Are You Able to Go With the Flow?
New research shows the advantages of psychological flexibility.
Posted June 22, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
- Psychological flexibility can allow people to better cope when situations don't go according to plan.
- Research suggests that psychological flexibility can be a tool to promote positive change.
- Questions that assess six basic components of psychological flexibility can help people test how adaptable they are.
You’ve invited a friend to breakfast, setting a time that will be convenient for both of you, particularly since you have to be somewhere later that morning. However, the minutes tick by, the coffee is getting cold, and there’s no sign of your friend. Close to an hour later, your friend shows up at the door as if nothing is amiss. It’s hard for you to disguise your annoyance, so your friend (somewhat defensively) says, “Why can’t you just go with the flow?” You ask yourself, “Whose flow?” It seems rude and inconsiderate for your friend to be so dismissive of your feelings and so self-centered as to think that everyone else’s flow should match theirs.
There are definite advantages to being conscientious and able to follow a certain schedule, and especially to show up when you’re expected. However, as irritating as this breakfast experience was, do you start to wonder if maybe you shouldn’t be so fixated on following the clock instead of just letting life "happen"?
According to University of Bologna’s Giulia Landi and colleagues (2021), “Psychological flexibility … is considered the cornerstone of mental health as it is closely related to resiliency.” The authors go on to define flexibility as “being open to inner experiencing in the present and adjusting behaviors in response to changing situational demands that are also aligned with personal values.” In other words, being flexible allows you to meet your goals despite roadblocks being thrown your way. If your value is friendship, and your friend’s “situational demands” take prominence, are you willing to put your need for punctuality aside in favor of maintaining good feelings?
Flexibility and the Ability to Reduce Distress
As you can see from the above example, it’s easy to let yourself become angry and frustrated when situations change that are outside your control. Indeed, as the authors note, people who are psychologically inflexible are more likely to experience distress than those who maintain a more open approach to life.
Flexibility is, in the view of Landi et al., more than just being able to adjust your own schedule to that of other people. As a broader psychological quality, personality flexibility forms the basis for one of the most highly effective forms of treatment known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). In ACT, the therapist attempts to increase the client’s flexibility as “the theoretically proposed change mechanism.” The first step to change, in the ACT model, is to start to look at yourself in relationship to your situations from a different, i.e. flexible, perspective.
Approaching flexibility from this more expansive perspective, previous researchers have identified a tool that can tap into its full set of qualities. The Multidimensional Psychological Flexibility Inventory (MPFI) was developed in previous research by University of Rochester’s Jaci Rolffs and colleagues (2016). The MPFI incorporates six facets of flexibility along with a comparable set of scales measuring inflexibility. These six facets fit within the ACT framework because they represent the types of changes that ACT attempts to bring about.
According to Landi and her colleagues, the MPFI can be a useful tool not only for understanding the change mechanisms in ACT, but as a way to understand the relationship between flexibility/inflexibility and distress. However, the question remains, the authors note, as to whether distress is built into the MPFI or whether the flexibility instrument contributes uniquely to outcomes such as stress, health, and overall well-being. If the MPFI measures distress along with flexibility, it would clearly have less value to researchers and clinicians seeking to understand flexibility on its own.
The Six Components of Psychological Flexibility
To develop the MPFI, the University of Rochester-led research team began with items derived from a large range of possible measures, including some based on ACT, others based on the related literature on mindfulness (awareness of present experiences) and ones written specifically for the new measure. This process yielded a set of 554 items which, over the course of several refinement phases involving over 3,000 respondents, became condensed to 30, with 5 items per scale.
You can see how you would rate on these six flexibility dimensions by responding from 1 (never true) to six (always true). You can also rate yourself on the items from the original MPFI’s flexible and inflexible measure’s scales, flipping the second item in the set by substituting 6’s for 1’s in your scoring:
I opened myself to all of my feelings, the good and the bad.
I tried to distract myself when I felt unpleasant emotions.
I was in tune with my thoughts and feelings from moment to moment.
