Psychological Flexibility: A Key to Wellbeing

Psychological flexibility – the ability to adapt to life’s ups and downs – helps us to be calmer, happier and more resilient. Learn more about the power of psychological flexibility – and how to cultivate it.

Every year on March 20th, people across the world mark the International Day of Happiness. Established by the United Nations in 2012, this global event is designed to promote the importance of happiness and wellbeing, helping us to move towards a kinder and more compassionate world.

Happiness matters. Yet in a world full of challenges, maintaining mental wellbeing isn’t always easy. From individual stressors to wider global situations, there are many things that can take us off balance. That’s why it’s vital to find ways to support equilibrium and enhance happiness from within.

The power of psychological flexibility

One of the most powerful ways we can support our inner balance is by cultivating psychological flexibility. Psychological flexibility is the ability to cope with life’s ups and downs, responding adaptively rather than getting stuck in the lows or the highs. This flexibility enables us to remain open and fully present to our experiences, and able to move in the direction of our values – even in the presence of difficult thoughts and emotions.

Life will always bring situations that challenge us. Resisting, denying or wrestling with these situations can leave us stuck in stress and overwhelm. Psychological flexibility helps us to view issues with greater clarity and perspective. This enables us to navigate them more effectively and make more intentional decisions, keeping us on an even keel.

Psychological flexibility is associated with numerous benefits for mental wellbeing. It supports emotional regulation, helping us to manage emotions and respond to difficulties in a more balanced way. Studies show that if we are experiencing stress, psychological flexibility is protective against negative feelings and can promote positive mental health. Those who are more psychologically flexible typically report lower levels of depression, anxiety and distress during stressful life events. Being open to various perspectives and adapting to changing circumstances can also improve our problem-solving skills.

Psychological flexibility also helps to improve our overall quality of life. Aligning actions with our personal values, even in the face of difficulties, contributes to a sense of purpose and fulfilment, leading to increased life satisfaction.

In all of these ways, psychological flexibility promotes inner equilibrium and resilience, supporting us to respond more fluidly to life’s twists and turns. And the good news is that – just like physical flexibility – it’s something we can all cultivate.

Cultivating psychological flexibility

Psychological flexibility is rooted in mindfulness teachings. It is a core component of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a therapeutic approach that combines elements of cognitive-behavioural therapy with mindfulness strategies.

The following key processes can help us to cultivate psychological flexibility:

  1. Embrace difficult emotions
    Learning to acknowledge and accept all thoughts and feelings, even if they are uncomfortable or distressing, is the foundation of psychological flexibility. Practicing mindfulness can help us to embrace difficult emotions more willingly, acknowledging their presence without judgment.
  2. Step back from thoughts
    Mindfulness practices can also help us to detach from and observe our thoughts, rather than being dominated or defined by them. This enables us to gain perspective and reduce their impact – which is particularly helpful when experiencing negative thoughts.
  3. Focus on the present moment
    Bringing our focus to the present moment is a great way to enhance awareness and reduce anxiety. Present-moment awareness helps us to avoid rumination about the past or future, enabling us to engage more effectively with ourselves and the world around us.
  4. Develop self-compassion
    Treating ourselves with kindness and understanding is vital for navigating challenging situations. Self-compassion is one of the best ways to improve our psychological wellbeing, helping to buffer against emotional reactivity and supporting us to cope with difficulty.
  5. Orient to values
    Identifying and orienting to our values helps us to align our actions with what truly matters to us. In doing so, we foster a sense of healthy purpose and self-direction. These values also serve as an anchor to return to when we experience difficulties in life.
  6. Commit to action
    Building habits that are in harmony with our values gives us a consistent framework for making intentional and values-driven actions. This fosters resilience and motivation in the face of challenges, and enables us to live with greater meaning, purpose and authenticity.

Using these processes helps us to develop psychological flexibility, enabling us to respond more effectively to whatever life holds. In doing so, we learn to move with the flow of life rather than against it – a more adaptable way of engaging that helps us to feel calmer, happier and more peaceful.

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