Received: 8 June 2020
Revised: 23 August 2020
Accepted: 4 September 2020
Psychological ﬂexibility: What we know, what
we do not know, and what we think we know
James D. Doorley
|Fallon R. Goodman
|Kerry C. Kelso
Todd B. Kashdan
Department of Psychology, George Mason
University, Fairfax, Virginia, USA
Department of Psychology, University of
South Florida, Tampa, Florida, USA
James D. Doorley, Department of
Psychology, George Mason University, Mail
Stop 3F5, Fairfax, VA 22030, USA.
Psychological ﬂexibility is the tendency to respond to
situations in ways that facilitate valued goal pursuit.
Psychological ﬂexibility is particularly useful when chal-
lenges arise during goal pursuit that produce distress. In
acceptance and commitment therapy, psychological ﬂexi-
bility is considered the pinnacle of emotional health and
well‐being. A growing body of research demonstrates that
psychological ﬂexibility leads to psychological beneﬁts and
adaptive behavior change. Yet, much of what we know, or
think we know, about psychological ﬂexibility hinges on a
single measurement approach using the Acceptance and
Action Questionnaire (AAQ and AAQ‐II). Research sug-
gests the AAQ‐II is highly correlated with distress itself
rather than ﬂexible responses to distress. Existing ap-
proaches that assess psychological ﬂexibility ignore the
context in which ﬂexibility matters most: the pursuit of
valued goals. Below, we review theory and research on
psychological ﬂexibility, including its associations with
healthy functioning, its measurement, and its overlap with
related constructs. We discuss how gaps between theory
and measurement impede our understanding and review
promising evidence for a new measure of psychological
ﬂexibility. We provide new research directions in an effort
to create a more generalizable foundation of knowledge.
Soc Personal Psychol Compass. 2020;e12566. wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/spc3 © 2020 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
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Psychological science, at its best, gives us a roadmap for responding to life's challenges: navigating relationships,
organizing ourselves in groups, learning and working effectively, and combating injustice. After decades and bil-
lions of dollars spent, perhaps our best answer is, “it depends.” Effective responses to life's challenges vary
depending on ﬂuctuating situational contingencies, including our goals, and can be easily thwarted by distress.
Recently, theorists have attempted to synthesize existing literature on optimal stress responses to build contextual
models of emotion regulation. Instead of identifying a single optimal regulatory strategy across space and time,
these new frameworks—primarily rooted in social psychological research on emotion regulation and clinical
psychological research on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)—outline optimal responses to distress in the
context of meaningful goal pursuit.
Within these frameworks, life's challenges and resulting distress are not the primary obstacles to well‐being;
instead, a focus on escaping these experiences prohibits values‐based activity and diminishes well‐being over time.
When we feel anxious about starting an important project, we scroll through social media. When we feel sad or
lonely, we comfort ourselves with excessive food, alcohol, or other substances. When we feel regret, we spend
hours mulling over the past, failing to connect with the world around us. Too often, our strategies to cope with life's
challenges, while providing momentary relief, bring us further away from the life we want. Flexible responses to
these challenges are essential for promoting long‐term well‐being.
UNDERSTANDING PSYCHOLOGICAL FLEXIBILITY AND ITS ROLE IN
We operationalize psychological ﬂexibility as the tendency to respond to situations in ways that facilitate valued goal
pursuit, and we argue that psychological ﬂexibility is most important in situations that are challenging and provoke
distress. This deﬁnition captures Hayes et al. (2004a) and Hayes, Strosahl, Bunting, Twohig, & Wilson (2004b, p. 15)
original conceptualization of psychological ﬂexibility as “the ability to change or persist with functional behavioral
classes when doing so serves valued ends” while focusing on the speciﬁc contexts in which being ﬂexible is crucial for
healthy functioning: challenging situations that would otherwise disrupt valued living. Consistent with psychological
ﬂexibility theory (Hayes et al., 2004a,2004b), this framework does not assume that reducing distress is the desired
outcome of a regulatory response. Reducing distress is only functional to the extent that doing so facilitates the pursuit
of self‐endorsed, meaningful, valued goals. Research on psychological ﬂexibility and related constructs has increased
exponentially in recent years, pointing to the central role of psychological ﬂexibility in healthy functioning.
