On my personal blog, WillSpirit, I wrote a few posts about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Writing about ACT seemed like a valuable blogging direction, because the method has helped me live more effectively than ever before. As I’ve worked on my emotions and moods over nearly forty years, I’ve tried many therapies, spiritualities, and activities, but only with ACT have I seen robust improvement. Part of ACT’s effectiveness in my case may be due to the groundwork laid by earlier practices, but there’s much more to it than that. I therefore feel called to help popularize the approach.
I began the discussion with the last post on this site, entitled How Much Can We Endure?, That piece made the point that hardship can become enriching when we find meaning within it, which is a central theme of ACT. But I also emphasized that some people have trouble bearing up under life’s burdens, by which I specifically meant they die due to poorly chosen coping strategies. Suicide, and death caused by substance abuse, seem like clear signs of failure to manage life effectively.
But does addiction, by itself, mean a person is living poorly? Does chronic depression? Workaholism? High anxiety? Extreme sensitivity? Low self-esteem?
In evaluating these questions, we come to ACT’s emphasis on values as one of the six dimensions of psychological flexibility, and hence wellness.
Which brings us to perhaps the most important question we face: what makes living valuable? It’s worth putting some effort into this one, and in fact we each work with it daily. Every time we choose one action over another we create consequences. These effects can either be in line with our highest values, neutral toward them, or in opposition.
If we feel depressed and stay in bed rather than going out with friends, we are choosing a mattress over companionship. Since most of us value social connections, this is an act that opposes a widely held value.
If we drink ourselves into a foggy, detached haze we are choosing the haze over true, present connection with those around us. There may be a boozy sense of conviviality, but our interpersonal communication is shallow compared to what we’re capable of when sober. If we consider intimacy important, drinking opposes our value.
Work may be so consuming that we seldom spend time outdoors, or in museums, or having fun. We might let our dogs frolic beside us as we walk through an open landscape every day, but we ignore both canine joy and natural wonder because we never stop thinking about our projects. In this case, we are choosing work over beauty. Productivity may be valuable to us, but in our excessive pursuit of it we neglect other values, such as play and aesthetic appreciation.
We may feel so anxious, sensitive, and insecure that we turn down opportunities because we’re afraid of the pain that comes when we expose ourselves in front of others. If so, we choose stasis over effective action. Since most of us want to feel useful, the overly self-protective stance undermines our value.
Do you see how this works? It isn’t a question of judgment about who succeeds and who fails. It’s a personal, moment-by-moment process of choosing whether to further our values or abandon them.
Of course, we can be confused about what we truly value in life. My father enjoyed drinking so much it looked like one of his most important priorities. But I think what he truly valued was feeling free-spirited and playful. With just a few drinks his mood lightened, he became jovial and funny, and a mischievous smile erased his chronic worry lines. The initial two or three glasses served his value of seeking relaxed, happy companionship.
Unfortunately, he never stopped with those first drinks; he kept imbibing. Inevitably his mood became pugnacious, his humor sarcastic, and his grin morphed into a contentious grimace. I often imagined filming his behavior and showing it to him the next morning, when he seemed to have no memory of having undermined and insulted all who came near.
I don’t believe he valued the end consequences of his drinking, but he only recognized the early benefits. He remained oblivious to his alcoholism’s true effect on his family and friends.
Values, according to ACT, are freely chosen. Remaining in bed while depressed is not freely selected; it feels forced. Substance abuse, as anyone in addiction recovery can attest, loses the quality of choice and becomes compulsion. The workaholic doesn’t strive out of spontaneous, joyful pleasure in producing; he or she feels driven.
Deep down, we each know when we are right on track and when we are flying of the rails. We neither need nor want others to make this judgment for us.
Looking at the consequences of behavior is helpful to anyone who wants life to feel meaningful. Every action creates effects (as embodied in the Hindu/Buddhist concept of karma); if we allow moods, addictions, compulsions, or fears to drive our choices we reap consequences that often feel lifeless or destructive. But if we choose our values carefully, and do our best to act in service of them, we build lives of vitality and contribution.