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Positive Psychology and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): An Integration

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    Positive Psychology and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) share a focus on the promotion of human flourishing. They have common techniques for accomplishing this via goal setting, psychological strengths, mindfulness and the clarification of values and their relation to the meaning of life (Ciarrochi & Kashdan 2013). ACT emphasizes creating steps that move toward committed action. Positive psychology is on an ever evolving journey. One that has moved away from solely focusing on the positive aspects of life and moved towards embracing the negative as a means to more fully experience life overall. This more dynamic way of viewing life as a continuum that oscillates back and forth between negative and positive truly meshes well with the tenets of ACT. There are a few organizational categories that positive psychology and ACT have used independently of each other but at the same time have similar themes. Two areas that have gained much needed traction in the quest for achieving the best possible outcomes in life are the practice of mindfulness and identification of values.

    Bishop and Williams define mindfulness as conscious awareness of an open, receptive attitude, of what is happening in the present moment. Mindfulness within ACT is not used to directly target positive moods, but rather to appreciate what ever moment appears during the practice, whether it is joy or pain (Ciarrochi & Kashdan 2013). Shinzen Young, an American mindfulness teacher, shares in his courses that it is important to embrace any emotion that surfaces during the mindfulness practice. He encourages students to focus on the moments in which a new emotion arrives and exits (Nov 17. 18 Class). This perfectly coincides with ACTs use of mindfulness. Furthermore, ACT seeks to bring about action that is commensurate with core values, enhance performance and increase engagement of the task at hand when using mindfulness. Positive psychology, likewise, believes mindfulness cultivates skills that repair negative moods and enhance positive moods (Ciarrochi & Kashdan 2013). This method ensures that people are not remaining stagnant on one side of the continuum.

    Mindfulness is often noted to be a practice that allows for non-judgement of oneself. Research is now suggesting it goes even deeper than that. The practice of mindfulness is allowing us to reprogram the brain. Sara Lazar, a psychiatric neuroscientist from Harvard Medical School, found mindfulness practices increase cortical thickening of grey matter density in areas that are associated with attention, learning, self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy and compassion (Shapiro et al 2006). These are areas that if cultivated can ultimately lead to a better quality of life. Extensive research has shown the effect traumas and negative experiences have on brain structure and then function, so it is certainly reassuring to know that this can be reversed. The merits of neuroplasticity due to mindfulness are now being fully explored. This can lend itself to future studies of how ACT mindfulness practices can having long lasting effects on not only brain structure, but overall well-being in the lives of practioners.

    Mindfulness correlates with a greater relationship satisfaction, via boosts in individual well-being, increased emotion skillfulness, enhancements in sexual satisfaction, increased empathy and healthier stress response (Kozlowski, 2013; Carson et. al., 2004). Mindful practice then, contributes to a person’s ability to regulate and adapt to different stimuli whether it be positive or negative. Speaking of the ability to adapt efficiently, studies have shown that mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) has benefits for not only lay-people but for those providing support to lay-people, therapists. The positive implications of reducing stress for therapists is huge because these are the professionals that have a hand in teaching others better methods to adapting to negative and positive stressors in life. A study done, by Shauna Shapiro et al, found participants in MBSR programs reported significant declines in stress, negative affect, rumination, state and trait anxiety, and significant increases in positive affect and self-compassion (Shapiro et al 2007). The studies ability to show correlations between mindfulness and the ability to regulate emotions provides support to the premise that mindful based therapies aid in helping with overall well-being in life.

    While positive psychology initially sought to increase positive emotions and replace negative ones, it now strives to regulate emotions on a sliding continuum that is not too far on the positive side nor too far on the negative side. This viewpoint has also used mindfulness to maintain homeostasis of the mind. A study done by Barbara Fredrickson, professor of psychology and UNC Chapel Hill, showed the correlations between mindfulness and the preservation of emotion regulation by direct loving-kindness meditation. The participants directed kind and compassionate thoughts to other people. She found the mindfulness practice brought people increased positive emotion and increased life satisfaction (Fredrickson et al 2008). In those same individuals depression, negative emotions, and critical self-rumination decreased.

    The goal of both ACT and positive psychology is for the achievement of a life that is the best version of itself. Researchers agree this is best maintained by attaining psychological flexibility. ACT attempts to accomplish this through “mindful, values-guided action” (Ciarrochi & Kashdan 2013). Positive psychology attempts to accomplish this by collecting valued experiences: well-being, contentment and satisfaction (in the past); hope and optimism (for the future); and flow and happiness ( in the present) (Ciarrochi & Kashdan 2013). Psychological approaches treat value not simply as a noun but also as a verb (Peterson 2006). It is now important to explore values a bit more intimately with regards to ACT and positive psychology.