To date, most research on psychological ﬂexibility has been conducted in the context of ACT. Although psy-
chological ﬂexibility is at the core of ACT theory and psychotherapeutic interventions, the majority of this research
explores the opposite of psychological ﬂexibility: psychological inﬂexibility. Psychological inﬂexibility is associated
with a staggering number of constructs including, but not limited to, depression, anxiety, stress, substance abuse,
negative body image, disordered eating, pain catastrophizing, thought suppression, job burnout, and work absen-
teeism (e.g., Bluett et al., 2016; Bond et al., 2011; de Boer, Steinhagen, Versteegen, Struys, & Sanderman, 2014;
Lloyd, Bond, & Flaxman, 2013; Luoma, Drake, Kohlenberg, & Hayes, 2011). This focus on inﬂexibility rather than
ﬂexibility is perhaps not surprising—clinical psychology has a long history of research on symptoms, syndromes, and
deﬁcits, and most psychotherapies are designed to alleviate distress. While studies on the beneﬁts of high psy-
chological ﬂexibility are less abundant, data point to positive associations between psychological ﬂexibility and self‐
compassion, job performance and satisfaction, and overall well‐being (e.g., Bond, Hayes, & Barnes‐Holmes, 2006;
Kashdan & Rottenberg, 2010; Yadavaia, Hayes, & Vilardaga, 2014).
ACT outcome studies and clinical trials also point to the beneﬁts of psychological ﬂexibility. These studies
suggest that ACT is an effective treatment for numerous presenting problems, including depression, chronic pain,
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anxiety, post‐traumatic stress disorder, obsessive‐compulsive disorder, trichotillomania, psychosis, and substance
use (e.g., Arch et al., 2012; Gaudiano & Herbert, 2006; Hann & McCracken, 2014; Lee, An, Levin, & Twohig, 2015;
Lee et al., 2020; Twohig et al., 2010; Zettle, Rains, & Hayes, 2011). Several meta‐analyses suggest that, across
dozens of studies and hundreds of patients, ACT is more effective than waitlist and placebo conditions and at least
as effective as gold‐standard cognitive behavioral interventions (e.g., A‐tjak et al., 2015; Jiménez, 2012; Levin,
Hildebrandt, Lillis, & Hayes, 2012; Powers, Vörding, & Emmelkamp, 2009). Importantly, ACT and similar mindful-
ness and acceptance‐based interventions produce therapeutic change through psychological ﬂexibility, their
theoretically proposed mechanism of action (Jiménez, 2012; Levin et al., 2012).
The data are promising. Yet there is a not‐so‐hidden problem in this large body of work. Nearly the entire
literature on the effectiveness of ACT interventions and the causes and consequences of psychological ﬂexibility
hinge on the use of a single measure, the Acceptance and Action Questionnaire (AAQ‐I and II), which has signiﬁcant
limitations (e.g., Rochefort, Baldwin, & Chmielewski, 2018; Tyndall et al., 2019; Wolgast, 2014). In addition to
reliance on one measure, a lack of conceptual clarity furthers muddy our understanding of psychological ﬂexibility.
We must deﬁne what psychological ﬂexibility is and is not in order to accurately assess its role in our lives. To do so,
we must move beyond a narrow focus on clinical psychological literature (primarily ACT‐based intervention work)
and examine the broader landscape of social psychology and personality theory to integrate constructs similar to
yet distinct from psychological ﬂexibility.
DISENTANGLING PSYCHOLOGICAL FLEXIBILITY FROM RELATED CONSTRUCTS
While the term “psychological ﬂexibility” is relatively new (Hayes et al., 2004a,2004b), its origins are not (Block, 1961).
Multiple constructs describe how a person adapts their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to a given situation and
whether their actions align with what is important to them (Aldao, Sheppes, & Gross, 2015; Duckworth, Peterson,
Matthews, & Kelly, 2007; Kashdan & Rottenberg, 2010; Snyder et al., 1991a). Executive functioning, for example,
entails mental processes involved in self‐management (Goldstein & Naglieri, 2014), including the capacity to shift back
and forth between mental sets, to inhibit impulsive responses, and to maintain and update relevant contextual in-
formation. These processes are considered essential to self‐control (i.e., inhibiting impulsive responses) and self‐
regulation (i.e., reducing discrepancies between actual and desired thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; Hofmann,
Schmeichel, & Baddeley, 2012), which are the building blocks of psychological ﬂexibility (Kashdan & Rottenberg, 2010).
