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Acceptance: It Isn't What You Think

Acceptance, appreciation, and resonating with the positive result in happiness.

 Alexi Berry. Used with permission
Source: Source: Alexi Berry. Used with permission

There is a movement in psychology, positive psychology more accurately, toward radical acceptance, focusing on gratitude, and resonating with the positive. And with good reason: it works. People are improving their quality of life as a result of these techniques. It begins with acceptance, which probably isn’t what you think.

New theories of therapy have been developed with acceptance as the main focus. An example of this is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or Training, (instead of therapy, to avoid the stigma). ACT helps train mindfulness: an awareness of the present moment without judgment. The individual is then better able to tolerate negative thoughts and feelings (although the judgment “negative” is removed in mindfulness). Finally, the individual behaves according to his/her values. This type of intervention has been empirically tested for depression, certain anxiety disorders including OCD, in coping with delusions and hallucinations in those that have psychotic disorders, and with those looking to handle workday stress more effectively (SAMHSA).

Acceptance has been a key to happiness since Buddhism was born. The Second Noble Truth of Buddhism (of The Four Noble Truths) is that “desire (or craving) is the root of all suffering." This is interpreted as wanting reality to be anything but what it is; in other words, a lack of acceptance.

Acceptance has been a cornerstone of the 12 Step treatment for alcoholism since the first “Alcoholics Anonymous” book was written in 1939. Doctor Paul Ohliger wrote a passage on how acceptance leads to being happier and sober. By the third edition, the passage was famously known in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous as page 449. In only my second post for Psychology Today, I discuss its benefit for everyone.

Often when I discuss acceptance with students or clients, a common argument is put forth: “Acceptance is no good. It is passive and accepting things as they are is giving up. It is resignation to something unpalatable.” But that is not the real meaning of acceptance.

There is no better explanation than Jon Kabat-Zinn’s in Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness:

“Acceptance doesn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, mean passive resignation. Quite the opposite. It takes a huge amount of fortitude and motivation to accept what is — especially when you don’t like it — and then work wisely and effectively as best you possibly can with the circumstances you find yourself in and with the resources at your disposal, both inner and outer, to mitigate, heal, redirect, and change what can be changed.” (p.407)

In other words, desiring the world to be something it is not at the moment is stopped, and ruminating thoughts about how things “should be” are put aside. Then, you can change what can be changed.

Acceptance helps reduce what people experience as negative. That is only half of the solution to improving one’s quality of life, however. It has been purported that it takes five positive experiences to counter one negative (Gottman) or, more generally, your brain responds to positive events like Teflon and to negative ones like Velcro (Hanson, Mendius).

So, the new goal is to allow the positive to resonate, to be prolonged, not in a desperate grasping fashion, but instead through mindfulness and allowing it to permeate one’s attention. This helps counter the balance, and swing experience to the positive.

People often do not notice how much positive is in their lives. As such, a movement in the psychology of happiness is to look for what one is grateful for. In his outstanding TEDx Talk, Shawn Achor includes this as one of the five parts of the experiment that raised subjects’ level of happiness in a 21-day study (finding three different things daily you are grateful for).

In “The Mindful Way Through Depression,” a suggestion is made to note things you enjoy while going through your day. In his excellent TED Talk, “Want to be happy? Be grateful,” David Steindl-Rast suggests we simply need to stop, look, and then go in order to see all of what we have been missing that we have to be grateful for. This all relates to slowing down and resonating with enjoyable moments, rather than running from one thing to the next.

 Alexi Berry. Used with permission
Source: Source: Alexi Berry. Used with permission

There might be things hampering you from doing the suggestions in this post. In a post called, “Why Don’t You Want To Feel Better,” I point to the reasons people do not act on the information that is out there to feel better. I focus on defense mechanisms, how change is strenuous work, how often staying the same is easier (even if painful), and how some create the meaning of their life from suffering. One might want to refer there if having difficulty implementing the changes suggested above.

For some, the word grateful might be off-putting. I actually prefer the word appreciate. It is easily substituted. For a minute, think about what you appreciate. Slow your life down, and appreciate all that you have. Even in the worst scenarios, there can be appreciation. A shower. A sunset. The taste of your favorite food. Good conversation. Love of family. That feeling when you first lay down in bed after an exhausting day. The list is inexhaustible.

But, as David Steindl-Rast among others purports, we simply do not slow down enough to appreciate. We are running from our problems and running from ourselves. That is not working.

Studies show slowing down, being mindful, and experiencing and expressing appreciation will work. By doing it and focusing on it, neuroscience demonstrates new neural connections are made and strengthened. This makes it more likely to occur in the future. As neuropsychologists are fond of saying, “Neurons that fire together, wire together." Over time, you’ll find yourself happier, calmer, and experiencing more joy. It’s science.

Copyright William Berry 2015


Achor, S; 2011; TEDx Talk: The Happy Secret to Better Work; retrieved from:

Gottman, J; 1999; The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy; p.35; W.W. Norton & Co; New York, NY.

Hanson, R; Mendius, R; 2007; Buddha’s Brain: The New Neuroscience and the Path of Awakening; Inquiring Mind; p.4; Retrieved from:

Hanson, R; 2009; Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom; New Harbinger Publications; Oakland, CA.

Kabat-Zinn, J; 2005; Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness; Hyperion Publishers, New York, N.Y.

SAMHSA; 2014; Retrieved from:

Steindl-Rast, D; 2013; TED Talk: Want to be happy? Be grateful; Retrieved from:…

Williams, M; Teasdale, J; Segal, Z; Kabat-Zinn, J; 2007; The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness; The Guilford Press; New York, NY.

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