The Beginning of a ConversationSteven Hayes, founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT, pronounced as the word “act”) sums up the message of this book in its last chapter, “What you hold in your hands is the beginning of a conversation.” I believe that Mindfulness, Acceptance, and Positive Psychology: The Seven Foundations of Well-Being is the first book to look at the commonalities and differences between positive psychology and ACT. The book offers a collection of articles by various authors on many subjects such as beliefs, mindfulness, cognitive reappraisal, values, perspective taking, experiential acceptance and others. I will not attempt to summarize all these ideas but, rather, highlight some of the major themes of the book based on my experience.
For those of you who are new to ACT, its core message is to accept what is out of your control and commit to action that helps you live a meaningful life. On the surface, the message is quite appealing to positive psychologists. However, as you read the book, you will discover that ACT practitioners think about mindfulness and acceptance in very specific ways that can complement as well as conflict with some positive psychology constructs.As way of disclosure, I am a cognitive behavior therapist and a licensed psychotherapist. I have been following ACT for many years and have attended numerous trainings in ACT as well as even a few therapy sessions with an ACT therapist. While I incorporate many ACT concepts in a cognitive behavioral therapy approach, I have found the theories underlying ACT, such as relational frame theory and contextual behavioral science to be quite complex. I would encourage readers who are interested in ACT to explore additional resources on these concepts. This books cites many resources.
What is ACT?
The goal of ACT is psychological flexibility, which means being in contact with the present moment and taking committed action based on your values. In ACT, there are six core processes that promote psychological flexibility. Mindfulness includes:
- Experiential acceptance: allowing painful feelings, urges, and sensations to come and go without a struggle or trying to get rid of them
- Cognitive defusion: altering the function of thoughts to decrease believability or attachment to them
- Being present: non-judgmental contact with psychological and environmental events as they occur
- Self-as-context: learning we are not the content of our thoughts, feelings, sensations and other experiences
In ACT, there is a belief that replacing negative events with positive ones is only a small step away from avoidance and suppression, which turns the normal experience of pain into one of suffering. In grad school, one of my mindfulness professors stated a simple formula:
Suffering = Pain x Resistance
If Pain = 5 and Resistance = 0, then Suffering is 0. You still have the pain, but you don’t turn it into needless suffering.
Positive Psychology 2.0
In contrast, positive psychology has traditionally encouraged people to cultivate positive emotions and experiences. While there is no consensus in this book, Steven Hayes says: “If positive interventions are really committed to replacing negative emotions… then the two do not fit other than for some useful borrowing… as positive psychology has matured there is a growing realization that positive functions and positive forms (and negative functions and negative forms) are just not the same thing.” Both Hayes and other authors in this book are hopeful that the emergence of “Positive Psychology 2.0,” with a more dynamic, nuanced approach to well-being, may allow ACT and positive psychology to become supportive fellow travelers.Mindfulness and Positive Reappraisal
My favorite article in this book was the one by Eric Garland and Barbara Fredrickson examining the linkages between the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions and some of the key components of ACT. These authors introduced the idea of positive reappraisal, in which they propose that mindfulness skills can be coupled with cognitive restructuring from a functional perspective to promote a meaningful integration between ACT and positive psychology.
Garland and Fredrickson contend that, “the state of mindfulness is a key mechanism that makes reappraisal possible.” The technique of mindful reappraisal involves helping the client to engage in mindfulness practice after the initial stress appraisal and before developing the reappraisal from a functional perspective. In this way, the client is learning to practice defusion from thoughts and feelings to gain psychological flexibility and take committed action toward values.
Personally, I think that if the goal of ACT is psychological flexibility, then let’s start applying psychological flexibility to our interpretation of how ACT and positive psychology can support and complement each other. I believe that people need a variety of psychological tools because different states of mind and events may call for different approaches.I think it is part of the human experience to struggle with painful experiences and to want to turn them into positive emotions. ACT offers us a way to become an observer of our content (self as process and self as context), as opposed to getting stuck in our thoughts and feelings (self as content). This is one place where ACT can enhance positive psychology as it continues to mature into the future.
Sometimes, we must struggle with painful experiences and emotions because that is part of life. For some people, jumping straight to defusion and experiential acceptance feels invalidating. For others who are more enlightened, this might be possible but, as Foody and Barnes-Holmes mention in chapter 8, sticky psychological content (with which you have struggled in the past) is likely to slide you back into self-as-content the minute it shows up.
Join the Early Conversation
I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in joining the early conversation between ACT and positive psychology. This book offers a concise summary of some of the key constructs of both traditions and also has numerous references for the reader to gain more knowledge as this conversation begins.
Foody, M., Barnes-Holmes, Y., & Barnes-Holmes, D. (no date). An Empirical Investigation of the Three Selves. Powerpoint presentation.
Kashdan, T. B. & Ciarrochi, J. (Eds.) (2013). Mindfulness, Acceptance, and Positive Psychology: The Seven Foundations of Well-Being. Context Press.
Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K., & Wilson, K. G. (2011). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Second Edition: The Process and Practice of Mindful Change. New York: Guilford Press.
Photo Credits: via Compfight with Creative Commons license
A conversation courtesy of khalid Albaih
Emotion circle courtesy of Rob Hogeslag
Solitary Buddha courtesy of kaje_yomama
Be flexible courtesy of Chrissy Wainwright