Hope is similar to psychological ﬂexibility, capturing the belief that one can initiate effort toward goals (the agency
dimension) and if obstacles arise, consider and pursue alternatives (the pathways dimension; Snyder, Irving, &
Anderson, 1991b). Unlike psychological ﬂexibility, hope theory does not speciﬁcally focus on uncomfortable emotions
and other forms of distress as barriers to valued goal pursuit. Grit entails passionate interest in and persistence to-
wards long‐term goals (Duckworth et al., 2007), but time spent working towards a goal is not necessarily correlated
with its perceived importance. The Grit Scale prompts respondents to think about “a goal that took years of work”
(Duckworth et al., 2007). While long‐term goals are often important, unimportant goals often take a long time. A
person may spend years working towards a goal, such as paying off exorbitant student loans, but “being debt free” may
not deeply matter to them. Grit is sometimes described as entailing “passion” for goals, although the original and
shortened grit scales appear to measure long‐term consistency of interests in a goal (e.g., “New ideas and projects
sometimes distract me from previous ones” [reversed‐scored]) rather than passion (Duckworth et al., 2007; Duckworth &
Quinn, 2009). Taken together, the above constructs are related but distinct from psychological ﬂexibility because they
do not describe how a person ﬂexibly responds to emotional experiences in service of valued goals.
Psychological ﬂexibility draws from social psychological research on emotion regulation. A prevailing
assumption in this work is that people are motivated to feel less negative and more positive emotions (e.g., Tice,
Baumeister, & Zhang, 2004). While this is often true (e.g., Riediger, Schmiedek, Wagner, & Lindenberger, 2009),
there are certain contexts in which people might have stronger preferences for negative emotions (e.g., anger
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before a negotiation: Tamir, Ford, & Ryan, 2013). Moreover, people may not regulate their emotions only to obtain
a particular emotional state (i.e., hedonic motives); they may pursue this emotional state in service of another
superordinate goal (i.e., instrumental motives; Tamir, 2016). For example, an athlete may upregulate feelings of anger
or an uncomfortable desire to seek revenge in order to enhance motivation and arousal prior to competition. In this
situation, her primary goal is not to feel particular emotions; her primary goal is to harness whatever emotions she
believes are necessary to achieve her goal. The logic underlying psychological ﬂexibility is similar: emotion regu-
lation strategies are adaptive to the extent that they facilitate pursuit of valued goals. Unfortunately, existing
psychological ﬂexibility measures fail to map onto this rich theory, as they do not capture the instrumental use of
psychological distress for valued goal achievement (i.e., harnessing). They also ignore the speciﬁc, valued goals of
respondents, which provide the very context for why people are willing to be ﬂexible in the face of distress (Hayes,
Strosahl, & Wilson, 2011a; Hayes, Villatte, Levin, & Hildebrandt, 2011b).
WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT PSYCHOLOGICAL FLEXIBILITY HINGES ON
Psychological ﬂexibility is plagued by faulty measurement (e.g., Chawla & Ostaﬁn, 2007; Rochefort et al., 2018;
Tyndall, et al., 2019; Wolgast, 2014). The original AAQ‐I (Hayes et al., 2004a,2004b) was designed to measure
experiential avoidance (EA), deﬁned as an unwillingness to remain in contact with aversive internal experiences
(e.g., thoughts, memories, bodily sensations). The AAQ‐I items capture several constructs similar to and distinct
from this deﬁnition of EA, including thought suppression (e.g., “I try to suppress thoughts and feelings that I don't like by
just not thinking about them”), broad functional impairment instead of impaired values pursuit (e.g., “When I feel
depressed or anxious, I am unable to take care of my responsibilities”), and beliefs about emotions (e.g., “anxiety is bad”).
Each of these constructs has been operationalized with their own validated measures (e.g., Tsai & Knutson, 2006;
Ware, Kosinski, & Keller, 2001; Wegner & Zanakos, 1994). Despite its many facets, the AAQ‐1 is scored with a
single total score, which may account for its modest internal consistency (e.g., αs<0.50; Zvolensky, Feldner, Leen‐
Feldner, & Yartz, 2005). Further, data suggest that the AAQ‐I measures a construct more similar to negative
emotionality than a person's response to negative emotionality (Chawla & Ostaﬁn, 2007; Zvolensky et al., 2005).
