I’ve spent much of my adult life searching for an approach to well-being that can help both my clients and myself flourish. Something that combines the rigor of science with meditation, mindfulness, and spirituality.
After years of exploring everything from transcendental meditation to positive psychology, MBSR to behavior change and neuroscience, there’s one approach I fell in love with – ACT. ACT stands for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) or Acceptance and Commitment Training.
As I’ve seen ACT develop and flourish, I’ve also witnessed its embrace by the World Health Organization and the UK’s National Health Service. With decades of thorough scientific research, ACT carves space for deep, spiritual insights and the values of a transcendent sense of self. This aspect of ACT isn’t about sounding good or feeling spiritual; it’s about leading to greater meaning and improved mental health.
ACT is a flexible, innovative mindful approach, helping you connect deeply with the present moment while illuminating your life’s core values and supporting their daily integration.
The power of ACT lies in its ability to flexibly guide you to accept your thoughts and feelings without judgment, guilt, or resistance. Recognized as a robust therapeutic and training model, ACT cultivates acceptance, presence, and meaningful action. The outcome? Enhanced well-being and a life aligned with your deepest values.
The way it achieves this is through increasing your ‘psychological flexibility.’
What is psychological flexibility?
I consider psychological flexibility a super skill for mental health, well-being, and human flourishing. In my opinion, it’s one of the most under-appreciated psychological concepts in our modern society.
Mindfulness garners much attention, while psychological flexibility receives comparatively less. Yet, over a thousand randomized controlled studies have established psychological flexibility as a remarkably reliable predictor of a life marked by reduced suffering, heightened resilience, and greater meaning.
So, what exactly is psychological flexibility? It’s a measure of how skillful you are in these 6 ‘mindful’ skills – acceptance or emotional openness, cognitive defusion or unhooking from thoughts, transcendent self or perspective taking, in the present moment flexibly, opening up to your values and navigating with committed action. I will explain each one in more detail below, but let me explain how powerful they are, combined together.
As your psychological flexibility grows, you become adept at being mentally present, emotionally open, and engaging meaningfully with the challenges of each moment.
According to Steven C. Hayes, co-developer of ACT and one of the world’s most cited psychologists, your psychological flexibility can predict amazing things. It can predict who is going to develop a mental health challenge like anxiety, trauma, depression, or substance abuse. It can predict how severe or long-lasting the problem will be. It can predict who will be successful in diet or exercise, who will have effective relationships, and who will be successful at work. It even predicts who will be successful in athletics and many other human disciplines. All this and more is predicted by your psychological flexibility.
And the good news is psychological flexibility is a skill. In study after study, it’s been found you can develop your psychological flexibility. You can improve it. And as your psychological flexibility improves, the more mindful and meaningful your life becomes.
ACT shows that meditation is a powerful way to develop your psychological flexibility. But it also shows there are other ways to achieve greater mindfulness and meaning too. So for those who you know or support that struggle or aren’t interested in meditation, ACT offers other creative and well-tested ways to develop psychological flexibility.
Turning ACT into ACTION – The 6 Flexibility Skills of ACT
To understand the ACT process, I will now go through each of the six skills. I’ll also guide you through these during the 12-minute guided meditation, adapted from my ‘ACT for Beginners’ course. This meditation uses the simple acronym I’ve developed – ACTION.
Each letter represents a step in the ACT process, creating a powerful journey towards the goal of ACT – psychological flexibility.
A 12-Minute Meditation for Finding Meaning with ACT in Action
A – Acceptance: Making Space For Your Feelings
The first step, represented by ‘A,’ stands for acceptance. This stage invites us to engage with the present moment, fully acknowledging our thoughts, feelings, and sensations. By treating ourselves with kindness and compassion, we create a supportive environment to foster emotional openness and curiosity. Being kind and patient with yourself is particularly important when you open up to difficult feelings and sensations in this step.
C – Cognitive Defusion: Unhook from Your Thoughts
‘C’ symbolizes cognitive defusion, which is essentially the process of ‘unhooking’ from your thoughts. It’s the ability to not take your thoughts too literally, especially the unhelpful thoughts. Observe your thoughts without getting entangled in them, similar to watching leaves float by on a stream or clouds floating through the sky. This process helps create space between your experiences and your reactions, leading to improved mental flexibility.
ACT research has discovered this skill of unhooking can also be achieved in many other strange yet powerful ways—such as word repetition: very quickly repeating a phrase that troubles you. Quickly repeating thoughts like ‘I can’t do it’ or ‘I’m not good enough,’ in your mind or out loud, that’s holding you back for 30 seconds or so. This process seems to reduce, rather than increase, the emotional impact of the words. There are hundreds of other ways to unhook from your thoughts.
T – Transcendent Self: Observer of Experiences
‘T’ stands for the transcendent self, reminding you that you’re more than just your thoughts and feelings. This stage invites you to step back and observe your experiences without judgment or resistance.
The transcendent self is open, aware, and free from the constraints of conditioned responses. This skill is about having a more flexible sense of self rather than a rigid one. It’s about learning to shift your perspective.
I – In the Moment: Embrace Presence
‘I’ emphasizes the importance of being in the moment, anchoring you to the present by focusing on sensory experiences. It’s the skill of moving your attention in the present moment—flexibly, fluidly, and voluntarily. Whether you’re feeling your breath’s gentle rhythm or noting the sounds around you, being present allows you to fully engage with life as it unfolds. As you practice being present or moving your attention deliberately from one place to another, this skill develops. Most mindfulness meditation practices help develop these skills.
O – Open to Values: Recognize What Truly Matters
‘O’ urges us to open up to our hearts’ values. By reflecting on what truly matters to us, you develop a compass to guide your actions and decisions. Whether it’s acting kindly, curiously, or playfully, your core values help define your purpose and direction in life. Uncovering what your values are and bringing them into your everyday actions is what this skill is about.
This is a way of taking your mindfulness practice off the chair or cushion and into every action you take. The key is to ensure these are your values that you’ve chosen and fully believe in—not values you should have or that others enforce upon you. There are several exercises you can do to help uncover your values. But sometimes, simply quieting down and asking yourself can help reveal the answer.
N – Navigating with Meaningful Action: Live According to Your Values
Finally, ‘N’ stands for navigating with meaningful, committed action. This stage encourages us to infuse your day-to-day activities with intention, aligning our actions with our values. By doing this, you treat every moment and action as a form of mindfulness, enriching your life with purpose and fulfillment.
For example, if being mindful is a value of yours, it’s about reminding yourself to be mindful when you talk on the phone, water a plant, or walk to work. If your value is being kind, it’s about finding opportunities to be kind to others and yourself, as and when you can.
ACT is a mindful, values-directed approach that fosters psychological flexibility, helping you connect with your deepest values and live a fulfilling life. By cultivating acceptance, presence, and meaningful action, you can make each day a mindful and meaningful experience.
Remembering the acronym ACTION can be a nice way to explore the six skills of ACT. And doing the 12-minute ACT meditation I shared with this article can be a good reminder of the key skills to focus on and develop, helping reduce your suffering and increase the meaning and joy in your life.
If you’re interested in diving deeper into ACT and psychological flexibility, my free 30-day Mindfulness Challenge can be an excellent place to start. The challenge is like a 30-day course and includes insights into both mindfulness and ACT. You can also find ACT courses on my site.
May you carry the sense of presence and connection with you and enjoy the enriching journey towards mindful living.