Americans hate unhappiness, sadness, and other negative emotions. Just take a tour of the bookstore isles, there are countless titles about our pursuit of happiness. But two researchers invite us to take a closer look. Robert Biswas-Diener, author of The Courage Quotient, and Todd Kashdan, author of Curious? and a professor at George Mason University, think that we can gain a lot from accessing our full range of emotions. We don’t have to avoid discomfort to live a meaningful and engaging life. In fact, a bit of anxiety or anger or guilt can propel us to do great things. Their most recent book, The Upside of Your Dark Side, shows us how to harness that power. Here is what they have to say about our emotions, both negative and positive:
What led you to write about the dark side of emotion?
Both of us have been disillusioned by the cultural obsession with the pursuit of happiness. In creating a life where the goal is to be happy, this means that situations that generate unhappy states such as anger, guilt, embarrassment, anxiety, boredom, and doubt are to be altered, changed, or avoided to remain on track. The exception to this is when there is great certainty that doing something uncomfortable will be of benefit in terms of increasing happiness at a later date. There are so many problems with this cultural obsession to be happy. First, we cannot control happiness. It is not a dial we can turn up and down at will. The temperature affects our happiness. The time of day affects our happiness. Our circadian rhythm and anything that disrupts it affects our happiness. Our hormone levels affect our happiness. And most important, other people who can often be found complaining, teasing, arguing, and just being flat-out obnoxious influence our happiness—and we cannot control what other people do or how they will respond to us. Despite this knowledge, despite hundreds of book titles and workshops on the pursuit of happiness, rarely do we see mention of these facts. We are not saying happiness itself is bad, we are saying that over-valuing happiness and living a life where the objective is to be happy is often problematic. There is a great quote that captures our point succinctly:
If you observe a really happy man, you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his son, growing double dahlias in his garden, or looking for dinosaur eggs in the Gobi desert. He will not be searching for happiness as if it were a collar button that has rolled under a radiator. —Bernan Wolfe
Knowing this research and conducting it ourselves was a starting point to some basic questions: What do we really know about the emotional states, mindsets, and behaviors that deviate from happiness?
What we learned was that some great research has been relatively ignored because the questions being asked ran counter to the prevailing culture. We found evidence for specific situations where negative emotions are better than positive emotions, mindlessness is a more productive mindset than mindfulness, and social situations where narcissistic, psychopathic, and selfish behaviors lead to greater performance, creativity, vitality, and self-care. To our surprise and excitement, nobody has synthesized this large body of disconnected studies. We soon realized that an entire book was in order and we wanted to write it for everyone, not just scientists. Our findings are captured nicely by this quote from Nietzche: The great epochs of our life are the occasions when we gain the courage to re-baptize our evil qualities as our best qualities.
Are you telling people not to pursue happiness?
No. We are telling people that over-valuing happiness can be your downfall and that happiness is a problematic objective for your life. Happiness is a great goal but as Steve Hayes, a founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, is fond of saying, “get out of your head and into your life.” Instead of living to be happy, people might want to consider an alternative life objective: be present, with an attitude of curiosity, and do what matters most to you. While living this way, you may catch happiness along the way, or you might not.
RBD: It is a mistake to think of this as an anti-happiness book. We believe that happiness feels good and is widely beneficial. If happiness is your life’s objective, however, that can be problematic. Some people come to see happiness as a cure-all. We argue that happiness is beneficial for certain outcomes, such as being sociable or healthier. Other emotional states are more beneficial for other outcomes, such as problem-solving or protecting your loved ones.
What negative emotion do you harness the most?
