Positive Psychology and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) are different movements within psychology. Yet they also have quite a lot in common. Contact between both has been scarce until now. In July 2015, captains of both ships met for the very first time: Barbara ‘Positivity’ Fredrickson and Steven ‘ACT’ Hayes. Here is an exclusive report of this historic meeting in Berlin, Germany.Positive versus Negative Emotions?
Positive Psychology and Acceptance and Commitment therapy (‘ACT’ for short, pronounced as one word) both appeared at about the same time within the history of psychology. Since its inception, Positive Psychology has always held The Meaningful Life as a central pillar. Similarly, within ACT, moving towards meaningful Valued Living is a core process. What, then, are the differences between the movements?
‘Positive’ Psychology vs. ‘Dark’ ACT?
Fredrickson: “Positive Psychology, to me, is not a separate domain of psychology. It’s an emphasis, a leaning, a call within psychology to also focus on positive aspects.”
But isn’t this positive emphasis different from what ACT proclaims?Hayes: “When ACT first got popular attention with a story in Time Magazine, the story was titled Happiness is not normal. Which is of course something we’d never said, but some reporter wrote down. Another headline of that time was ‘Hello Darkness.’ I get that (laughs). From the beginning, we’ve cared about meaning and purpose and values-based action. Constructing the sort of lives that make life worth living.” Turning towards his neighbor, he said, “Barbara has, throughout her career, really focused on the relationship between positive emotions and behavior. That is of central importance, I think, to ACT.”
ACT consciously tries to avoid labeling emotions positive or negative. How would you define positive emotions for ACT?
Hayes: “It seems to be so contextually bound, that you can flip it. Take for instance sadness, is that negative? Clearly not. If my mother died last spring, sadness is what I would want, right? Is that a negative emotion? No, it’s not a negative emotion. In fact, are there any negative emotions that are not contextually bound? If you live them fully, and put them into your life that leads you in a values-based direction?”
So what negative are we talking about here?
Fredrickson: “I think that, as a field, we’ve inherited some language in terms of calling classes of emotions positive and negative, and there are so many levels at which you could define positive and negative. I think that what’s meant by it, is this: ‘If all other things were equal, would this be a wanted state? Would you want the state to continue?’”
Hayes nods in agreement when Fredrickson continues: “Negative emotions are useful if connected to context, but become negative if disconnected from context.”When pressed for a further clarification, Fredrickson adds: “I think of it as a can opener. Positive emotions, or hedonic well-being, open people up so they can see and appreciate more meaning. Experiencing meaning more is in itself an emotional uplift too.”
In the book edited by Kashdan and Ciarrochi, Steven Hayes wrote that ACT can add something useful to Positive Psychology as it transitions into Positive Psychology 2.0, while Positive Psychology can provide many useful leads on bringing meaning-oriented values work into behavior change. If the above-mentioned book was a beginning of the conversation, this meeting was a continuation that was live, and dare we say, positive.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.
Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K., Wilson, K. G. (2011). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Second Edition: The Process and Practice of Mindful Change (2nd edition). New York: Guilford Press.
Hayes, S. & Strosahl, K. (2004). A Practical Guide to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Springer Edition.
Kashdan, T. B. & Ciarrochi, J. (Eds.) (2013). Mindfulness, Acceptance, and Positive Psychology: The Seven Foundations of Well-Being. Context Press.