For most people and companies, it’s been a rough year and a half.
When it comes to experiences of pleasure, humans like some novelty. But regarding pain, we seek certainty. If we know what’s up ahead, we can prepare ourselves for it. While certain parts of our more recent existence feel within our control, many do not. It’s a painful situation to be in.
One way to cope with the times we are living through is to look for those things that we can control, no matter how small, and to focus on them.
The longest running study to date on human flourishing, a review of 174 studies of 44,000 people, points clearly to what is most important for your overall mental well-being – your closest relationships. As it turns out, there is a character trait that feeds happy and stable partnerships and leads to a more successful professional life too. And it is not fixed, we can develop it, meaning that it falls into the category of things we can control. It’s called psychological flexibility and it is defined by the British Psychological Society through people who bring an openness and acceptance to experiences, both good and bad:
“They try to be mindfully aware of the present moment, they experience difficult thoughts without ruminating on them, they seek to maintain a broader perspective when faced with a challenge, they continue to prioritise important goals despite setbacks, and they maintain contact with deeper values, no matter how stressful a day might be.”
A lack of rumination and maintaining contact with deeper values is trying at times. But there is a clear business case for building psychological flexibility. The same review study above shows a link between psychological inflexibility and weaker family ties, less satisfying relationships, more shouting and insecurity, and less effective parenting. Wrap that up with forced social isolation and waves of lockdowns cramping us into spaces not designed for all that needs to be accomplished. We must craft more ways to positively chart paths into the future – despite the pressure of our times.
So how do you improve psychological flexibility? According to Steve Rose, an academic focused on the social determinants of health and human thriving and a counsellor working with people to build a sense of purpose and belonging, there are six key processes (you can read about them in more depth here):
- Be Willing to Feel Difficult Emotions
- Step Back From Your Thoughts
- Focus on the Present
- Focus on Connection, Not Comparison
- Live by Your Own Values
- Build Habits Based on Your Values.
To start shifting your flexibility right now, become more aware of what you are feeling and give yourself permission to feel it. Often just naming the emotion and sitting with it shifts it a little (try this Above the Line technique). Very simple practices like mindfulness and journaling may assist with this. You might also think about cultivating relationships with people you perceive as psychologically flexible. Perhaps they will cut you a bit of slack as you transition to a less mentally rigid state. Time invested in these efforts can decrease the summative effects of a less satisfying life. But from a glass half full approach – paying attention to your psychological flexibility can help you, and those around you, to thrive.
Relationships are so core to our health and well-being, to life, to professional success. They largely fall within the boundaries of what we can control. What can you do to build psychological flexibility, and the relationships that could define your success in 2022?