Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Positive Psychology: Theoretical integration or product line expansion?

doritosDoes combining ACT and positive psychology yield something like a Nacho Cheese Doritos® Locos Tacos Supreme? A product line expansion for ACT?

As documented in a previous blog post, the founders of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy seem to be crafting themselves as workshop gurus. This is at the expense of attending to the pressing need to develop a base of evidence appropriate to the claims being made for the efficacy of ACT.

By the usual standards, the evidence is weak that ACT is an effective treatment for any of a range of clinical problems. There is no evidence that ACT is superior to the already disseminated psychotherapies its promoters would replace.

ACT joining forces with the huge  positive psychology movement could be a strategic next step, if expanding the market for ACT products is the goal. There are obvious theoretical differences between ACT and positive psychology, but signs are that these differences are sidestepped in joint marketing ventures. Press releases are on the web for a “historic “captains of both ships” Barbara ‘Positivity’ Fredrickson and Steven ‘ACT’ Hayes having a “historic meeting in Berlin.

Talks by Fredrickson and Hayes are also jointly being promoted here. 

A historic meeting of Positive Psychology and ACT

Zegers Hein interviews  Barbara Fredrickson & Steven Hayes

Some excerpts from the article and interview:

Positive Psychology and ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) are different movements within psychology. Yet they also have quite a lot in common. We witnessed the two captains of both ships meet for the very first time: Barbara ‘Positivity’ Fredrickson and Steven ‘ACT’ Hayes. Here is an exclusive report of this historic meeting in Berlin, Germany1. This meeting is indicative of Positive Psychology 2.0, the so-called ‘second wave positive psychology’ that embraces ‘negative’ emotions. Questions are raised that are highly relevant for this MOOC, such as: Would you prefer to feel all kinds of emotions or just to be happy? Can ‘negative’ emotions be positive?

Positive Psychology and Acceptance and Commitment therapy (‘ACT’ for short, pronounced as one word) both appeared at about the same time within the history of psychology. Since its inception, Positive Psychology has always held ‘The Meaningful Life’ as a central pillar. Similarly, within ACT, moving towards meaningful ‘Valued Living’ is a core process. What, then, are the differences between both movements?

Positive’ Psychology vs. ‘Dark’ ACT?

Fredrickson: ‘Positive Psychology, to me, is not a separate domain of psychology. It’s an emphasis, a leaning, a call within psychology to also focus on positive aspects.’ But isn’t this positive emphasis different from what ACT proclaims?

Hayes: ‘When ACT first got popular attention with a story in ‘Time’, this story was titled ‘Happiness is not normal’. Which is of course something we’d never said, but some reporter wrote down. Another headline of that time was ‘Hello Darkness’. And I get that (laughs). From the beginning, we’ve cared about meaning and purpose and values-based action. Constructing the sort of lives that make life worth living.’ Turning towards his neighbor: ‘And Barbara has, throughout her career, really focused on the relationship between positive emotions and behaviour. And that is of central importance, I think, to ACT.’

Sweet Sadness

ACT consciously tries to avoid labeling emotions ‘positive’ or ‘negative’. How would you define positive emotions for ACT? Hayes: ‘It seems to be so contextually bound, that you can flip it. Take for instance sadness, is that negative? Clearly not. If my mother died last spring, sadness is what I would want, right? Is that a negative emotion? No, it’s not a negative emotion. In fact, are there any negative emotions (that are not contextually bound)? If you live them fully, and put them into your life that leads you in a values-based direction?’

So what ‘negative’ are we talking about here? Fredrickson: ‘I think that, as a field, we’ve inherited some language in terms of calling classes of emotions ‘positive’ and ‘negative’, and there’s so much levels at which you could define that ‘positive’ and ‘negative’. I think that what’s meant by it, is this: ‘If all other things were equal, would this be a wanted state? Would you want the state to continue?’ Hayes nods in agreement when Fredrickson continues: ‘Negative emotions are useful if connected to context, but become negative if disconnected from context.’

When pressed for a further clarification of this distinction, Fredrickson continues: ‘I think of it as a can opener. Positive emotions, or hedonic well-being, is a way to open people up, in a way so they can see and appreciate more meaning. And experiencing meaning more is in itself an emotional uplift too’.

‘By the way, speaking of opening up’, Fredrickson smiles, ‘another illustration may be the licence plate I have chosen to put on the car I drive. The licence plate on my car reads: “Be Open”.’

Choose to feel

Hayes: ‘Exactly. Be Open. And for me, that includes openness to sadness. The point is that openness to sadness – including seeing the suffering of others, and being moved by it – is critical to compassion and happiness. Said in another way, the poets are right: it is our tears that scoop out a place for our laughter to reside.

But Barbara’s license plate on her car is right on: ‘Be Open’. Note, it is not “Be Happy.” It’s “Be Open”’, Hayes points out. ‘I have a similar sign on the wall of my office: “Choose to Feel.”

None of this is in any way theoretically clear, but maybe it is unfair to apply the standards of an entirely different form of discourse.  “Pepsi’s the One”  is advertising, not a theoretical propositon or an evidence-bassed statement. Probably the same for some of the sloganeering in this interview. But was does this do for the credibility of Hayes and Fredrickson when they want to speak more seriously?

I can’t wait for next year’s model, Positive Psychology 2.0, or did I miss it and  now have to wait for the fall release of Positive Psychology 3.0?

Personally, I am a great fan of traditional tacos and all their regional Latin Amercian variations. Some neuva ola and fusion tacos are tasty, too. But  I can’t bring myself even to go near a Nacho Cheese Doritos® Locos Taco Supreme. Just not authentic enough and the fake cheese is gross.

eBook_PositivePsychology_345x550I will soon be offering e-books providing skeptical looks at positive psychology and mindfulness, as well as scientific writing courses on the web as I have been doing face-to-face for almost a decade.

Sign up at my website to get advance notice of the forthcoming e-books and web courses, as well as upcoming blog posts at this and other blog sites. Get advance notice of forthcoming e-books and web courses. Lots to see at CoyneoftheRealm.com.