Steven Hayes’ new book, A Liberated Mind1 marks an inflection point in the evolution of consciousness. Our mental abilities have enabled us to master the world through symbolic manipulations, which defined actions to be taken in the physical world. We have gone from being able to guide others in hunting to the symbolic analyses of the physical science that have achieved mastery over the physical world that would have been considered complete fantasy two hundred years ago.
Yet at this point, few would argue that our mastery of the world is an unparalleled good. Indeed, our world is clearly more imperiled than it was fifty years ago. Authoritarian regimes are developing throughout the world. The climate crisis is no longer something in the future. Terrorism is widespread. Economic inequality, a condition that harms people at virtually all levels of income, is at an all-time high. Daily doses of discrimination stress millions throughout the world. Materialism pervades our societies, as stressed people seek to assuage their stress by accumulating more possessions. Nuclear weapons continue to proliferate and with it a growing danger that they will be used.
None of the things that enabled our takeover of the planet could have occurred without the mental capacities that we have evolved. But our mental skills have not enabled us to control the dangers that our “achievements” have produced. In fact, our evolved capacity to use symbolic processes has directly contributed to our problems and, as currently used, stands in the way of our solving them.
Every one of the problems we face is the result of one or another ideology. It is easy to see this with respect to authoritarian regimes, terrorism, discrimination, and nuclear weapons. But it is equally the case for the economic inequality, materialism, and the climate crisis, each of which has been spurred by a set of beliefs that justified the policies and practices that have created inequality, promoted materialism or denied the reality of global warming.
The dangers to humans in terms of the magnitude and extent of harm that an antisocial ideology can do is far greater than it could have been two hundred years ago thanks to the success of the physical sciences in developing technologies, which although often providing enormous benefits, have the potential to harm human beings far beyond anything that could even have been conceived two hundred years ago.
If a Rip Van Winkle woke up fifty years from now and discovered that all of these threats had diminished to the level of an historic curiosity, what would that look like? I submit that it would be because most people had somehow gotten much more mindful of the wellbeing of those around them and those still to come. It would mean they were more willing to forgo things that provided immediate benefit to them but produced longer-term harm for them or those around them. It would mean that people were more willing to share and to sacrifice for others. And it would mean that the major institutions of our societies were organized to monitor the wellbeing of every person and implement policies that limited the ability of people and organizations to engage in practices that harmed others.
If such a vision seems incredible, I ask you to consider whether a similar vision of the wonders of modern science circa 1960 would have seemed equally unlikely to a person in 1860. (As Arthur Clarke observed, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”) If I asked you to explain to that 1860 person how these wonders had occurred you would probably say that it was thanks to science. If you are not a behavioral scientist, you might be quite skeptical that the science of human behavior could produce a similar improvement in the behavior of humans. However, I submit that we already have the science to achieve such a seemingly miraculous change; we just haven’t made the benefits of our science widely available.
Hayes describes forty years of research that has delineated a new form of consciousness that is precisely what is needed to create societies that work for everyone—including those not yet born. He calls it psychological flexibility. The main feature of this form of consciousness involves living a life in the pragmatic pursuit of a set of chosen values.
The values aren’t prescribed by ideology or creed. On the contrary, people who have developed this new form of consciousness are extraordinarily aware of the way in which beliefs, rules, dicta, theories, feelings, and all the other aspects of the content of our consciousness can influence our behavior in ways that may or may not be helpful. They are acutely aware that there is a part of consciousness, sometimes called the transcendent self, that is not the contents of their mind, but the “I” that is observing all of what they think and feel.
This is, of course, not an idea that behavioral scientists invented. It is very much the way in which Buddhists have long thought. However, research over the past forty years has elaborated on how this works and how to make it available to many people.
In the context of this perspective on the self and the mind’s content, people are encouraged to choose what they want their life to be about. They are encouraged to do this not on the basis of what other say they should do or on the basis of some creed or ideology, but rather to choose what they want to make their life about not only over the long term but in their day-to-day experience.
You might think that this leaves people open to embracing values consistent with one or more of the above-stated dangers to humanity. But as an empirical matter, that does not seem to happen. In the hundreds of studies of the impact of helping people to become more psychologically flexible, people choose prosocial values that involve contributing to the wellbeing of those around them and growing as a person.