TK: Both of us view emotions as superpowers that in our arsenal and available to help us if we understand and appreciate how and when they are useful. If an airline pilot has to de-ice a plane, it would be great if anxiety arises, reminding the pilot that this is a time to be particularly cautious and careful. Before speaking in front of 750 people about some new ideas, I get worried if I don’t get anxious. When I am content, this is often an indicator that I don’t care enough about what the audience thinks. I do not get invited to show how smart I am, I get invited to have a conversation with the audience, connect with them, and share ideas that are important to them. I should be slightly concerned about their judgment. Anxiety is normal, it is an early warning signal to let us know that the situation we are in has some risks that are worthy of consideration. Children and adults who lack social anxiety are far more likely to be rejected, ostracized, and showcase poor leadership skills than those who get anxious from time to time. Think of all the functional problems that humans have had to deal with over their evolutionary history—self-protection, gaining status, being accepted in a tribe of trustworthy individuals, finding a romantic partner, fending off romantic rivals, taking care of one’s children. We have been endowed with anxiety, anger, guilt, jealousy, and other negative emotions over the course of evolution to get the best possible outcome in challenging situations when these problems arise.
RBD. Anger. Not the everyday irritations that all of us feel but the deep anger at what I see as injustice. Anger fuels a lot of my motivation to do charitable work or champion causes.
What can Americans learn from other cultures about negative emotions and discomfort?
RBD: Americans are very good at expressing emotions. We are less good, on average, at being comfortable with low arousal emotions (this is why some people go crazy sitting on a very pleasant beach) or negative emotions (why some people believe that anger is evil). A wide range of research from various Asian cultures suggests that people from those cultures, on average, are more comfortable with negative states and are also more likely to see emotions as blended states (you could be afraid and curious, for example). Americans can learn to quit trying to suppress their negative emotions (which have the side-effect of blunting positive feelings) and learn to tolerate them instead.
What is the most surprising thing you discovered while writing this?
People that deviate from social norms and socially appropriate behavior are often indispensable for what is most valued by organizations: the boldness necessary for both creativity and innovation. For instance, we found that when there is one person displays narcissistic qualities in a group meeting, with grandiose ideas and a sense of entitlement (refusing to sit down because they are restless and stretching their legs helps them think), the group shuts the person down. The person is labeled a black sheep, a social deviant, and their ideas are marginalized and lost. But something magical happens when there is more than one narcissist in the room. The group dynamic changes, because they recognize that some of the rules that they have been following about thinking and decision-making are negotiable. A group with more than one person acting in a narcissistic manner becomes more agile and more creative ideas emerge about what to produce (the inspiration side) and how the group can bring this product to fruition (the practical side). What is surprising about this line of research is that human resource departments often go out of their way to weed out any sign of narcissism and groups expend a great deal of effort to prevent black sheep and left-of-center thinkers from deviating from the group culture. Our research suggests that organizations should welcome the black sheep because they speed up cultural evolution. This can be uncomfortable but rarely is the primary goal of an organization to feel comfortable when attempting to produce great ideas that change the world in some small way.
What is the most important point you want to get across?
People who lack the capacity to withstand physical discomfort, negative emotions, frustration, and uncertainty are at a marked disadvantage in life. When faced with challenges, they react with greater emotional distress but this is not the problem. Instead of dealing with the challenge at hand, their energy gets diverted to worrying, procrastinating, and pursuing harmful activities to take away the pain—from excessive alcohol and drug use, binging and purging behaviors, and verbal and physical aggression toward others. Essentially, instead of living their lives, people with a low tolerance for discomfort, spin their wheels trying to rid themselves of pain and avoiding situations that might arouse frustrating, ambiguous, tense, or uncomfortable. What do you think happens when you attempt to remove yourself from uncomfortable situations? Your mind, body, and spirit start to atrophy.
Based on groundbreaking research that has been previously ignored, we want to offer an important fact about the human condition: the cultural message that "you should feel good and try not to feel bad" is among one of the most toxic processes known to psychology."
If we want to change the world, whether it is reducing child abuse, creating schools and business organizations that value creativity, producing great leaders, or ending geopolitical conflicts, we must understand what human beings are actually like, not what we want them to be or hope they become. When we prematurely discard parts of our personality because they are uncomfortable, they are not socially attractive or rewarded, we become weaker, perform poorer, and experience less profound pleasure and meaning in life. We are suggesting that by embracing and harnessing all of the different emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in our repertoire, we become whole. And when we are whole, we are maximally effective in navigating the challenges of daily life and relishing the rewards that are offered. The springboards to the highest peaks arrive not from struggling with darker emotions, not from merely tolerating discomfort, but from harnessing these states when needed.
