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Hein Zegers

Els Verheyen

BASICS and Essencing as a Positive Psychology Clinical Intervention

Hein Zegers (licensed clinical psychologist & multilingual researcher)

Els Verheyen (licensed clinical psychologist & social worker)

The research that resulted in the development of this intervention started out as a cross-cultural examination into positive psychology interventions (Zegers, 2010). Positive psychology interventions have been propagated in a seminal article by Seligman, Steen, Park, and Peterson (2005) and have been tested in randomized controlled trials, overviewed in Sin and Lyubomirsky (2009), Bolier et al. (2013), and Parks and Schueller (2014). Our clinical experience with administering these existing positive psychology interventions in a face-to-face setting taught us that a number of clients consider these interventions as a burden, as ‘one more task on my already overwhelming to-do list.’ Therefore, we set out on a research project exploring ‘abstention as a positive psychology intervention’ (Zegers, 2014): instead of adding more things or activities to do, why not consider cutting them away as a positive psychology intervention?

This led to a world-wide multilingual research into more than 500 people living a life of ‘Voluntary Simplicity’: people that are per definition highly experienced in ‘cutting things and activities away.’ This eventually resulted to our BASICS model (Zegers, 2017a, 2017b). BASICS is an acronym made up of the first letters of six steps, steps that virtually all voluntary simplifiers seem to go through at some time during their simplifying process:

  1. Back. Many interviewees describe their first step to a simpler life as a ‘step back.’ Slowing down and looking at their life from a distance.
  2. Attention. A surprising number of Voluntary Simplifiers designate an essential role to attention. Attention to small things in daily life, but also attention to their inner life.
  3. Select. Based on the previous steps, succesful simplifiers are often very conscious about their personal values. They consciously select what their life is all about.
  4. Invest. At this stage, simplifiers consciously invest in things and activities that suit their self-chosen values, in what they personally consider worthwile.
  5. Cut. What does not contribute to a more meaningful life is eventually cut out, similar to pruning: by cutting away certain well-chosen branches of a certain tree at a specific moment, this tree is allowed to fully flourish.
  6. Sense. The interviewees that followed this BASICS-pattern seem to agree on one thing: they experience their present simple life as much more meaningful. Every step they take is infused with a broader picture of what their life is all about. Their life ‘just makes sense.’

Essencing. Voluntary Simplifiers seem to consider Steps 3 (Select), 4 (Invest) and 5 (Cut) as the core of their simplifying process, steps they seem to do over and over again. We decided to call this core process ‘Essencing’: an iterative process of consciously choosing (3. Select) what one considers important (4. Invest) and leaving out the rest (5. Cut).

BASICS and Essencing as a Positive Psychology Clinical Intervention

In this short article, we will not go any deeper into the research that allowed the BASICS model to emerge (see Zegers, 2017b for a description), but we will focus on the possibility of applying BASICS and more specifically Essencing as a possible Positive Psychology Clinical Intervention. How can we apply in a clinical setting what we have learned from experienced Voluntary Simplifiers?

The BASICS model and its embedded Essencing process have been applied in the intervention described below in several of our face-to-face practice settings. Moreover, parts of this material was tentatively featured in the edX MOOC ‘Existential Well-Being Counseling’ (Leijssen, 2016) with more than 10,000 participants, where psychologists, counselors and students from all over the world have been pilot testing it and have kindly provided us with valuable and constructive feedback.

The first step of our intervention consists of detecting what clients really value in their life (‘Select’). This is done by developing a temporary life mission. Because ‘life mission’ may sound heavy to some clients, we generally add the word ‘temporary,’ and make sure that this process is done in an atmosphere of flexibility and playfulness. In concrete terms, we start out with the classical ‘epitaph’ or ‘eulogy’ intervention (e.g., Seligman, Rashid, & Parks, 2006). The core of this intervention had already been expressed by German author C.F. Gellert (1715-1769) in his quote ‘Lebe, wie Du, wenn Du stirbst, wünschen wirst, gelebt zu haben.’ (‘Live the way you would like to have lived the moment you die’). Yet our experience with multicultural administration of this intervention taught us that its associations with death is unwanted, scary or even taboo to certain clients from several cultural backgrounds. Therefore, we substitute ‘death’ by the image of an elderly person looking back on her/his life with satisfaction.

Additionally, we invite the client to develop several life values and roles that ensue from the temporary life mission as described above. Some authors (e.g., Wilson, Sandoz, Kitchens, & Roberts, 2010) give a fixed set of possible roles (such as ‘my role as a family member,’ ‘my professional role,’ etc.), but our experience with administering this part of the intervention is that it is best for the client to come up with their own wording/images in a creative process. This is also more culturally flexible (a person from a more collectivistic cultural background might expand her/his values and roles more in the social area as compared to a person from a more individualistic cultural background, to give just one example).

