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Tis the Season for Acceptance

written by Denise Quinlan 8 December 2009

Denise Quinlan, MAPP '08, is a trainer with the Penn Resiliency Program and Strath Haven Positive Psychology Curriculum and is currently a PhD student focusing on strengths and subjective well being. She has over twenty years experience in management consulting. Helping people discover strengths and what makes life worth living is what Denise enjoys most, that and the joy of a good theory. Full bio. Denise's articles are here.

Goodwill to All – If You Can Manage It

Xmas shopping, Oxford St , London.

Xmas shopping, Oxford St , London.

The Christmas carols tell me that “’tis the season to be jolly” and wish peace to all mankind, but around me I see overwhelm, envy, and resentment as people stress to find the perfect gift, cook the perfect dinner, and create the perfect happy family holiday. (The most relaxing Christmas I ever spent was with a Sikh family in Africa; the day passed delightfully unobserved. Thank you, Sunni!).

Acceptance as a Staging Post

It can be very hard to get from resentment or envy to peace and goodwill in one swift jump; few among us are skilled at this maneuver. Acceptance may be the neutral ground that we can aim for. It’s within sight of us when we are mired in negative emotion. And once we reach acceptance, unexpectedly good things can happen.

Barbara Fredrickson, in a talk to a Mentor Coach audience, described how mindfulness meditation appears to counter negative emotion, while loving kindness meditation seems to help build positive emotion. Mindfulness is about just noticing what is, and letting it be there; in other words, accepting it. Sounds easy, but some days just being able to label a moment or notice that “this moment is OK”, takes quite a bit of awareness and perspective.

Mindful acceptance is an approach that has been used to help manage chronic pain; by noticing but not fighting against pain, people with chronic pain have been able to focus on the aspects of their lives that are meaningful and valuable. They may still have pain, but they can reduce the anxiety and depression that often accompany it, and get on with activities that give them meaning and pleasure in life.

Exiting the House of Negative Emotion

Acceptance may be a doorway through which we can exit “the house of negative emotions” and notice the different “houses of positive emotion” that are always there to be found. We each have our own way of using our strengths and finding positive emotion in the holiday season (see Amanda Horne’s Holiday Strengths) This month Todd Kashdan will get there by being curious, Barry Schwartz through satisficing, Sonja Lyubomirsky through savoring, and Robert Biswas-Diener will be laughing for others (Go, Robert!).

Compassion and Acceptance

George Vaillant, custodian of the Harvard Grant Study and author of Spiritual Evolution, has said that he believes acceptance is part of compassion and that “indeed it is hard to imagine compassion without acceptance.” Acceptance can be “without attachment or selectiveness and so it is not necessarily part of love.” In that respect it may feel like a more achievable goal; “I’m not promising to love you, but I’ll try to accept you.” If we can’t give our love to the world at large, perhaps we can aim for acceptance and compassion.

Acceptance reminds me of gratitude in that by itself, it doesn’t seem so astonishing or powerful, but it enables great changes to occur. Both acceptance and gratitude are portals that can transport us from resentment, envy, fear, and other negative emotions to a place where we are in sight of positive emotion and a positive connection to another human being.

Both spirituality and love lead to feelings of respect, appreciation and acceptance. They are wonderful feelings but not always attainable in the moment (e.g. in the contemporary tenth circle of hell known as an enclosed shopping mall).

Acceptance may not be a positive emotion, but like most positive emotions it does allow a broader view of our situation. By shifting us from a negative to a neutral state it may help us reach positive emotion. This month, if “peace on earth and goodwill to all mankind” feels out of reach, try practicing acceptance. Meditate for a minute.  Sit quietly outside the dressing room while your teenager daughter tries on clothes.  Breathe while walking from your car to your front door.  Who knows what joy it may lead to?




Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive . New York: Crown.

Vaillant, G. (2008). Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith. New York: Broadway Press.

Noticing what Is courtesy of lepiaf.geo
Doorway to paradise courtesy of The Wandering Angel
Two children courtesy of Daniel E Bruce
Acceptance and Joy courtesy of Nesster

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Amanda 9 December 2009 - 3:45 am

Hi Denise

This is wonderful! If “peace on earth and goodwill to all mankind” is what marks this time of year, there are some amazingly mindless practices out there which achieve just the opposite. No wonder this can be a difficult period for some people.

Very timely advice to be mindful and accepting what is. Your comments are a reminder of Tal Ben-Shahar’s work on perfectionism (which strikes a few people at this time of year). Tal advocates ‘active acceptance’ and reminds us of the importance of mindfulness: “Active acceptance is about recognizing things as they are and then choosing the course of action we deem appropriate and worthy of ourselves.” (pp. 51-57 from Pursuit of Perfect).

Do you love George Vaillant’s book? Isn’t it the perfect companion to Fredrickson’s?

Have a happy, mindful and accepting Christmas and New Year in your beautiful home town.


Jeremy McCarthy 9 December 2009 - 10:49 am

Thanks Denise. Nice message. Check out http://www.charterforcompassion.org which is also promoting the message of compassion and acceptance.

Chuck Cobb 11 December 2009 - 5:38 pm

Great article, Denise.

grimo1re 14 December 2009 - 1:56 am

“Acceptance may not be a positive emotion, but like most positive emotions it does allow a broader view of our situation.”

It may not be a positive emotion, but it’ll get me out of the negative ‘track’ and makes room for the positive emotions to follow!

Denise Quinlan 14 December 2009 - 4:41 am

Hi Amanda,
thanks for your comments. I agree there is a lot of mindless practice out there around this time. And I keep needing to give myself ‘permission to be human’ – Tal Ben Shahar’s work on perfectionism is a good counterpoint to the need for a ‘perfect Christmas’!

Have a great time in your part of the world too.

Denise Quinlan 14 December 2009 - 4:43 am

I am a fan of Karen Armstrong and watched her TED wish acceptance last year. It was a delight to see the compassion charter emerge recently and I have signed up.
I think it and the forgivenessproject.com [not sure of the correct web address] will both have amazing video resources and stories which can be used in teaching students about compassion and forgiveness.

Thanks for your comment,


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