ourselves—a transcendent sense of self built on perspective-taking and conscious interconnection—because that aspect of ourselves contains belonging as a birthright.

When we stop trying to earn belonging by following the foolish dictates of the problem-solving mind—we can instead expand conscious awareness of ourselves and others to deepen the sense of belonging and interconnection that is already here, now.

All forms of psychological inflexibility are mismanaged yearnings, caused by the problem-solving mind. Learning to notice these yearnings opens up an immediate and healthy alternative, as we pivot in the direction of their healthy satisfaction.

One of the key insights of A Liberated Mind is that our misery can be like a light shining into the darkness, once we realize what we really want.

What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

We all yearn to find meaning and fulfillment in life. Research suggests that happiness is linked to a values-based life and the felt sense of euthymia it can produce. A simple activity that makes me happier is the use of “value triggers“ as physical reminders of core values.

Values are about what you want to stand for in life. A true values choice is owned by you. It’s not done to avoid an emotion ("otherwise I’d feel guilty"). It’s not entangled with “have to” thoughts. It’s not dictated to us by well-meaning others. Research shows, if values have been pushed on you, they don’t motivate action. They don’t lift you up.

Values work best when they become intrinsic to being and doing. They are verbs and adverbs such a behaving honestly, genuinely, kindly, or lovingly. They are always available, inexhaustible, and up to you.

A values trigger is a reminder of your core values. Behaviorists call it “stimulus control” and it can be anything in your day to day environment: a picture, a piece of jewelry, a personal mantra, a ring tone, or even a simple post-it note.

We all actually use them. Think about wedding rings, pictures of loved ones in your wallet, a song you play that represents a love relationship, or sweet note from a friend that you posted on the wall.

What I do is to create tiny actions—tiny acknowledgements—that get me to focus for a moment on the triggers so as to remind be of what they symbolize.

For instance, I don’t like wearing rings at night so I usually take off my wedding ring and put it on my nightstand. When I slip it on in the morning, I give it a brief kiss and just for a second I remember my promise to be a loving husband. I’m not sure my wife even knows it and frankly I feel no need to tell her (I guess the secret is out now though!). It’s not for show. It’s for me to remind myself how dear she is to me. Every morning I do just that as I reflect and reaffirm. And always, always, I feel a smile form, as I remind myself of my values choice: the choice to love.

It’s easy to add these to your day. Touching your car keys can easily be trained to remind you of your values as a parent (especially if, like me, you are in the “human taxicab” era of raising an adolescent!). Touching a picture of a relative far away can remind you of your commitments to your family. Pausing to listen to your ringtone can be used to remind you of the values you want to reflect as a worker. The possibilities for value triggers are endless, only limited by your own imagination.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

When I was walking out of panic disorder (and its unhealthy habits of emotional avoidance), I realized I needed to create more trust in my word, so I could put my mind on a leash and become open to my feelings whether I wanted to in that moment or not. I was committed to accepting talk invitations, taking long scary trips, building better relationships, and risking rejection.

As I began saying “Yes” more often, I created a list of small behavior change goals.

Some of them were important, but I saved special space for ones that were slightly difficult, but clearly unimportant. I would set a goal like that and then make a commitment to myself to keep it “Jus cuz.” In other words, I did it for no reason other than as a harmless exercise in keeping my word.

Going to bed an hour early for a week. Talking to three strangers a day for two weeks. Cold showers for a month.

Why do such a nutty thing?!! Because if you make a commitment your problem-solving mind is still listening! And guess what? It turns commitments into outcomes to work toward because we HAVE to.

That’s not a happy life. That’s a dirge.

Small, simple, slightly difficult changes, done “jus cuz,” strengthen commitment skills. By committing yourself to a slightly difficult change, you learn to live more based on choice.

I did longer and longer exercises of this kind: First hours, then days, then months. One of the final commitments was to go a year without dessert—not because it was important, but precisely because it wasn’t!

In this year without dessert, I only slipped once, where I put a spoonful of ice cream in my mouth before remembering and spitting it out. With that exception, I 100% met my goal.

I began to trust myself again that I could do what I said I would do. Jus cuz. And that meant I could afford the seeming risk of choosing my values and walking in their direction one step at a time, knowing if I slipped I would come right back and get moving again.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I’m an Upholder, but not just by the test. My wife (who loves your 4 part system!) told me in less than a second when I asked. Sure enough, she was right.

My entire answers show some of the properties of “Upholders”…but I think I had to learn to be one. I had to learn to not just be accountable to others—but to be accountable to myself. Look at the answer I just gave to how to learn to create healthy habits!

My own panic disorder was driven by a lifelong commitment I made to “do something” about the domestic violence, addiction, depression, anxiety, and suffering I saw in my own home. I could not save my parents at age 8, when I made that promise, but I can darn sure help others now. I tell that part of the story in my new book. Since I had suppressed those memories it was easier to fail myself. I think that is part of where my panic came from. I had to learn to keep my word to my childhood self and that meant also keeping my word to my adult self.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)

Yes. Mindlessness plus self-aggrandizing entitlement.

