In my first and second post, I claimed that the mindfulness-based behavioral therapy Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) provides a strategy for living the virtuous life of love understood as complacency (gratitude) and concern (generosity). Such a mindful life of valued action is also the key to living joyfully.

In his book The Happiness Trap, ACT expert Russ Harris makes the point that much of our dissatisfaction with life comes, ironically, from our attempts to chase experiences of pleasure and avoid suffering. ACT presents a different solution: mindfully accept all the consequences of living a life committed to what is truly valuable, and the joy that we’re all really looking for will take care of itself.

There are three keys to this approach to happiness: (1) valued action, (2) mindful acceptance, and (3) the importance of “the present.”  First, one must strive to do what is actually valuable, not just whatever one is impulsively or otherwise drawn to. People seek happiness in distractions and behaviors that aren’t really choiceworthy, and the first step towards true joy is committing to living in a way that really is worthwhile. This takes discernment and self-correction, but it is indispensable to scrutinize both one’s values and actions. For example, someone might value his or her own social status more than anything else and act accordingly. They will likely find themselves miserable unless they re-think their values to include more than self-interest (in receiving admiration). Other times people might value the right ends but not know the means to achieving them. People might really value the flourishing of themselves and others (common good) but still act as if social status is the only key to that flourishing. Figuring out what is valuable and what to do about it is a difficult task, but committing to it increases the likelihood of a joyful life.

Second, one must learn the skill, perhaps through a mindfulness practice, of accepting all the consequences of living such a life. The life of value will involve pain, boredom, and fear (of missing out on other good things and/or of facing difficulties), and instead of impulsively doing away with the pain, boredom, and fear through giving in, quick fixes, and other avoidance strategies, one must cultivate gratefulness for all the experiences that come with living one’s commitment to the good. (Ironically, accepting such discomfort and fear tend to rob them of their power to command our attention and influence our action, and in some cases they dissipate entirely.)

As both Eastern and Western wisdom traditions remind us, so much unhappiness comes from attaching to desires for realities other than what is and what should be. Alternatively, joy comes from accepting reality as it is (complacency/gratitude) while committing to bringing what is truly valuable into the world (concern/generosity).

Third, as the present tense of “accepting” and “committing” in the last sentence indicates, one must not make the mistake of thinking happiness is located in some future achievement. Rather, lasting joy comes through presently living a valued life and doing so with present gratitude for the process of living that life. It comes not from achieving goals (e.g., getting a prestigious teaching award) but valued action in the present (e.g., being a dedicated teacher). Yes, this is the “enjoy the journey instead of putting all your hopes in the destination” cliché. But anyone who has ever achieved a goal without finding joy while pursuing the goal knows that achieving it doesn’t magically bring lasting contentment. Eventually they return to their joyless restlessness. There is nothing wrong with restlessness, since there is always more good to do as long as one lives, but that restlessness can be joyful if it is pursued with a constant mindset of gratitude. For the restless mind constantly worried about “what to do next,” cultivating the ability to “rest in the good” that already exists (complacency) can provide psychological relief.

In sum, joy comes from gratefully living a generous life. In ACT’s terminology, joy results from mindful acceptance and commitment to valued action. In the words of the Serenity Prayer, joy happens when we accept the things we can’t change (e.g., what has already happened) and change what we can and should. Speaking of prayer, in the fourth and final post of this series, I will explain how ACT, a secular therapy, helps one to live the good life understood in terms that are explicitly Christian but one of any religious background might also appreciate.

The views expressed in this essay belong entirely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Lonergan Institute staff or the values of Boston College.