The revised AAQ‐II emerged in response to these criticisms but has similar problems. Item content is still
conﬂated with broad functional impairment (e.g., “Emotions cause problems in my life,” “It seems like most people are
handling their lives better than I am”). The AAQ‐II has demonstrated validity problems, including high correlations
with measures of psychological distress (e.g., 0.70–0.71 correlations between the AAQ‐II and the Beck Depression
Inventory (BDI); Bond et al., 2011; Rochefort et al., 2018; Tyndall et al., 2019; Wolgast, 2014). It is no wonder that
the AAQ‐II correlates with nearly every manifestation of psychopathology (Bond et al., 2011).
Valued goals are integral to the deﬁnition of psychological ﬂexibility. Hayes et al. (2011a,2011b) deﬁne
psychological ﬂexibility as ﬂexible contact with the present moment while acting in the service of chosen values.
Existing psychological ﬂexibility measures may mention values abstractly but do not assess responses to distress in
the context of valued goal pursuit. For instance, two AAQ‐II items reference valued living either in a hypothetical,
future‐oriented manner (“my painful experiences and memories make it difﬁcult for me to live a life that I would value”) or
broadly construe it as a “meaningful life” (“my painful memories prevent me from having a meaningful life”; Bond et al.,
2011), which includes other components in addition to values (Krause & Hayward, 2014). Values are treated with
similar abstraction in new measures of psychological ﬂexibility, including the comprehensive assessment of
acceptance and commitment therapy (e.g., “My values are really reﬂected in my behavior”; Francis, Dawson, & Golijani‐
Moghaddam, 2016) and the Multidimensional Psychological Flexibility Inventory (e.g., “Negative experiences derailed
me from what's really important;” Roffs, Rogge, & Wilson, 2018).
It is worth contemplating the mental burden placed on participants to calculate the contribution of past painful
memories to a hypothetical future (as with the AAQ‐II). We know from existing ﬁeld and laboratory studies that
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humans are exceptionally poor at predicting the valence, quality, and duration of upcoming psychological experi-
ences (e.g., Wilson & Gilbert, 2005). These types of items decrease the probability that measures are capturing the
intended construct. Further, none of these scales incorporate aspects of instrumental emotion regulation (Tamir,
2016; Tamir et al., 2013), representing the use of emotions as tools for obtaining desired ends.
Researchers have attempted to broaden the scope of psychological ﬂexibility measures by creating population/
disorder speciﬁc versions of the AAQ‐II, of which there are now at least 20 (e.g., for the workplace, tinnitus, irritable
bowel syndrome, exercise, and epilepsy). While a review of disorder‐speciﬁc AAQ‐II variants points to favorable
incremental validity beyond the general AAQ‐II in their designated focus areas (Ong, Lee, Levin, & Twohig, 2019),
authors also note that the often inadequate attempts at scale validation. As a range of non‐clinicians recognize the
importance of psychological ﬂexibility (e.g., businesspeople, educators, athletes, medical professionals, and the
general public), creating a different measure of psychological ﬂexibility for every relevant group is not only
unsustainable, but further hinders conceptual clarity and generalizability across disciplines. Consistent with the
construct itself, psychological ﬂexibility measures must be designed with ﬂexibility in mind in order to facilitate
reliable use across a diverse set of contexts and populations.
THE PERSONALIZED PSYCHOLOGICAL FLEXIBILITY INDEX
Attempting to address these gaps, we created the Personalized Psychological Flexibility Index (PPFI; Kashdan,
Disabato, Goodman, Doorley, & McKnight, 2020). Rather than measuring distress itself or vague consequences of
negative emotions (e.g., “Emotions cause problems in my life;” Bond et al., 2011), the PPFI asks respondents to think
about a presently important goal and answer questions about how they respond to the distress that arises while
pursuing this goal (cf. Feldman, Rand, & Kahle‐Wrobleski, 2009). When creating the PPFI items, we sought to
capture ﬂexible responses to distress that are central to early psychological ﬂexibility conceptualizations: avoid-
ance and acceptance of distress. We also drew from emotion regulation literature to capture active engagement
with distress as a means to facilitate goal pursuit: harnessing. We conceptualize harnessing as using distress
instrumentally to stay focused, motivated, and energized while pursuing important life aims.