The judgmental problem-solving mind—what I call the “Dictator Within”—is watching all you do. Even if you learn how to put it on a leash it is still there 24/7—analyzing, predicting, judging, comparing. Like a TV left on in the background, it is literally working while you sleep.

And guess what it’s focused on? You and your experience!

If life is going well it may tell you that is because you are so grand and you “deserve” it all. If life is difficult it may say the problem is out there and you are a victim of circumstance.

I’ve suffered enough in my life that the victim story is not very sticky. I know how I manufacture misery and it is relatively easy to hold myself responsible.

But ah, that “grand guy” story! That’s attractive! (Are Upholders more susceptible to this? I suspect so). And once I climb into it, I start walking around with an invisible chip on my shoulder. And then I get secretly mad if the world does not agree.

Out of that space I can snap at my wife; eat a dish of ice cream for “dinner;” skip a meeting and make up a false excuse to cover it. I can wander away from who I am and how I want to be in the world.

Metaphorically if my baseball cap does not fit on my head, I’m at risk. Luckily, I have people in my life who love me and will kindly take a stick to my head when it gets one size too big.

Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?

When I was a junior or senior in high school, I read an article by Abraham Maslow on peak experiences. He described experiences that were almost spiritual in their transformative power: deeply moving moments that uplift people in a magical and mystical way. Maslow felt that a fully actualized person—a person who could learn to be more fully themselves—could access transformative experiences that seemed to go beyond our normal sense of time and space.

I was transfixed. It made me want to be a psychologist. I wanted to bring science to such peak moments.

I wanted to be in a field that could promote creativity, joy, connection, and living to one’s highest potential. I wanted to square the circle between the kinds of things great artists and writers speak of, and the kind of things careful researchers speak of … and my gut sense was that I could do that inside scientific psychology. I decided to become a psychology major when I went to college; I decided to see if that was possible.

In college I soon soured on Maslow’s vision for psychological science. He didn’t think we could unpack human experience through experimentation. I disagreed. Why should psychological science look more like history and less like a biology lab? Yeah, I understood you cannot reduce joy to a test tube…but couldn’t we develop tight, tested principles for how to foster self-actualization, love, or joy?

Then in walked the book that changed my life and from the most unlikely place. I read B. F. Skinner’s Walden II. I would find my vision inside behaviorism.

The book is a utopian novel about how we might apply learning principles developed in the animal lab to the organization of society itself. Mind you at the time I’m reading it I’m a hippie; I soon will be living on a commune; it’s the 60’s.

It landed in my lap at exactly the right moment.

Again I was transfixed—and this time for good. I’m 71 now. It’s over 50 years later and I’m still living out that dream of how to go from rats to Walden II. I’m still a behaviorist (but an odd one!)

I soon came to believe that learning principles from the animal lab were a good start but not enough. But that was OK since I did not take from Walden II the belief that psychologists had the answers—instead it cemented within me a deep sense that had started with Maslow’s writings, namely, this is the right question. How can we create a kinder, more connected, more joyful, and more effective world?

Science, I thought, could be the means to that end but only if we could use it to understand human complexity.

Now 50 years later, I think the science community I helped create has at least partially “cracked the code.” That is the personal and science story I tell in A Liberated Mind, and then I try to make all those geeky studies personally relevant to every reader, no matter what issues they are facing in their life. We have discovered a small and empirically supported set of what I call “pivots” (psychological changes in direction) that predict human prosperity if you get them right and human misery if you do not.

Psychological flexibility is not a panacea—but it's the 20% that does the 80%.

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)

At the end of every email you get from me will be a short phrase: “Love isn’t everything, it's the only thing.” It’s what I want on my tombstone.

I am not talking about “love” in a narrow way, although that phrase does include the love I feel for my wife, or my kids, or my friends. I suppose if you want a word for it, it might be euthymia. It is an “eyes open—arms wide” felt sense and life choice that it is OK to be you, whole and free; that life with all of its sorrows is worth living; that it is OK to be kind to yourself and others; and that by choice, people and other living creatures matter.

In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?

The single biggest is that human psychological suffering is a reflection of hidden biomedical diseases that you have, rather than a result of things you and your mind do. Superficially that message sounds kind: it’s not your fault, you are not to be blamed.

I agree that suffering is not your fault and that blame is unhelpful, but research shows that once people swallow these diagnostic labels and get attached to the idea that “this is me” or “this is what I have” their horizons shorten; their reliance on medications over needed psychological changes soar; and their life outcomes worsen.

After 50 years of effort and billions spent in the modern era not a single psychiatric syndrome has turned into a legitimate disease. Even the National Institute of Mental Health no longer wants to fund research driven by psychiatric syndromes.

Instead we need to understand the cognitive, emotional, sense of self, attentional, motivational, and behavioral changes that are involved in taking a human life in the wrong direction, and how to take each of these and swing them in the right direction. That is what I try to do in A Liberated Mind.

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