In the last several years, psychology has been flipped on its head with the growth and popularity of positive psychology. While psychology traditionally has focused on studying things we want less of such as depression and mental illness, positive psychology has focused on things we want more of: happiness, positive emotions, optimism, strengths, and meaning in life.
But some psychologists are quick to point out that more is not always better. Too much happiness can make someone exceedingly obnoxious and difficult to relate to. Too much optimism can lead us to make poor decisions and to lose touch with reality. And even strengths in an exaggerated form can become a weakness (as confidence becomes arrogance, honesty becomes brutal, curiosity becomes nosiness, etc.)
The key, as some scientists are pointing out, is not to strive blindly for more of everything that is perceived as “good” (see “The Problem with Happiness” by Todd Kashdan,) but rather to better understand the situations we find ourselves in and to adapt our minds accordingly using exactly the emotions and psychological resources that are best suited for any specific situation.
If most of positive psychology has been focused on developing tools (i.e. helping us develop our strengths, teaching us to use gratitude, helping us to be more optimistic,) psychological flexibility is about learning which tool to use in which situation and being able to fluidly flex from moment to moment as needed. We know, for example that optimism has benefits, but some situations call for pessimism. Knowing when to use which one is a better strategy than focusing on one to the exclusion of the other.
Likewise, being able to shift attention to different domains of life (as I suggested in my “Diversification of Wellbeing” article.) is another important aspect of psychological flexibility. And while I’ve written previously about the benefits of having a future time perspective (here and here,) the research on psychological flexibility would suggest that sometimes it is better to simply enjoy the present, or to reflect on the past. The best strength comes from having the ability to shift from one perspective to another as the situation dictates, or as dictated by one’s personal values.
A paper written last year by Kashdan (of George Mason University) and Jonathan Rottenberg (of University of South Florida,) provides a thorough analysis of the literature on psychological flexibility highlighting evidence for a slew of benefits including tolerance to pain, greater endurance, better work performance, lower distress during traumatic times, and general mental health.
So the question becomes, how does one develop psychological flexibility? What would “mental yoga” look like? Kashdan and Rottenberg report on several interventions that are being tested with promising results. Programs based on mindfulness such as ACT or “Acceptance Commitment Therapy” seem to be the way to go. ACT suggests a mindful awareness of emotional reactions while choosing behaviors based on values and goals.
For those of us interested in health and wellbeing, I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more about psychological flexibility and ACT in the months and years to come. “After all,” say Kashdan and Rottenberg, “a healthy person is someone who can manage themselves in the uncertain, unpredictable world around them, where novelty and change are the norm rather than the exception.” As they point out, the science of psychology will have to keep evolving, to study people in the context of the complex world we all live in.
References and recommended reading:
Harris, R. (2008). The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living. Trumpeter.
Hayes, S. C. (2005). Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. New Harbinger Publications.
Kashdan, T. (2009). Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. William Morrow.