Psychological Flexibility and Living Well

Psychological Flexibility and Living Well

The greater your psychological flexibility, the better you can handle painful thoughts and feelings, and the more effectively you can take action to make your life rich and meaningful. ~ Russ Harris, PhD, The Happiness Trap

You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf… ~ Jon-Kabat Zin

If Only…

So many of us approach happiness as something we can get through doing something right. In doing so, we live in a world of external contingencies. For instance,

  • If I just lose those last 10 lbs, then I’ll be happy.
  • If I win the lottery, then I’ll never be insecure about money again!
  • If I find the one, then I’ll never feel alone again.
  • If I win that medal, then I’ll finally feel confident.
  • If I get good grades, then they’ll know I’m smart!


As one who has worked with people who have met almost all of those goals, I promise you. Happiness cannot be something we search for to WIN in the future. It’s just one of those passing clouds like all feelings and all thoughts.

The easy, the difficult, the happy, the sad, the loving, self-centered rage, all fade and bubble up to be accepted as fleeting. As the old saying goes, This too shall pass.

One of my favorite books that helps me understand these ideas is called The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living, a Guide to ACT. In a nutshell, this is the way to psychological flexibility, the route to mind-body-spirit groundedness.

The Six Core Principles of ACT

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is based upon six core principles that work together to help you develop a life-changing mindset known as “psychological flexibility.” The greater your psychological flexibility, the better you can handle painful thoughts and feelings, and the more effectively you can take action to make your life rich and meaningful. As we progress through the book, we will work through these six core principles, one by one, but first, let’s take a very brief look at all of them.

Relating to your thoughts in a new way, so they have much less impact and influence over you. As you learn to defuse painful and unpleasant thoughts, they will lose their ability to frighten, disturb, worry, stress, or depress you. And as you learn to defuse unhelpful thoughts, such as self-limiting beliefs and harsh self-criticisms, they will have much less influence over your behavior.

Making room for unpleasant feelings and sensations instead of trying to suppress them or push them away. As you open up and make space for these feelings, you will find they bother you much less, and they “move on” much more rapidly, instead of “hanging around” and disturbing you. (The official ACT term for this principle is “acceptance.” I have changed it because the word “acceptance” has many different meanings and is often misunderstood.)

Connecting fully with whatever is happening right here, right now; focusing on and engaging in whatever you’re doing or experiencing. Instead of dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, you are deeply connected with the present moment. (The official ACT phrase is “Contact with the Present Moment.” I have changed it purely for brevity.)

A powerful aspect of the mind, which has been largely ignored by western psychology until now. As you get to know this part of yourself, you will further transform your relationship with difficult thoughts and feelings.

Clarifying and connecting with your values is an essential step toward making life meaningful. Your values are reflections of what is most important in your heart: what sort of person you want to be, what is significant and meaningful to you, and what you want to stand for in this life. Your values provide direction for your life and motivate you to make important changes.

A rich and meaningful life is created through taking action. But not just any action. It happens through effective action, guided by and motivated by your values. And in particular, it happens through committed action: action that you take again and again, no matter how many times you fail or go off track.

Here’s a 12-minute meditation to support you in finding ease amidst any storm.