In a second step, we come to the action part of the intervention (Invest). For each value/role pair developed in the previous step, the client writes down one or more long-term goals. Next to each of those, a short-term goal is chosen. Finally, in order to reach this short-term goal, the chain of action is finalized by thinking up a very first step that the client can do right now.

The final step of this intervention consists of considering what could be cut away from the client’s life (Cut). After doing the entire exercise as described above (and repeating it when this feels appropriate), clients become much more aware of the whole chain that links their life mission, their life values and roles with their long-term goals, and short-term goals and first steps. Our experience with administering this intervention shows us that once this chain is well-established, clients can much more easily cut away from their life what they feel does not fit in there any more.

What we learned from our 500+ sample of Voluntary Simplifiers is that without going through this process, people tend to randomly remove from their life things and activities they do not want, seemingly driven by experiential avoidance (Hayes, Wilson, Gifford, Follette, & Strosahl,1996; Kashdan, Barrios, Forsyth, & Steger, 2006). This way, clients experience a greater chance of making decisions they may regret later. Going through the BASICS steps and its embedded Essencing process of selecting, investing and then cutting (in that sequence) makes the clients connect with their self-developed or self-detected life mission/meaning in life, along the lines of Martin Seligman’s ‘prospective psychology’ concept of not being driven by the past but pulled by the future (Seligman, Railton, Baumeister, & Sripada, 2013), evenually leading to a lifestyle that is experienced as more meaningful.

Essencing: Step-by-step Description

  1. Physically, all that is needed for this intervention is a bunch of white (or horizontally lined) sheets of paper and something to write with (colored pencils can help to add a touch of playfulness). Ideally, this intervention is administered in three face-to-face sessions (individually or in small groups). In the first session, three ‘Select’ steps are written down, each on a separate piece of paper: life mission, values and roles. In the second session, three ‘Invest’ steps are written down: long-term goals, short-term goals and first steps. In a third concluding session, this is eventually followed by a last piece of paper containing the step ‘Cut’. An example of these steps is shown in Figure 1.
  2. In the first session, a personal life mission statement is developed, or rather ‘discovered’ as many clients describe the process. For this, the client takes a first piece of paper and answers the question: ‘Imagine that you are 80 years old. You look back to your life with satisfaction. What do you see? What has your life been about? (If you are already over 80, congratulations, then you can take 100, and so on)’. If a client freezes in front of what looks like the daunting task of developing a life mission statement, it may help to use the word ‘temporary.’ Thereby it is important that the therapist encourages a playful, non-judgemental open brainstorming atmosphere.

On two other pieces of paper, the client lists several values and life roles that ensue from the mission statement. We consciously avoid offering a pre-existing list of possible values and roles, in order to allow for cultural diversity and to encourage individual creativity in finding and naming values and roles (see the case study at the end of this article for one possible example). This way, after the first session, the client ends up with three pieces of paper, all related to the step ‘Select’: life mission, values and roles.

  1. In a second session, these three pieces of paper are laid out on the floor, a desk or clipped to a board, with the life mission to the far right, preceded by the values, which are preceded by the roles. Three more sheets of papers are added in this session: long-term goals, short-term goals and first steps. It is important that this first step is small enough so that the client can take it without hesitation. If it is still too big, it should be subdivided into even smaller steps of which the first one is small enough to make right now. The paper with first steps is put/hung to the far left, followed by short-term goals, long-term goals, roles, values, and eventually the life mission to the far right (in cultures where the writing direction is from right to left, this order is best reversed). This way, the client builds a chain that connects the smallest possible step all the way to their life mission.
  2. In a third session, the whole process is reviewed by the clients and compared to their present lifestyle. At this stage, clients often spontaneously come up with suggestions of elements that can safely be cut away from their life without hurting what they feel their life is really about/their meaning in life.

Essencing Case Study: Lee

Finally, we illustrate the ‘Essencing’ intervention by means of a case study. Lee is 17 years old, bright, curious and loves to explore a wide range of subjects. Lee generally enjoys a loving and caring relationship with his parents and younger sister. Lee is involved in a number of co-curricular and extra-curricular activities. He likes his subjects, but when it comes to completing assignments, Lee struggles to start and stay focused. Lee wants to do every assignment perfectly and wants to get the best possible grade in his class. These expectations force Lee to work late nights.

A simplified example of the different steps in Lee’s Essencing intervention is given in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Example of Lee’s Essencing Intervention


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