Would You Rather Be Right or Happy?

The Chinese Finger Trap

Have you ever tried a Chinese finger trap? It’s fun but frustrating. The fun comes as you learn a lesson in the futility of an unwise struggle. The frustration comes if you don’t figure out how to escape and continue the struggle. Imagine sliding your index fingers of each hand into the woven tube. You then try to remove your fingers and as you do the tube tightens. The harder you try the tighter the tube becomes around your fingers. It turns out that a Chinese finger trap can teach us about being happy and being right.

A tight, stuck Chinese finger trap, illustrating that by struggling, you may prevent freedom and feeling happy.

The only way to easily extract yourself is to stop struggling and push your fingers together, loosening the hold.

In order to escape the trap, you have to notice that pulling to escape the trap isn’t working. In fact, the more you pull to free yourself, the tighter the trap becomes. The object is to get your fingers out of the tube, right? But in order to do so, you must accept that what you are doing isn’t working. Then you have to decide to give up pulling. It seems to make good logical sense, doesn’t it? All you have to do is just notice when something isn’t working, stop it, and choose something else. Easy to say when you aren’t actually in the struggle.

A loose Chinese finger trap, illustrating that by stopping your struggle, you may find freedom and feeling happy

Although intellectually stopping and choosing something else seems to be a reasonable way to approach things, in our daily lives we don’t often act so rationally. The truth is, we want to be right at the moment (because of our habits and reactive mind) more than we want to remember to choose the rational and wise option! The “doing mind” (thinking without fully experiencing the moment as it is) will just have us reacting, as a way to avoid failure. When we are not in the struggle, however, we say that it is best to be wise and happy.

But in the throws of difficulty, we can believe or “feel” that being right is being smart, safe, and powerful. We want the gratification that comes with achieving or winning, though we know it won’t make us happy for long. Wanting to be right becomes a habit. Then it becomes second nature, which means that it is out of our immediate conscious awareness. We think, “What if we are not right, we will be seen as stupid or weak?” “Never admit that you are wrong,” we say. “Never stop trying no matter what,” becomes our operating belief. In addition, we “feel” that the opposite of being right is not just being wrong, but also being personally weak. Most likely we don’t notice any of these thoughts, we just “feel” like we have to keep pulling.

I do this simple experiment with the trap in my mindfulness groups. Some people will just pull until the trap frays or breaks. They laugh about it, but when I ask why they just kept pulling until it broke they will often say, “I just didn’t want to let this little thing beat me.” Or they say, “I wasn’t about to give up.” In our society, “giving up” is often seen as being beaten, showing weakness, or admitting to some other personal failing. Giving up is also seen as accepting things passively or as an end or finish rather than a place to pause and make space, take a second look, and learn. Giving up is wisdom when what you are letting go of is a futile task that maintains your struggle.

Having the attitude that “right makes might” causes us to struggle and suffer unnecessarily, as the finger trap demonstrates. It can seduce us into choosing unworkable strategies over and over again, producing a sense of resignation, defeat, and dismay. Why wouldn’t you keep pulling against the trap, if society taught you to never give up, to tolerate as much pain as you can without giving up? Isn’t giving up shameful?

In this example, giving up the struggle was actually required before a solution could be found. Research tells us that when we try harder and harder in a way that does not yield expected positive results, we experience more anxiety, depression, exhaustion, and, potentially, burnout. Experiments have also demonstrated that when, for whatever reason, we are fearful or in an avoidance orientation or feel trapped, our capacity for creative problem-solving decreases.

Avoidance Orientation

Trying harder to be right or doing the same thing with a poor outcome puts the mind in avoidance mode. When the mind is in an avoidance orientation, we simply are not as capable of finding a creative answer to our problems. So, being stubbornly right in this example created and maintained the problem for those people who did not stop pulling, which in turn led to frustration and a decreased ability to problem solve. In frustration, they would just break the finger trap. But what happens if you feel trapped in a way that you just can’t seem to break out of.

“The spirit in which we do something is often as important as the act itself.”

People who look happy

Look at the picture above. What are your thoughts, mood, and orientation? Approach/Avoid?

A person who does not look happy

Look at the picture above.  What are your thoughts, mood, and orientation? Approach/Avoid?

These photos are only the smallest indicator of movement toward an orientation. What if you had a string of negative events or situations where you tried the same unworkable things repeatedly? Would you feel stuck? Feeling stuck or trapped activates the avoidance orientation, which decreases your sense of playfulness and creativity. If chronic, it can eventually lead to learned helplessness and depression. You just come to expect that there is nothing to do to help yourself. Your thinking becomes mired in remembering the reasons you shouldn’t do something because it won’t work out, or you remember the reasons that you can’t, rather than looking for creative solutions. But, all is not lost.

Break the Cycle of Helplessness

If you feel trapped in this powerful sense of helplessness, you can break out of it over time. With practice, you can become aware of the situations, thoughts, and feelings that cause an unproductive, negative state of mind. You can better recognize when you are about to go into the depressive thinking spiral. While you can’t stop thinking, you can learn how to relate differently to your thoughts and your feelings. You can begin to look more closely at the usefulness of your thoughts and the feelings that they activate. Then, you can become less reactive to them.

  • Simply learning to recognize thinking and patterns of thinking and feeling begins to weaken their hold.
  • Daily mindful practice helps you begin to understand that thoughts are not facts. A mindfulness practice also enhances your psychological flexibility.
  • You learn that your “doing” or thinking mind is a virtual reality. A mind that always feels like reality for the purposes of enhancing our ability for useful invention and practical problem solving, but is really thought, not reality. Our brains are great problem-solving machines, but not everything we think is correct. Sometimes the brain houses outdated, useless information that can be completely wrong.

Our brain is indeed a wonderful thinking machine with a tremendous amount of learned information, but it is very poor at auto-correction errors. In other words, we must learn the nature of how our brain works and practice management skills when it is not being used to our best, healthy advantage. With practice, mindfulness teaches us to observe the “doing mind” without being reactive to it. Furthermore, we begin to enhance our ability to see things just as they are in this moment and without judgment.

I know it seems we have taken a big leap from the dilemma of the finger trap, but maybe not. The people in my group who stop struggling and become mindful of the situation at hand, commonly find creative solutions. They become aware that pulling doesn’t work. When they stop pulling, they notice that the pressure lessens on their fingers. You can guess what dawns on them next. And what about the good folks who broke the finger trap in frustration? Well, they told us they were in the “doing,” automatic mind, reacting to multiple thought directives to “do or die.”

If you are stuck reacting to your “doing” mind in ways that cause you to suffer repeatedly and to repeat patterns that you are unaware of, I invite you to start or continue your mindful meditation practice. The advantages far outweigh the price of the practice.

With kindness,


This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Paul

    I enjoyed your post. Yes, I agree that sometimes the mind can feel like a “Chinese finger trap” or even an uncomfortably tight suit that one is struggling to get out of. One sometimes feels, in moments of obsession, ‘wow I wish I had a new brain that is free of these thoughts.’ But that struggle just makes it worse. Acceptance seems a better way to move on, and then the mind can start healing itself.

  2. Sam

    Paul, acceptance is exactly what is being offered. Not in the mindset of what is will always be, but that with a clear mind of focus. It can be. No matter the end goal. It sounds so simple because,it is. Only if you are willing to allow it.

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