Consider the value of harnessing in the following scenario. A job applicant feels anxious three weeks prior to an
interview for his dream position. He can avoid this anxiety, and in doing so, ignore necessary preparation and
decrease his chances of success. He can accept this anxiety and, remembering how much he wants the job, trudge
ahead with preparation despite discomfort (in line with traditional psychological ﬂexibility conceptualizations;
Hayes et al., 2011a,2011b). But better still, he can use this anxiety to amplify his goal pursuit. Moderate levels of
anxiety might help him attend to important details in researching the new position, combat inactivity, and stay
mentally engaged during a taxing day of interviews. After all, moderate emotional/physiological arousal (compared
to none) facilitates task performance in a range of contexts (e.g., Anderson, 1994; Waters et al., 1997). If we cannot
control the presence of negative emotions and other potential barriers to goal pursuit, perhaps the best we can do
is creatively use them to our advantage.
Preliminary evidence shows that the PPFI total and subscale scores (avoidance, acceptance, and harnessing)
predict conscientiousness, grit, distress tolerance, subjective happiness, life satisfaction, purpose and meaning in
life, psychological needs satisfaction, depression, generalized anxiety, and social anxiety (Kashdan et al., 2020).
Compared to the AAQ‐II and Brief Experiential Avoidance Questionnaire (BEAQ), the PPFI is a stronger predictor
of outcomes central to psychological ﬂexibility theory. This includes effective daily goal pursuit (e.g., effort and
success, pursuing daily goals closely aligned with one's purpose in life), effective pursuit of broader personal
strivings (e.g., feelings of competence, joy, and meaning while pursuing strivings; e.g., Emmons, 1986; Little, 1989),
and wide‐ranging emotion regulation strategy use in response to daily stressors (e.g., reappraisal, perspective
taking, problem solving, and beneﬁt ﬁnding).
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In contrast to the AAQ‐II, several analyses demonstrate that the PPFI is not conﬂated with negative
emotionality. First, correlations between the PPFI and psychopathology were moderate. Second, multilevel models
containing both the AAQ‐II and PPFI revealed only the AAQ‐II predicted unique variance in daily negative emo-
tions. Third, an exploratory factor analysis demonstrated that the PPFI subscales load onto their own factor,
separate from a second factor that contained negative emotionality (e.g., neuroticism, negative affect, and
depression), the AAQ‐II, and the BEAQ (Kashdan et al., 2020).
Preliminary results for the PPFI are promising, but potential limitations are worth noting. Since psychological
ﬂexibility scores are tied to idiographic goals, researchers must be careful about generalizing across populations
and goal content. The nature and prioritization of a person's goals may change over time, leading to more unstable
psychological ﬂexibility scores over longer time frames (which will differ from the test–retest correlations and
trajectories of traditional personality assessments). Goals can be expected to vary substantially between people as
well, and this variance may contribute to observed differences in PPFI scores. Goal ﬂuidity and heterogeneity may
provide promising new avenues for research, however. With idiographic measures like the PPFI, new questions can
be asked about the value of goal consistency over time and in speciﬁc life circumstances or transitions (e.g., Sheldon
& Kasser, 1995,2001) and whether the nature/quality of goals can facilitate or hinder psychological ﬂexibility
(speciﬁc vs. vague, long vs. short‐term, and self vs. other‐oriented). More research is needed to fully understand the
value of integrating qualitative and quantitative approaches into measurement, areas for reﬁnement, and appli-
cations to clinical, social, occupational, developmental, cross‐cultural, and other contexts.
FUTURE DIRECTIONS FOR THE STUDY OF PSYCHOLOGICAL FLEXIBILITY
We believe the PPFI represents a promising step forward, but there is plenty of work to do. We are creating a
revised PPFI that goes beyond linking each item to a person's idiographic goals. In this next iteration, participants
endorse their most important values and rate their idiographic goal in terms of these values. We are testing
algorithms to determine how much a person is being ﬂexible in response to distress in the pursuit of deeply valued
goals (i.e., weighting total scores based on value‐goal congruence). Perhaps psychological ﬂexibility is more
beneﬁcial when there is greater harmony between values and chosen goals. The content of values may also be
important (e.g., What are the consequences of ﬂexibly responding to goal‐related distress in the service of power or
achievement‐based values compared to values related to equality or security?).
