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Your ETA to Happiness: What You Need to Know

 We all want to be happy…. Or at least have more happiness than sadness, anxiety, or anger in our lives. But here’s the deal. There’s a system of interrelated parts, a hard-wiring in all humans, which can derail our happiness. A simple understanding of this system can get you moving in the right direction!

Every week I get calls from people eager to figure out how to get out of the quicksand of difficult emotions and get unstuck. They are caught in the system, and eager for help getting out. What they need to know, and I am sharing with you here, is the basic information you need to begin recognizing how you might get caught in the system as well.

Your Unique Mind-Body Vehicle

Your mind-body is your vehicle
Your mind-body is your vehicle

A good way to think about the complex interaction between your happiness and your life is to think of your mind-body as a vehicle, in which you drive the roads of life. That body, which you inhabit at this very moment, is your vehicle.

There are, of course, lots of different kinds of vehicles, in different sizes, colors, makes, and models. Some are more hardy, like an SUV, and can haul the heavy loads and take the bumps in life pretty well, but might not have a lot of pick up or go very fast. Others may be more sporty, and can zip around, but don’t go off-roading so well, and maybe need more maintenance.

Each of us is a unique type of vehicle, which is comprised of all kinds of different strengths and vulnerabilities. But the important thing to remember is this. An SUV is no better or worse than a sports car, it always depends upon the demands on the road, from moment to moment.

Bottom Line: It’s so easy to get caught up in beliefs about how we should be feeling or how easy it should be for us to perform a certain way. Self-awareness is the key to happiness: Know thy vehicle, and practice self acceptance. If the vehicle you inhabit is delicate, you may need more self care to build your resilience. If you’re more hardy, that’s great. But you may need to build some skill in tuning into your authentic feelings as important indicators of your needs (and those of others).


The ETA System: How We are All the Same

Despite all the different kinds of cars there are, ALL of them have the same 3 components, an engine, steering wheel and tires. These components interact to create the experience inside the vehicle of the facts on the road outside the vehicle. So, if you’re an SUV driving down the road, you will experience the road differently than if you are a small sports car.

Just the same, each of us is unique in our social and biological make up. But there is an underlying system of components, which applies to all of us. The secret to authentic happiness, and not getting caught in the system is knowing the difference between what you are experiencing inside your vehicle, and what is factually happening on the road!

In our mind-body vehicles, there’s an interaction between our emotions (which is like the engine), thoughts, (like the steering wheel) and our action tendencies (like the tires that take us places). Each component is constantly influencing our enjoyment of the journey.  But most of the time, the components are outside our awareness. We attribute what we experience inside the vehicle (happy or not happy) to what is happening outside the vehicle, which is only one part of the equation.

I call this the ETA system. This is a hardwired process that is always happening in all of us, all the time. Your unique life experiences are the programmed content that gets plugged in to this process. These experiences show up as Passengers. These guys can really mess with the ETA system processes with all their chatter!

Bottom Line: What you experience in any given moment is like your own virtual reality. Facts enter your perception to enter the ETA loop, which is biased by your unique programming. Happiness begins with this knowledge of how the system works, and awareness of your own biased programming within the ETA system – how the experience inside your vehicle is not the same as the facts outside the vehicle.


How it Works: Poop Happens!

Emotions - Thoughts - Actions interact to influence Happiness
Emotions – Thoughts – Actions interact to influence Happiness

Imagine your walking down the road and you see poop on the sidewalk. This is a fact on the road of life, as everyone would agree.

What’s your reaction?

This is where the ETA system gets activated. When you visually perceive the poop on the road, you experience an appraisal thought, feelings (emotions and bodily reactions), which compel an action. You’re likely thought might be “that’s gross,” experience disgust and then take action to avoid the poop.

But what if you begin thinking about “how inconsiderate” the owner of the dog was. Then you become angry, which leads to other thoughts about all the other inconsiderate people in the world…. And now, my dear YOU HAVE ENTERED THE SYSTEM!

If you encounter the poop on the road when you are already experiencing a negative mood, you are more likely to have strong negative judgments, which will further increase your negative mood!

Bottom Line: Can you see that it is not necessarily the poop on the road in our lives, which ‘causes’ our experience, but the interaction of the facts with what we bring to the situation?


Skillfulness Within The ETA System

There are three transformative processes in Mindful-Mastery and effective psychotherapy:

  1. Understanding the mind-body system you live in.
  2. Building your self-awareness and acceptance
  3. Developing the skills you need to balance acceptance and change within the system.

The important thing to remember is that, while the experience may be very real indeed, it is something different (always at least a little bit biased) from the facts on the road. Happiness begins with the awareness of how we are all prone to getting caught in the ETA system, and the willingness to build the skills we need to avoid the ETA trap.

Check out my blog on How to Hack Your Habits to learn how to read the Dashboard of your mind-body vehicle to start identifying your autopilot ETA reactions that can get you stuck in the system.

If you have questions about how this system works in your life, I hope you will send me a message in the comments section! Or sign up for the Mindful-Mastery SKILL WEEKLY newsletter, follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.



Your ETA to Happiness: What You Need to Know

Dr. Fielding

Lara Fielding is a licensed Clinical Psychologist, who teaches, supervises, and specializes in the Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapies (CBT). Her private practice is in Los Angeles, where she is also an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University, Graduate School of Education and Psychology, and a Supervisor Psychologist at the UCLA Department of Psychology Clinic. Dr. Fielding teaches clients how to master the auto-pilot tendencies of the mind-body emotional system with mindfulness and self-care skills. As a behavioral psychologist, she works with clients to empower their skillfulness in managing stress and regulating difficult emotions. The skills she teaches are based on her research at UCLA, Harvard, and Peperdine, to incorporate the psycho-physiology of stress, emotion and cognition. Dr. Fielding has exhaustively studied the Mindfulness-Based CBT treatments (DBT, ACT, MBSR, MBCT) and their application for problems with Emotion Dysregulation. From this study, she derived a set of therapist guidelines for evidence-based practice. Dr. Fielding’s work is further informed by her research experience at UCLA and Harvard. Her research there explored the relationship between health behavior and the psycho-physiological effects of stress on cognition and emotion. Dr. Fielding is trained and experienced working with groups and individuals suffering from the effects of traumatic experiences, anxiety, and mood disorders. She has taught hundreds of clients concrete skills to better manage difficult emotions in the face of stressful life situations. With these cognitive and emotional skills in place, clients are guided towards personal values consistent behavioral change, in order to achieve their life goals.

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APA Reference
Fielding, L. (2016). Your ETA to Happiness: What You Need to Know. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 10, 2020, from


Last updated: 10 May 2016
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