Happiness, comfort, and mindful attentiveness to one’s surroundings seem like states we should all desire. Yet, Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener warn that these psychological states alone are unlikely to lead to professional achievement and personal satisfaction. Rather, we should seek emotional agility and wholeness. In their 2014 book The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self—Not Just Your “Good” Self—Drives Success and Fulfillment, Kashdan and Biswas-Diener argue that our current cultural obsession with comfort and positivity and our quest for happiness has made us less resilient, more anxious, and less happy. Negative emotions (e.g., anger and guilt) and seemingly undesirable traits like Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy are underappreciated and underutilized. When we accept and integrate all parts of our personality, including the seemingly dark ones, and seek to be whole, we will be closest to living a healthy, joyful, and meaningful life. Biswas-Diener, a lauded positive psychology expert, and Kashdan, a psychology professor and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University have written this refreshing ode to our dark side to appeal to anyone who just cannot read yet another “how to get happy” book and yet seek more personal growth and fulfillment.
Universally, people have a strong desire to experience happiness. Indeed being happy is associated with better health and well-being. However, pursuing happiness directly won’t lead to it; rather an understanding of the advantages of varied emotional experiences and emotional, social, and mental agility might. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener argue that since the 1990s Americans have developed an insatiable addiction to creature comforts. We have come to believe that comfort can be found in the external world and in material goods. This addiction has weakened our ability to use our psychological tools to ease discomfort, made us impatient, and led to the rise of helicopter parenting. Examining the way in which other cultures tolerate unpleasant feelings suggests that we too can learn greater emotional resilience when we break our addiction to comfortableness and move away from seeing happiness as a moral imperative.
Nearly every “negative” emotion can actually be quite useful in guiding our actions in positive ways. For example, anger, especially when carefully regulated, is actually associated with optimism, risk taking, skillful negotiation, and creativity. Guilt can make us behave more ethically and with the interest of the collective in mind, even when no one is watching. Anxiety helps us focus especially during dangerous times. Conversely, positive emotions can hurt us. Happy people are less attuned to details, worse at detecting lies, and more reliant on stereotypes in stressful situations. Unfortunately, our culture can at times be oppressively and disingenuously happy.
Recently, mindfulness, or gently observing one’s surrounding, has received much praise for its role in promoting happiness and meaning. Yet, Kashdan and Biswas-Diener argue that mindlessness is equally valuable and a huge part of our mental life. For example, when we tune-out and operate on “auto-pilot,” we are better at rapidly discerning how much to trust someone. When we mind-wander, we consolidate information and are more likely to remember it. Mind-wandering also facilitates combining ideas in novel ways such that we are more likely to become inspired. When we speak impulsively, without concern for saying the right thing, we actually convey our message in a more sincere, understandable, and helpful manner. Ultimately, mindful and mindless experiences each have their place and ought to be used in tandem.
Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy compose what psychologists typically call the “dark triad.” Kashdan and Biswas-Diener rename this collection of seemingly wicked attributes the “Teddy Effect.” Teddy Roosevelt is illustrative of the way in which these “negative” personality qualities can be harnessed to great effect. We all manipulate others. Roosevelt, who was quite Machiavellian, was a master manipulator, which contributed to his success as a leader. He had a grandiose sense of himself and felt entitled, but this helped him navigate uncertain situations with confidence and think creatively about how to overcome challenges. While psychopathy is associated with callousness and lack of empathy in the common perception, psychopaths in anxiety-inducing situations are actually more likely than others to act altruistically when there is a potential to be glorified for doing so.
We should seek balance between experiences that are pleasurable in the short-term and meaningful in the long-run. We need experiences that are novel and exciting balanced with experiences that are comfortable and familiar. We should seek to understand, identify, and harness all our emotional experiences. When we are whole—good and bad—we will be best.
Kashdan, T., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2014). The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self–Not Just Your “Good” Self–Drives Success and Fulfillment. New York: Penguin.