Why is Acceptance so Powerful?
Exploring the deep roots of a redemptive mental state
Posted May 2, 2018
Writing to his brother in 58 CE, the philosopher Seneca argued that ‘the happy man is content with his present lot, no matter what it is’1. Such were the foundational insights of the bracing philosophy that became known as stoicism.
Traditions of acceptance
In contemporary discourse, stoicism often implies a tenacious resignation to pain, bravely tolerating one’s suffering. However, the original stoics believed a form of happiness was always possible, whatever the circumstances. They called this state of mind ataraxia: a lucid tranquillity and imperturbability, serenely detached from the vicissitudes of fate and circumstance2. Essentially, it describes a radical form of acceptance. Not grudging acquiescence, but a gracious willingness to be with whatever is happening, especially our emotions (rather than resisting these, which research suggests is generally futile anyway3).
Indeed, as that last sentence indicates, contemporary psychology is increasingly appreciative of the value of acceptance. Consider the emergence of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Conceived and developed by Steven Hayes, it focuses on helping clients cultivate acceptance towards their subjectivity. Or as Hayes puts it, the therapist encourages a ‘conscious posture of openness and acceptance towards all psychological events even if they are formally “negative”’4. Then – bringing the ‘commitment’ part – clients are encouraged to choose a behavioural goal based on their values, and to take action to move in this direction.
ACT has been found to be a highly effective mode of therapeutic practice5. This should not surprise us. After all, as the case of stoicism shows, the transformative power of acceptance has been known for centuries, millennia even. To that point, Hayes himself cites the influence of Buddhism on ACT6. This includes an emphasis on mindfulness (as reflected in the ‘conscious posture of openness and acceptance’), a recognition of the ubiquity of suffering (and the role of craving and attachment in that regard), and the importance of ‘wholesome’ (e.g., value-driven) behaviours.
It is not only Stoicism and Buddhism which have recognised the benefits of acceptance. Comparable teachings can be found across the world’s cultures and traditions, each with their own nuances and contributions to make to our understanding in this area. And, one particularly useful window into such teachings is through ‘untranslatable’ words, of which ataraxia is one.
Such words – which lack an exact equivalent in our own tongue – reveal phenomena which have been overlooked or underappreciated in our own culture. For that reason, I’ve been collecting such words, particularly those relating to wellbeing (being a researcher in positive psychology). The result is an evolving positive lexicography, as I discuss in two new books (please see bio for details).
And, within this collection are a wealth of words around acceptance, an interesting example of which is Gelassenheit.
To appreciate its complex meanings, let’s start by considering its grammatical structure. It begins with the verb lassen, which has many inflections, including to allow, let, leave behind, cease, and quit7. Appending ge creates an adjective, implying calm, cool, dispassionate action. Finally, the suffix heit renders it as a noun, which can denote calmness, coolness, but also more positively contentment and even serenity. Accordingly, it conveys the deep wellbeing that can be found through acceptance.
In religious contexts, for instance, it captures the powerful act of self-surrender – yielding to the will of God – and associated feelings of acquiescent tranquillity. This kind of deference has been embraced by religious communities as an antidote to the self-aggrandizing individualism that can bedevil society, seeding in its place a precious spirit of humility. For that reason has Gelassenheit been described the central value of the Amish, for whom humility is paramount8.
But Gelassenheit has not only been embraced in religious contexts. From a more secular perspective, Martin Heidegger portrayed it as a stance of nichtwollen (non-willing), of not straining against fate and the currents of life9. This doesn’t mean acquiescent passivity or pessimistic fatalism. As per the ‘commitment’ aspect of ACT, existentialists like Heidegger still emphasise the importance of acting boldly upon our values. It just means recognising that much of life is outside our control, and even to an extent pre-ordained, with causal chains always already in motion, influencing future events. Qué será será, as the saying goes, what will be will be.
So, whichever powers we see as shaping our lives – God, fate, scientific determinism – terms like Gelassenheit describe the grace of making peace with these forces. This isn’t always easy, of course. The desire to control our future is central to being human, and moreover is a vital and life-enhancing quality. But whatever acceptance we can bring to bear on our lives, there we may find a measure of contentment.
 Seneca, ‘On the happy life’, in Moral Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1932/1992), at 115, cited in D.M. McMahon, Happiness: A History (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006), at 55.
 D.M. McMahon, Happiness: A History (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006).
 S.C. Hayes, J.B. Luoma, F.W. Bond, A. Masuda and J. Lillis, ‘acceptance and commitment therapy: model, processes and outcomes’. Behaviour Research and Therapy 44 (2006): 1–25.
 Hayes, S. C. (2004). Acceptance and commitment therapy, relational frame theory, and the third wave of behavioral and cognitive therapies. Behavior Therapy, 35(4), 639-665.
 Powers, M. B., Zum Vörde Sive Vörding, M. B., & Emmelkamp, P. M. G. (2009). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: A Meta-Analytic Review. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 78(2), 73-80.
 Hayes, S. C. (2002). Buddhism and acceptance and commitment therapy. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 9(1), 58-66.
 D.B. Kraybill, K.M. Johnson-Weiner, and S.M. Nolt. The Amish. (Baltimor: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).
 M. Heidegger. Discourse on Thinking. J.M. Anderson and E.H. Freund trans. (New York: Harper and Row, 1966).