Psychological flexibility involves more than just being clear about one’s values. Indeed, at least in the context of clinical work with people, the first step often involves getting people to develop a different relationship with their thoughts and feelings. This is a matter of skill development.
One skill is defusion, a made-up word that connotes being able to step back from your thoughts and feelings rather than being fused with them in the sense that you see the world through them without evening noticing that they are your thoughts, not reality. In talks I give, I often ask for a show of hands of people who have had the experience of lying in bed, stressing about someone who is not lying next to them. Every hand goes up. Without the ability to notice that you are having thoughts about the person, it is almost like they are there in bed with you. But people can learn to look at their thoughts rather than through them thanks to meditation and other forms of experiential exercise.
Hayes describes a client whose problems included drug addiction and antisocial behavior. When asked what he most deeply wanted, he “loudly declared that the only thing important to him was not to be messed around with, explaining with a gesture that turned his hand into the shape of a pistol that he carried…everywhere he went…” However, after a simple exercise in which he repeated the word “loser” over and over again—as a means of defusing from it, he stood up and “said that his family had suffered terribly through his bouts with addiction and what he most wanted was to be a good dad to his small children.” Apparently, the repetition of “loser” diminished its meaning for him and allowed him to make contact with something that was important to him; having briefly separated from himself “being a loser” he could contact something important to him.
A second skill is acceptance. In the world which most of us have grown up in, we naturally do what we can to avoid “negative” feelings. However, this form of avoidance drives us to do things that are contrary to our long term wellbeing—drinking or taking drugs to damp down unpleasant thoughts and feelings; severing relations with loved ones who have harmed or criticized us; working incessantly in an effort to avoid anxiety or to prove that we are better than what our parents said about us. Acceptance involves being willing to have thoughts and feelings. Metaphors that promote it encourage us to “hold our anxiety the way we would hold a delicate flower or a crying child.”
With these two skills, we become better able to have whatever thoughts and feelings we have and not be pushed around by them. If I am willing to feel sad or ashamed, I am less likely to need drugs or alcohol to avoid these feelings. And in this context, I can take steps that may be painful, but that helps me move forward in life. Re-engaging with a difficult parent; going back to school even in the context of anxiety that we will fail.
It is in the context of these skills that people become better able to experience the transcend self. This is the idea that there is a part of us that is not the content of our mind, but the “I” that is observing all of our experience. It has been labeled the transcendent self because the Observer “I” goes across any and all content. And there appears to be a larger sense in which it is transcendent. The observer I can not only look at the mind’s content but can take the perspective of others. This is foundational for empathy and compassion. Research on this new form of consciousness shows that when people become better at defusing from and accepting their thoughts and feelings they become more compassionate toward themselves and toward others.
The social psychologist Jonathon Haidt2 has argued that this form of transcendence is rooted in our evolved cooperative capacities and that it puts us in contact with the whole of humanity in a spiritual way that is deeply gratifying to those who experience it. In any case, it appears that this new form of consciousness leads people to become more loving toward themselves and others.
Closely related to these skills is the skill of being in the present moment. Being in the past or thinking about the future is of course useful. But they are experiences our minds give us and they may obscure what is in the present moment. Being in the moment makes us better able to contact how we can pursue what we most value.
Finally, there is the skill of taking committed action. As people become clearer about their values and able to step back from what their minds tell them, they become better at acting in the services of their values. Doubts about our ability to take effective action are simply thoughts to be noticed.
Over the past forty years research on helping people to adopt psychological flexibility has helped people cope with or overcome problems as diverse cigarette smoking, epilepsy, anxiety, depression, obesity, substance use, and post-traumatic stress disorders.