Only recently has research examined the utility of emotions to facilitate goal pursuit. The PPFI harnessing sub-
scale predicted greater daily goal difﬁculty, goal effort, and a wider range of daily emotion regulation strategies than
avoidance and acceptance subscales (Kashdan et al., 2020). Perhaps high harnessing scorers are more skilled at
choosing functional regulatory strategies based on dynamic situational contingencies. Indeed, research shows that
expressive suppression, often considered a “maladaptive” strategy, is beneﬁcial in certain contexts (e.g., Burton &
Bonanno, 2016). While a small literature supports the beneﬁts of harnessing (e.g., Tamir, Mitchell, & Gross, 2008;
Tamir & Ford, 2009), we know little about individual differences that explain why people are more or less inclined to
harness. People do not simply experience emotions; they have personality traits (e.g., Eldesouky & English, 2019),
certain beliefs about emotions (e.g., Kneeland, Goodman, & Dovidio, 2020), and emotional sensitivities (e.g., McHugh,
Reynolds, Leyro, & Otto, 2013) that inﬂuence how they respond to different emotional experiences. More research is
needed on the antecedents, interpersonal consequences, and momentary use of harnessing during goal pursuit.
Psychological ﬂexibility involves choosing appropriate self‐regulatory strategies for a given context. The
implications of psychological ﬂexibility for functioning in social interactions, however, remain poorly understood.
This is disconcerting given that social interactions are omnipresent for humans. Theory suggests people high on
emotion regulation ﬂexibility are well‐attuned to social cues in choosing regulatory strategies (e.g., Bonanno &
Burton, 2013). In contrast, people with high social anxiety, who are often socially impaired (e.g., Kashdan & Wenzel,
2005; Rodebaugh et al., 2014), show signs of inﬂexible emotion regulation—over‐relying and placing considerable
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value on controlling, avoidance, and concealing their emotions regardless of situational cues (Daniel et al., in press;
Dryman & Heimberg, 2018; Goodman, Kashdan, & İmamoğlu, in press; Goodman, Kashdan, Stiksma, & Blalock,
2019; O'Toole, Zachariae, & Mennin, 2017). There is reason to believe psychological ﬂexibility and social func-
tioning covary, but causal links are unclear. Perhaps psychological ﬂexibility and social skills are both inﬂuenced by
other variables such as cognitive and attentional ﬂexibility or reward and punishment sensitivities. In theory,
psychologically ﬂexible people should skillfully manage the intricacies, uncertainties, and emotional challenges of
socializing. Researchers can explore links among psychological ﬂexibility, emotional/social intelligence, wisdom, as
well as how psychologically ﬂexible people perform through the lens of other people and objective metrics.
Intrapersonal phenomena, including psychological ﬂexibility, are insufﬁciently explored interpersonally. What is
it like to be in a romantic relationship with a psychologically ﬂexible partner? Work for a psychologically inﬂexible
employer? What happens when your best friend's psychological ﬂexibility levels are one standard deviation below
your own? What do the social networks of highly psychologically ﬂexible people look like and how do they differ
from the average person? We are beginning to learn more about the interpersonal consequences of psychological
phenomena that explicitly involve other people, such as social anxiety (e.g., Kashdan, Volkmann, Breen, & Han,
2007; Stevens & Morris, 2007; Van Zalk, Van Zalk, Kerr, & Stattin, 2011), but more work must be done to un-
derstand the social implications of psychological ﬂexibility. Psychological ﬂexibility can build off and extend new
models in affective science that detail how and why emotion regulation is an interpersonal process that must be
studied accordingly (Zaki & Williams, 2013). Beyond studying psychological ﬂexibility within an interpersonal
framework, future research can examine how psychological ﬂexibility inﬂuences distress in the context of re-
lationships and discrete social interactions (e.g., Hofmann, 2014). Researchers must explore these questions if we
wish to expand the nomological network of psychological ﬂexibility into the social realm.
One way to understand the interpersonal processes related to psychological ﬂexibility is to diversify measure-
ment approaches. Ecologically valid methods, such as experience‐sampling, facilitate the study of psychological
ﬂexibility in social situations and other contexts. Psychological ﬂexibility is most frequently explored as an outcome or
mechanism of action in clinical treatment (e.g., with the AAQ) rather than a component of daily life. Experience‐
sampling may be superior to trait measures because psychological ﬂexibility is, by deﬁnition, dynamic (e.g., based on
what a given situation affords, either persisting or changing in behaviors in the service of chosen values; Hayes et al.,
2011a,2011b). For example, research using the day reconstruction method (Kahneman, Krueger, Schkade, Schwarz, &
Stone, 2004) suggests psychological ﬂexibility is associated with a wider range of daily emotion regulation strategies
and greater daily goal‐related difﬁculty, progress, effort, joy, and meaning (Kashdan et al., 2020).
