Psychological flexibility and mindfulness key to change, research finds

05 September 2022

Researchers have identified the combination of psychological flexibility and mindfulness skills as the most common pathway to successful change.

Attempting to answer the question ‘Why does psychotherapy work?’ Dr Steven C Hayes, from the Department of Psychology, University of Nevada, and a team of colleagues analysed successful mediational studies on any psychosocial intervention in a randomised-controlled trial targeting a mental health outcome.

Their study, which involved the work of over 50 people, took four years to complete. Of the 54,633 studies that were considered, 281 had clear findings.

The researchers were surprised to find that one single set of skills proved far more effective than any other: psychological flexibility and mindfulness. According to their findings, nearly 45% of everything we know about why therapy works is accounted for by this small set of processes.

Ultimately, they concluded that the skill set of psychological flexibility and mindfulness is the most commonly effective pathway of change to mental health and well-being.

The authors defined psychological flexibility as 3 skills in 1: awareness (noticing what happens in the present moment); openness (accepting--rather than deliberately trying to change--difficult thoughts and painful feelings) and valued engagement (knowing what matters to you and taking steps in this direction).

As Dr Hayes explains, “Psychological flexibility empowers you to stop fighting yourself and to orient your life in a meaningful direction, and the more you practice it, the better you will become at it.”

'Very often (therapy) works because it establishes greater awareness, openness, and values-based engagement in life.'

Read Dr Hayes’ brief discussion of the study.