Indeed, the work on psychological flexibility has transformed the way we think about “psychopathology.” Traditionally, a segment of the population was considered to have mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. The rest of us were “normal.” But that way of thinking has eroded as it has become clear that the majority of us have a diagnosable “disorder” at some time in our lives and all of us have problems in living that cause anxiety, depression, and behavioral excesses. Rather than thinking of a subset of people as “abnormal” the evidence shows that the root of our problem is the form of consciousness that we have evolved over the past 10,000 years. Namely, we solve problems with our minds by thinking about what we experience and coming up with ways to deal with whatever problem is before us. This has “worked” enormously well in enabling us to solve problems big and small—from where to find food or protect ourselves from predators, on up to how to build a nuclear weapon.
But there are at least two problems with our “normal” form of consciousness. First, we have evolved an orientation that makes the avoidance of danger our top priority. An organism that didn’t, didn’t survive. We are constantly scanning the environment for dangers. But thanks to our ability to think about what happened before and what is likely to happen later, we can be in the presence of threatening stimuli that are only in our mind—lying in bed stressing about someone. From this perspective, the threats our mind gives us are problems to be solved.
And that is the second problem. Our consciousness is greatly oriented toward not having unpleasant thoughts and feelings. You are lying in bed stressing about that person because you have so often solved a problem by thinking about it, coming up with a strategy, trying it, and succeeding. And while this has worked enormously well for solving problems that are outside of you, the strategy is a trap when it comes to dealing with distressing thoughts and feelings. There is a saying about thoughts and feelings among therapists who promote psychological flexibility: “If you don’t want it, you’ve got it!” If you don’t want anxiety—if your highest priority is to not feel anxious—you will find yourself living in a world in which everything is about anxiety. This will simply amplify the very thing you are seeking to avoid.
Consider how this form of consciousness is related to the problems I enumerated above. For example, young men develop patterns of anti-social behavior including not just delinquency, but hate groups and terrorism. Boys who are lacking in self-regulation and engage in annoying or aggressive behavior are often dealt with through punishment. This not only does not work, it often leads to the escalations of aggressive and annoying behavior. That, in turn, leads to rejection by peers and teachers. This produces anger and distress—for the same reason that you lie in bed thinking about someone who has slighted you. The late Tom Dishion studied this process in depth. He found that by early adolescence, such socially rejected boys find other boys who are in the same boat. The result is magic! They suddenly have a friend who feels just as angry and resentful toward the people who have been rejecting. Dishion observed the interactions of these boys and found that when they laughed at each other’s deviant talk, it predicted their arrest two years later. Dishion was watching the socialization of anti-social behavior before his eyes. He went on to point out that terrorism is often an endpoint in this development. While we are accustomed to focusing on the ideology that appears to drive terrorist acts, the ideologies are diverse—white nationalism, jihadism, anti-Semitism. The function of the ideology is to bring young men together in their hatred of those whom they feel have oppressed them. The process is in the service of their not feeling that they are “losers,” “wrong,” “worthless,” “inferior.”
Research on psychological flexibility is only one facet of the spreading adoption of this kind of consciousness. Other examples include
- The work of the Dalai Lama
- The kindness movement, which includes the work of Barbara Fredrickson and her colleagues on the value of kindness meditation3 and the writings of Doug Carnine4 on kindfulness.
- The Prosocial Movement, which is promoting psychological flexibility in small groups worldwide.5
- The Conscious Capitalism6 and B Corp movement which are promoting values in business that take into account the impact of business practices on employees, customers, suppliers, and the society as a whole, in addition to their impact on investors.
- The work of Tim Kasser, 7-9 in documenting the harm that is associated with materialistic values and the benefits of more prosocial values.
- The work Frederik Livheim of 29K, which is developing internet strategies to promote psychological flexibility.
- The work of Peter and Susan Glaser in teaching the skills needed to build cooperation and openness to criticism in work organizations.10
- The identification and dissemination of school-based programs that promote prosocial behavior. These include the PAX Good Behavior Game,11,12 Positive Action,13 and Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support,14 all of which encourage young people to adopt prosocial values and goals and engage in actions that are consistent with those values. Each is being widely implemented in the U.S. and other countries.
Although the evidence is quite limited at this point, I submit that a world run by psychologically flexible people would steadily diminish our most pressing problems. Why? Because those people would tend to act in the service of a set of prosocial values that take into account the wellbeing of every person.
