There are two qualities that I notice that clients master as their happiness increases. When I look at other people in my life, I notice that my happiest friends and family have these in abundance. They are adaptability and flexibility. Even though they sound similar, they have separate and important functions in mentally healthy people. Adaptability is often about things you cannot control, whereas flexibility is being able to welcome others’ preferences even when they are not your own.
Why Adaptability and Flexibility?
Let’s first look at a class of people who have a very hard time navigating life: those with personality disorders (Borderline, Narcissistic, Avoidant etc. — there are 10 types).
Personality disorders are pervasive and enduring character issues that are extremely difficult to treat. And they all share a common characteristic: these people have only one way to be. They might appear normal or relatively well-functioning in a few areas, but this is mainly because their “one way of being” is well suited for that area. They cannot adapt to others’ needs, and they have rigid ways of seeing themselves and others. Because they experience the world in such a restricted way, they have a lot of trouble with relationships, problem-solving, and coping.
Therefore, it is not surprising on the flip side that people who demonstrate an increased ability to adapt and be flexible are happier and better adjusted. In session, I help clients see different ways to approach problems, and we come up with possible solutions that feel comfortable to them. But it is always an exercise in getting them to adopt a more flexible viewpoint of themselves and the people around them.
Increase Your Adaptability
I think of adaptability as a personality trait, but one that you can increase with focused effort. When approaching your life’s tasks, try considering how many possible outcomes would be satisfactory to you. For example, if you discover that your favorite restaurant isn’t open on your birthday, can you move on from that disappointment quickly? If you get assigned your second (or third or fourth) choice room in your sorority, task at a work event, part in a school play, daycare location for your child — can you adjust? How long does it take you to accept your new situation and do your best with it?
When things don’t go as planned, allow yourself some time to be disappointed, but then gather your perspective and try to focus on the positive. Adaptability is mind-over-matter arm wrestling of your brain.
These sound like small examples, but we are faced with needing to adapt many times throughout the day, and someone you know would truly lose their cool over a situation above. It’s not that we can’t allow disappointment or frustration over these situations, but the quicker we can adapt, the happier we will be.
Increase Your Flexibility
Flexibility in the moment is crucial to turning difficulties into minor blips throughout your day and is more action-oriented than adaptability. Flexibility is a great quality to have when dealing with others (provided you are still able to exert some framework — nobody likes to hear, “anything is fine with me” TOO much!) It is fun to eat out with flexible eaters who like many kinds of food. It is great to sit down for TV with a flexible partner who likes both baseball and reality shows. When we are running late, we are relieved to be meeting a flexible friend who says “no problem” because that friend is adaptable and flexible, too.
To increase your flexibility, think about some of your strongest preferences, how you exert them, and how you might try being more flexible on occasion. If you are always the one choosing the restaurant, the daycare, the home decor, the movie — ease up. Increasing flexibility often begins by asking questions, being curious about others’ preferences, and open-minded about their choices.
To increase your happiness and decrease stress, think about how you can become a more adaptable person AND use more flexibility with others and yourself.