Future research can expand upon this work by exploring interactions between daily situations and chosen
regulatory strategies to test whether psychological ﬂexibility entails better self‐regulation in response to a
changing environment. Experience‐sampling is ideal for exploring the degree to which daily behaviors, such as
coping strategies or communication patterns, facilitate valued living (often termed “workability”; Harris, 2019).
Creating validated momentary measures of psychological ﬂexibility is a promising next step to facilitate this work.
While research suggests stable individual differences, psychological ﬂexibility, like other traits, likely varies within
people from day to day or even moment to moment. Perhaps levels of momentary psychological ﬂexibility depend
on the salience of chosen goals or values in a given situation. Maybe psychological ﬂexibility is more predictive of
goal achievement and sense of meaning in life in certain daily contexts compared to others (e.g., when experiencing
low mood, surrounded by people with high psychological ﬂexibility, or facing a goal‐related challenge).
As interest in psychological ﬂexibility grows, we must take stock of what is known, what is misunderstood, and how
to move forward. Psychological ﬂexibility has roots in social psychology (e.g., self‐control, hope theory, and emotion
regulation), but since this term ﬁrst appeared in the clinical literature (Hayes et al., 2004a,2004b), it has been
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researched predominantly therein. We know that treatments targeting psychological ﬂexibility (ACT, primarily) are
effective in enhancing mental health and well‐being. Although, unlike virtually any other psychological construct,
psychological ﬂexibility is recognized almost exclusively within a single therapeutic intervention. The potential for
psychological ﬂexibility is far greater. To demonstrate this potential to other ﬁelds, we must conceptualize and
measure psychological ﬂexibility in ways that facilitate widespread adoption. This starts with valid measures that
assess a wide spectrum of ﬂexible responses and capture ﬂexibility in the context of values and valued goals. With
new measurement approaches, the time is ripe to extend and bolster research on psychological ﬂexibility in social
and personality psychology and beyond.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST
We have no conﬂicts of interest to disclose.
Kerry C. Kelso https://orcid.org/0000-0002-3286-2823
Todd B. Kashdan https://orcid.org/0000-0001-6438-0485
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Jim Doorley is a doctoral candidate in Clinical Psychology at George Mason University. His research focuses on
psychological ﬂexibility, well‐being, resilience, and their application to athletes. Jim is also a clinical fellow in
psychology at Massachusetts General Hospital where he researches and applies mind‐body interventions for
patients with neurological disorders, orthopedic injuries, and other chronic medical conditions. He received his
B.A. in Psychology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Fallon Goodman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology and directs the Emotion and
Resilience Laboratory at the University of South Florida. Her research explores connections between anxiety
and well‐being, including identifying barriers to social connection and strategies for mitigating loneliness and
rejection. She earned her B.S from the University of Maryland and Ph.D. from George Mason University, and
she completed her predoctoral clinical training at Harvard Medical School.
Kerry C. Kelso is a doctoral candidate in Clinical Psychology at George Mason University. Currently she is
interested in sources of risk and resilience in anxiety including experiential avoidance, psychological ﬂexibility,
meaning in life, and purpose in life. She aims to understand the nuances of these relationships and how they
unfold over time with the ultimate goal of identifying targets for anxiety prevention and intervention. She
earned a B.A. in Psychology at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and M.A. in Clinical Psychology at
Appalachian State University.
Todd B. Kashdan is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at George Mason University. He has published
over 200 peer‐reviewed journal articles, mostly on the intersection of well‐being and emotional disturbances,
including the nature of curiosity, meaning and purpose in life, psychological strengths, and resilience. His books
include The Upside of Your Dark Side (2014) and Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulﬁlling Life (2009).
He received a B.S in Human Service Studies from Cornell University, and a Ph.D. in Psychology from the
University of New York at Buffalo.
How to cite this article: Doorley JD, Goodman FR, Kelso KC, Kashdan TB. Psychological ﬂexibility: What we
know, what we do not know, and what we think we know. Soc Personal Psychol Compass. 2020;e12566.
DOORLEY ET AL.
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