And even if this proves to not be the case, there is reason to believe that increasing the prevalence of psychological flexible people will be good for public health. A recent study by Andrew Gloster and his colleagues in Switzerland15 showed that in a representative sample of the adult population, persons who were high in psychological flexibility were less likely than less flexible people to have psychological or health problems when they were exposed to stressors such as stressful life events, daily stress, or low levels of social support. They were better able to deal with these stressors, apparently because they did not try to avoid their feelings, but did take practical action to cope with their situation.
If increasing the prevalence of this form of consciousness can contribute to human wellbeing the challenge remains of how this might be accomplished. The primary means, thus far, has been a bottom-up strategy in which individuals are being reached through clinical interventions, schools, mass media, and popular books, such as Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life16
There is, however, one bottom-up strategy that appears to be underused, at least when compared with how this strategy is promoting antisocial behavior. It is the use of social media. Andrew Marantz’s new book, Antisocial,17 documents the extent to which a network of fascists, white nationalists, anti-Semites, and Nazis have succeeded in getting a huge proportion of the population to like, follow, and share, their antisocial memes. Thanks to the fact that we no longer all attend to the same media, they have been able to do this in a way that has been invisible to the traditional gatekeepers in the mainstream media. One reason for their success is that negative, emotionally evocative messages are more likely to be attended to than more positive prosocial messages.18 (The members of this network are the product of the kind of socialization of antisocial values and behaviors that I described above. Concerted efforts to prevent such socialization are needed and the school-based examples I cite above are proof that we can do so.19)
On the other hand, those who are promoting psychological flexibility are generally unaware of the potential of social media for promoting flexibility and the need to counter right-wing efforts to promote antisocial behavior and values. We need to build a network of people on social media who are promoting psychological flexibility and the compassion and caring that comes with it.
(As a first step in using social media…If you are at all favorable to the notion that greater promotion of psychological flexibility will evolve more nurturing societies, please like, share, and forward this essay, as well as all of the works that I cite here.)
There are, in addition, top-down strategies that people who want to evolve psychologically flexible societies need to pay greater attention to. Psychological inflexibility is made more likely by threatening social conditions and the related process of promoting materialism. People who are living in poverty, in unequal societies, or in social environments high in discrimination or other social stressors are more likely to develop antisocial behavior.20 To the extent that we can ameliorate these conditions through public policy, we will enable the spread of psychological flexibility.
At the same time, people living in stressful social conditions are more susceptible to the steady beat of marketing that tells them that material goods will make them happier. Countering such materialism is vital, if for no other reason than it is promoting unsustainable lifestyles.
Bottom-up and top-down strategies need to be integrated through reciprocal relationships. We need to cultivate and expand networks of psychologically flexible people into a coalition of people and organizations that are not only trying to encourage this new form of consciousness among individuals but are advocating for the public policies that are needed to make social environments less stressful and more likely to nurture21 psychological flexibility.
Consider how this form of consciousness would affect wellbeing. Imagine that more and more people are mindfully going through their day, acting in ways that are consistent with the compassionate values they have chosen. Chosen not because someone pushed them to, but because, when they felt free to choose what they wanted their life to be about, they chose values like compassion and caring.
What would this imply for economic inequality? As the prevalence of psychologically flexible people increases, there will be greater support for policies that benefit all members of society. Wouldn’t more people support tax policies that reduce inequality? Wouldn’t they become less materialistic? In their compassion for children, wouldn’t they insist that more should be done to prevent climate change? Wouldn’t our governments become better at developing policies that anticipate the threats to wellbeing?
If the principles of psychological flexibility were increasingly taught or promoted in our schools, our workplaces, our government agencies, and our civic engagement, we could move the public discussion away from divisive arguments and toward advocacy for policies in terms of their measurable impact on wellbeing.
Science has changed the world profoundly, but not necessarily for the better. The changes that physical science have wrought thus far outstrip the changes that the behavioral sciences have made to human existence. For many years, the assumption, especially among physical scientists, was that a true science of human behavior was not possible. But that belief is no longer tenable. Although it is not widely recognized research on human behavior over the past 100 years has resulted in a profound new understanding of human consciousness that has the potential to counter the many ways in which human wellbeing is threatened in this “modern” physical science era.