The Happiness Trap: How To Prevent It

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated April 17, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

On the surface, happiness may not seem complex. You might associate it with smiles, optimism, and positivity. However, happiness has a few myths surrounding it. Research shows that happiness is a temporary emotion, not a state of being. Thus, some ideas about happiness may cause individuals to have harmful expectations for themselves. These expectations and the complexities of happiness might be referred to as "the happiness trap." 

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What is a happiness trap?

A "happiness trap" is a limiting belief an individual may carry regarding happiness. The term was popularized in the best-selling book, "The Happiness Trap," by Russ Harris. In it, he teaches acceptance and commitment therapy techniques to help readers build genuine happiness. He also offers an 8-week happiness trap program. Some of the limiting beliefs people may carry regarding happiness may include thoughts like:

  • "I can only be happy if _____ happens."
  • "I will only be happy if I get ______."
  • "My happiness cannot last forever."
  • "If I am happy now, I should always be happy."
  • "I have no reason to be upset, so that must mean I am happy."
  • "It takes a lot of work to find happiness."
  • "Happiness is easily taken."
  • "Happiness does not exist."
  • "I should be happy all the time."
  • "I do not deserve to be happy."
  • "I do not know how to be happy."
  • "Happiness is a state of being that lasts forever."
A happiness trap can consist of several myths about happiness. You might find yourself carrying around one of these beliefs or feeling that many are accurate. Everyone's happiness trap can be different. Think about what happiness means to you to understand if you might be experiencing this type of thinking. 

Underlying beliefs

Holding underlying beliefs about your feelings might open you to specific challenges, such as: 

  • Criticism of emotions  
  • Fear of emotions  
  • False accounts of emotions 
  • Misunderstanding of emotions 

If you have a rigid idea of what happiness looks or feels like or strict beliefs about when it can and cannot exist, you may be experiencing the happiness trap cognitive distortion. Happiness is an emotional state. Studies show that most emotions do not last longer than ten minutes. Researchers in the study believed that people think they last longer because emotions can be recurring throughout the day, prompting a sense of long-term emotions. Understanding how genuine happiness occurs can be a step toward challenging cognitive distortions. 

How to avoid the happiness trap

Forming your ideas about happiness might seem vague. However, understanding what "happiness" means as a concept to you can help you avoid a happiness trap and have a more meaningful life. Many people use "happiness" as a synonym for the following: 

  • Success
  • Excitement 
  • Long-term peace
  • Long-term satisfaction 
  • Love
  • Closeness
  • Financial gain 
  • Completing goals 

Although these can be occurrences that cause happiness, happiness is an emotion. To understand what might help you avoid a happiness trap, consider the following options. 


Learn about yourself 

A lot of how we think about ourselves may come from other people. Our parents, friends, teachers, and bosses could shape our perception of what we think we should and should not be. Because of this, you might learn that your beliefs about happiness come from people in your life. Learning about yourself is one way to start drawing the line between your truth and someone else's.

There are many ways to discover who you are, such as:

  • Journaling
  • Completing a personal inventory
  • Creating art
  • Meditating
  • Finding/committing to your interests
  • Making a list of priorities
  • Setting aside time for something you love
  • Talking with a therapist 

Connecting with your ideas can help you build your self-esteem. Once you gain a firm idea of who you are, you may start to decide what happiness looks like to you. With a solid personal definition of happiness, the myths of your happiness trap might feel less pressuring. 

Be flexible

Change can be a part of life, and change might not only happen to external circumstances. You can choose to change yourself, your thoughts, and your ideas. Looking back at yourself from five years ago, you may feel that you have already made profound changes. If you think about happiness the same way you used to, it might signify a happiness trap. 

The process of self-discovery can be more than a one-time event. Try to find new and exciting things that make you, you. It is possible that the less of a box you put yourself in, the less limiting your ideas of happiness may be.

Escape the happiness trap: Take time for yourself

Setting time aside for yourself may help you increase moments of joy in your life, which could remind you how happiness works on a chemical level. What do you enjoy most about spending time with yourself? Do you like your creativity, eye for detail, or desire for peace? Lean into that and see where it brings you. Everyone may recharge and spend their free time in their own way. While some people want long, quiet retreats, you might find that a few moments each day feels rewarding to you. 

Consider the following activities: 

  • Reading a book
  • Listening to music
  • Meditating
  • Enjoying a meal alone
  • Listening to audiobooks/podcasts
  • Taking a short walk
  • Trying yoga 
  • Sitting alone
  • Relaxing in a way that feels comfortable to you 

The more time you spend with yourself, the easier it might feel to follow your voice. As your inner voice becomes more confident, your ideas about happiness may also become more positive. Additionally, studies show that activities like mindfulness and meditation can improve self-compassion

Create your environment

Because other people and surroundings may easily influence cognitive distortions about happiness, find an environment that complements who you are. When you find a social circle or physical space that speaks to you, you might feel free to express your definition of happiness.

Finding your place can be challenging. It could feel simple to settle on a group of friends because they have been around for a long time or are nearby. You might also act a certain way or stay stuck in a particular physical space out of obligation, fear, or contentment. However, the more your space aligns with your individual beliefs, the easier it may feel to exist on a level that does not challenge your definition of happiness. 

Fight negativity

Negativity can come in several forms. At times, it stems from external sources like people around you with poor attitudes or unkind behaviors. Other times, it might stem from worries about personal situations you aren't sure you can control. 

Eliminating external sources of negativity can require setting boundaries and advocating for yourself. Think of boundaries as a firm brick wall between who you are and the negative influences that affect you. While external influences like these can be a significant source of negativity, you might also notice this negativity from a voice in your head or your thoughts. 

Your inner voice might tell you what to do, who you are, and your place in the world. In some cases, people experience a negative inner voice. Challenging negative thoughts and replacing them with facts or positive ideas can be beneficial and important to build genuine happiness. 

Setting boundaries with external influences and challenging your negative thoughts may help you replace causes for unhappiness and negativity with opportunities for joy. Happiness and unhappiness might have a hard time co-existing in the same space. Unhappiness could inhabit the same emotional space as guilt, doubt, and obligation, fueling ideas in many people's happiness traps. 

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Get professional support 

You may have to challenge negative thought patterns associated with your happiness traps multiple times. Changing beliefs can be complex. However, it can be possible to see joy, happiness, and success in a new light. In some cases, happiness traps might be a symptom of an underlying concern, such as a mental health condition, and using free resources may not be enough support. Some individuals experiencing depression or anxiety might feel that they lack moments of joy within their lives altogether. In these cases, reaching out for help from a therapist might be beneficial. They can provide one-on-one help through methods like acceptance and commitment therapy.

If you're feeling depressed or experiencing a lack of happiness, it might feel challenging to get out of bed or leave home for an appointment. In these cases, you can still receive support from a professional through methods such as online counseling. Online commitment therapy can allow you to receive care from a licensed therapist through phone, video, or live chat sessions. Additionally, you can partake in sessions from any location with an internet connection. Studies show that online therapy is especially effective in treating symptoms of depression and anxiety. 

If you're interested in trying this therapy modality, consider reaching out to a counselor through a platform like BetterHelp. Moments of joy may be obtained through the proper treatment plan and compassionate support. 


The happiness traps that each person experiences may differ. However, they are often harmful to mental health. Replacing negative or false beliefs with positive and research-backed ideas about happiness can be rewarding. If you struggle to experience happiness after attempting to challenge these thoughts and work through them, you may also benefit from speaking to a counselor for further guidance. 

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