I floated through most days without paying much attention.
I carried myself through tough moments by seeing my life from a larger viewpoint.
I told myself that I shouldn’t be feeling the way I’m feeling.
I was able to let negative feelings come and go without getting caught up in them.
Negative thoughts and feelings tended to stick with me for a long time.
I was very in touch with what is important to me and my life.
When life got hectic, I often lost touch with the things I value.
Even when times got tough, I was still able to take steps toward what I value in life.
Negative feelings easily stalled out my plans.
What Are the Benefits of Flexibility?
Using an online sample of 1,542 Italian participants (mean age 39, range 18-83; 71% female), Landi and her fellow researchers compared scores on an Italian version of the MFPI which contained 30 items tapping the six dimensions of flexibility. This particular version of the instrument had no items tapping inflexibility. The average score per item ranged between 3.4 and 4.3, with most participants scoring between about 1 point above and 1 point below those averages.
The key feature of the University of Bologna study was to compare these scores to other measures of distress-related qualities including anxiety, depression, and a questionnaire measure of general psychological inflexibility used in ACT-related research. Although the authors sought to establish the independence of the MFPI as a stand-alone instrument, the findings can also provide you with insights on the value of having a flexible personality.
Turning to the findings, as expected, the six MFPI scales were related to each other independently of the other measures of distress. The authors predicted that because the other, ACT-based inflexibility measure, didn’t differentiate among the six facets proposed to exist by the University of Rochester authors, it would show up on a separate dimension than the MFPI scales. Again, the data supported this prediction adding further that the ACT-based measure vs, the MFPI had to do more with negative emotionality than with inflexibility.
It appears, then, that accepting and being aware of your feelings while also being able to pursue your goals in a flexible manner provide benefits in dealing with life’s many stresses. Someone who can go with the flow, from this perspective, can manage the various setbacks that life can present (such as a friend who’s late for an appointment) in part by acknowledging negative feelings when they creep into your daily existence.
Going with the flow also means that you can find more than one route to a successful outcome. You can "unstick" yourself from a course of action that’s not working and look around for alternate pathways to end up with the same result. This idea is much like the classic notion in psychology of “functional fixedness” in which you fail to see an obvious solution to a physical problem, such as using a nail file when you have to tighten a screw but lack a screwdriver.
Within the six flexibility components, there were some interdependencies, further supporting the idea that it can be adaptive to allow your negative feelings to bubble up to the surface without overwhelming you. However, life may present you with challenges that put a strain on your ability to accept your negative feelings. Given that the University of Bologna study was conducted during the height of the pandemic-related lockdown in Italy, the authors weren’t completely surprised by secondary findings suggesting higher distress scores among participants higher in present moment awareness and acceptance.
In the words of the authors, “of the six psychological flexibility processes, these two are likely to be the most challenging in the context of a pandemic because they entail embracing potentially intense psychological discomfort related to pandemic induced fear, uncertainty, and social isolation.” Being tuned in to your feelings, when life is objectively difficult, could leave you open to anxiety and depression. Still, in the grand scheme of things, people scoring on the high end of the psychological flexibility scales had lower levels of distress even with these two minor nuances in the data.
To sum up, if you’re the type of person who finds going with the flow to be a completely foreign experience, these findings suggest that you might give yourself a chance to explore alternatives to your set ways of doing things. You can still accomplish the same goals but in the process of getting to those goals, you may find the detours to be surprisingly enjoyable.
Landi, G., Pakenham, K. I., Crocetti, E., Grandi, S., & Tossani, E. (2021). The Multidimensional Psychological Flexibility Inventory (MPFI): Discriminant validity of psychological flexibility with distress. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 21, 22–29. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcbs.2021.05.004
Rolffs, J. L., Rogge, R. D., & Wilson, K. G. (2016). Disentangling components of ﬂexibility via the hexaﬂex model: Development and validation of the multidimensional psychological ﬂexibility inventory (MPFI). Assessment, 25(4), 458–482. https://doi. org/10.1177/1073191116645905