What gets in your way when writing? Or what do you fear when writing?
Storytelling is an essential part of our public speaking. For abstract, complex ideas to be sticky, there is no better tool than emotionally provocative stories. It is harder to convey the narrative arc of a story in a non-fiction book than a conversation. We often worried that our readers would not find the science as interesting as we did. But this forced us to churn extra drafts and argue with each other as required to meet the task at hand. Our task was to provide enough information so that the storyline is interesting while also remaining true to what scientists have discovered. When you write with a trusted, reliable, close friend, there is a lot less to worry about because you have a trip wire built-into the writing process. We simply refused to let bad ideas get past both of us. And we added another layer of protection by hiring a second editor, Peter Guzzardi. This is a concrete example of the beauty of anxiety—it forces you to be cognizant of danger and balance aspirational goals with a sense of caution.
RBD: Everything will try to get in the way: work, family, exercise and—most of all—your own worry about being clear, being successful, being liked. You almost have to treat writing like its an addiction; something that supersedes everything else and which catapults you past your own doubts.
What is the most profound thing you’ve learned about yourself through this project?
TK: This is my second trade book. When I invest multiple years into a project such as this, the book starts to guide my decision-making. When I wrote Curious? I constantly thought about whether my decisions of what to order off a restaurant menu or where to go on vacation reflected the pursuit of new knowledge and experiences (curiosity) over comfort. With this book, I became even more comfortable with difficult emotions. I started to embrace embarrassment—as this is a sign that I need to reveal more of my insecurities for intimacy and commitment to deepen in my relationships. I became more appreciative of people that were comfortable enough to express their disappointment or anger with me. In healthy relationships, no thought or feeling should be off the table. I have written about more difficult personal memories in my blog posts through this project. I have shared things about my failings more often with more people through this project. Essentially, by being comfortable with the exposure of my flaws, I have become more human and because of this, I have become more content with my decision-making, my friendships, my parenting style, and myself.
RBD: Working on this book, and Todd’s influence also, has made me very comfortable with negative emotions. I used to really only like being happy but these days I don’t beat myself up if I’m in a bad mood or sad. They don’t feel good, of course, but I don’t fret over my fundamental right to experience them. It has made life a whole lot easier.
If you had one piece of advice, what would it be and for whom?
TK: Each of us is able to work toward our goals and accomplish great things, right now. Do not wait until you reach the elusive states of happiness, confidence, and equanimity. Even if we commit to a daily dose of meditation and yoga, we will always oscillate between feeling good and bad, having thoughts that are liked and disliked. Even if you do not like the message that anger, anxiety, sadness, and guilt are good for you, at least understand how they are valuable in certain social situations. If you don’t want to harness the darker sides of your personality, at least be knowledgeable enough so that you have the protective armor when playing the game of life with other people.
With this book in mind, is there any advice you can give policy makers (please name your issue of choice, and there are so many).
TK: I spent several years as a clinical psychologist working with rape and sexual assault survivors. To reduce sexual assault on college campuses, in the military, in jails and prisons, and everywhere else, we need to have difficult conversations that are going to evoke a great deal of pain and defensiveness. The worst thing we can do is avoid these conversations with our kids, our colleagues, and our fellow humans. When there is no voice for the pain and injustice, there are no meaningful solutions. We need leaders who are more interested in solving the problem than trying to defend their leadership, salary, status, and legacy. When leaders try to hide, escape, and avoid the difficult thoughts and feelings linked to sexual assault, they perpetuate the problem.
What would you like to see happen as a result of this?
We want this book to open up a conversation about the reality of the human condition. To repeat what I said earlier: if we want to change the world, whether it is reducing problems or increasing well-being, we must understand what humans are actually like, not what we want them to be or hope they become. We want people to understand the wide variety of psychological strengths that are being ignored because they feel uncomfortable or on the surface, are socially undesirable. In certain situations, what seems to be intuitively good is unhelpful and what seems to be intuitively bad is helpful. We want to help people become agile, whole, and by doing so, access their full potential for success and fulfillment.