    Values are defined as the verbal descriptions of what people are truly invested in, regard highly, and seek to uphold and defend (Ciarrochi & Kashdan 2013). Some examples of values are achievements, creativity, honesty, loyalty, kindness, self-control, intellectualism, status, religiousness, physical prowess, and independence (Peterson 2006). Positive psychologists discuss values in the form of personal strivings, goal setting or personal philosophies for what is most important in life (Emmons, 1996; Schwartz, 1990). ACT describes values as the deepest desires for how you want to behave as a human being. Values can often be guiding forces on the road to identifying and moving towards one’s purpose Kashdan & Mcknight have identified a few principles that bring together tenets from both ACT and positive psychology. Those principles are purpose is central, purpose is self-organizing, and purpose cannot be achieved (Ciarrochi & Kashdan 2013). Finding one’s purpose is a driving force throughout the life time. People plan their days, months and years according to what they believe their purpose is. This can lend itself to an extremely organized life, motivated by a central purpose. It is also important to note that a purpose is not always achieved. New goals and accomplishments can arise, ultimately changing ones journey through life.

    There are ideal situations in which values and behavior work together for the goal of life satisfaction and well-being. Christopher Peterson, a leading authority in positive psychology, states values are best reflected in actions in the following scenarios (Peterson 1997): First, the circumstances under which a person originally acquires a value. Values that result for personal experiences are more consistent with behavior than those we receive from others experiences. Second, the degree to which a value helps define a person’s self-image. If how a person views themselves is related to a particular value then their behavior strives to keep congruency. Third, whether people are self-conscious while they are behaving. Sometimes, a person has to reflect on their values before their behaviors match those values. People who do not focus on the meaning of their actions, usually act in a manner inconsistent with their values. Fourth, a person’s evaluation of the particular behavior that supposedly reflects the value in question. If there is a strong norm for or against acting in a certain way, one’s value exerts little influence on the behavior. In this situation the person sacrifices being consistent with self in order to be consistent with the expectations of others. Fifth, the generality of the value with regard to the behavior that is being examined. Highly general values about beauty do not predict given behaviors like recycling nor do they predict specific beliefs about the virtue of recycling. Finally, the scope of the behavior relevant to the value. The correlations between what a person believes and how they act are increased significantly if the behaviors are measured in various ways on repeated occasions. The totality of what a person does is a better indicator of if the behaviors reflect their values. Bottom line when actions are congruent with values better life satisfaction and well-being is achieved. When the consistency between behaviors and values are not evident discord, dissatisfaction, and negative emotions can result.

    Often when people have lost their sense of purpose and their behaviors are not aligning with their values, it is necessary to rediscover and rebuild their core value system. There are two approaches within ACT that are used to help reestablish value systems (Kashdan and Ciarrochi 2013). One is describing “givens” or those things a person automatically assumes to be true in their lives. It is important for a person to be completely honest about givens so that the most central and basic truths about the way they view the world are discovered. The second approach is discovering what that person cares most deeply about. This is most effectively done by having a person reflect on a time they had to make a hard decision between two things that are important to them. This is helpful in discovering values because the true feelings surrounding those values can surface and be acknowledged.

    The integration of mindfulness and value work within ACT and positive psychology is extremely complimentary. ACT drives forward the need for action based on the positive views developed by positive psychology. ACT accomplished this by shifting from a model of positive form to positive function. Modern positive psychology answers this call to action by aiming to acknowledge and honor the commitment piece in value work by bring about actual positive behavior change.

    Psychological experts are recognizing that emotions, experiences, traits, and actions can no longer be merely described as negative or positive. They have to be examined according to their context and the result of those concepts in various different contexts. The focus is now being placed on positive and negative functions that are contextually bound (Kashdan & Ciarrochi 2013). Both ACT and positive psychology recognize the need to embrace the positive and negative aspects of life. ACT, more specifically, captures this by upholding the psychological flexibility model. This model suggests that positive and negative emotions are worth noticing and experiencing exactly as they are without trying to sway the experience (Kashdan & Ciarrochi 2013). This way negative emotions can be noted without judgment and with openness. When negative emotions are mindfully notes the responding action can be made based off true values and not suppression or avoidance. Operating out of the psychological flexibility model can allow once thought to be negative emotions, to be experienced less negatively. This can result in a learning experience that does not distract from cultivating a values-based life (Kashdan & Ciarrochi 2013).

    Many times after ACT has done the work of bring mindful awareness of a particular experience to the forefront, introduced acceptance of that experience and then set the criteria for defusion, there is still the need for an action that solidifies the entire experience. Often, positive psychology supports and enhanced the psychological flexibility model by providing content for anchoring action step. Some examples of actions steps are gratitude journaling, forgiveness exercises, focused appreciation of beauty and conscious practice of compassion. These examples serve to mark experiences of importance and not to replace other negative emotions (Kashdan & Ciarrochi 2013). Naturally, positive psychology and ACT can be used in tandem to maintain a homeostasis of the mind by regulating the delicate balance between negative and positive functioning throughout the course of one’s life.

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