Mental Yoga: Why Psychological Flexibility is the Key to Your Wellbeing

Christine by milopeng

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.

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10 Responses to Mental Yoga: Why Psychological Flexibility is the Key to Your Wellbeing

  1. Marie-Josee Shaar December 7, 2010 at 11:32 pm #

    Good point, Jeremy! And one way to practice psychological flexibility may be to try approaches/strategies that we are not as comfortable with, or reluctant to try…

    A long time ago, I thought that martial arts were cruel and that yoga was for pot smokers only! (I was still in my teens, please forgive me!) And then one day I tried these disciplines, experienced their benefits and realized that my previous perceptions were ill-founded and erroneous.

    Hopefully with time more and more of those who believe spas are all luxury and no therapy come to experience the other side of the coin too.


  2. Lisa Sansom December 8, 2010 at 12:55 pm #

    I love it how you are able to bring such diverse research together in one place, with references! Such excellent writing – and accessible to those who may not be as immersed in the positive psychology world as you are. I’d love to get me some training in ACT. Maybe one day it will be part of the MAPP program!
    All the best!

  3. Rebecca December 8, 2010 at 3:04 pm #

    Thank you for this – too often people get caught up in the world of just feeling good, and that has serious drawbacks. Learning to be flexible, especially in these times, is vital. I appreciate your insight and your vast amount of links. Namaste!

  4. Jeremy McCarthy December 8, 2010 at 11:27 pm #

    Thank you all for your feedback and kind comments. Yoga is probably actually a good way to practice psychological flexibility in addition to physical flexibility. Yoga instructors will sometimes ask their practitioners to practice awareness of how they are feeling about the postures they are holding: Maybe they are feeling uncomfortable, awkward, embarrassed, frustrated. Or maybe their mind keeps wandering to somewhere else. Observing and accepting these feelings is a way to expand yoga practice into the mind as much as the body.

  5. Jessica Durivage December 15, 2010 at 10:27 am #

    Feels great to be back in your world again! Mental Yoga in my definition = Meditation. Meditation affords us the opportunity “to shift from one perspective to another as the situation dictates, or as dictated by one’s personal values.” But during meditation – typically there is not a “decision to be made” or a “task to complete.” Meditation is the practice of these things, by simply observing the radical mind and watching thoughts. Over time, you will find “spaces” in those crucial decision making times where we can observe the thoughts and emotions stirring our senses, watch – instead of act – and have our words and actions come from a more centered places rather than a place based how our minds can first percieve things.
    With regards to your comments on being “too happy.” Again, based on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras – They guide us to first release the negative and cultivate positive. Then – you are instructed to begin to even let go of the postitive – because that too, is based on a perception of the mind. Deep stuff, right? This is why our lives are dedicated to this practice of coming and going, feeling and being.

    Great post!

  6. Katrina Gomm January 28, 2011 at 8:42 pm #

    Between yoga and general stretching, I think my mobility has improved drastically from just a year ago. My back no longer aches at the end of the day and I sleep so much better.

  7. Alex February 9, 2011 at 11:09 am #

    A principle that I have always believed in is mental yoga can help people who are obese. In order for an obese person to begin the long journey of weight loss, they have to b e spiritually sound and strong. It’s not an easy task to loose hundreds of pounds. Try this and it will help make weight loss easier for you.

  8. Jeremy McCarthy February 11, 2011 at 5:53 pm #

    Hi Alex, Dr. Tim Sharp is a guest blogger on Psychology of Wellbeing who wrote about this idea in his article on “The Happiness Diet”:
    Thanks for reading.


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