In January 2010, we phoned each other after watching a PBS documentary called This Emotional Life. There was one scene where a middle-aged husband was recently fired from his job and on top of this, could barely sleep and rarely connected with his wife because of their difficulties parenting a newborn child. What does psychology have to offer to help a person dealing with so many stressors at one time? In this PBS special, a positive psychology coach taught him to keep a journal so that he could record three bits of daily appreciation. Telling someone who is experiencing hardship to be grateful may or may not be the wisest approach. There is certainly research evidence suggesting that daily gratitude can boost happiness but reframing misfortune as opportunity can also come across as invalidating and Pollyanna-ish. Isn’t there more research that could potentially have informed this particular case? We thought about all of the great scientific research that people ignore because they were not written by academic celebrities who give TED talks, write popular books, and go on public speaking tours. And from this, our book was born…..
We know why some people don’t buy our new book - “The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self – Not Just Your “Good Self” – Drives Success and Fulfillment”
We expose some of the flaws in modern thinking about how to live a fulfilling life and how to become a great leader. We hate to burst the bubble on the happiness industry but human beings cannot will them to happiness. There is no switch to shut off sadness and turn on happiness. There is no dial to turn for feeling less anxious. But even if there was…your desire to turn the dial or flick the switch would cause unintended, new problems.
Consider those moments when you dare greatly:
- The feeling you get when you see someone being bullied and you commit to say something and put a stop to it.
- The feeling you get before sending that blog post, doubting where there is any worth to those written words and why the world needs one more voice to add to the chatter.
- The feeling you get when you stand in line for the high diving board before you are alone staring at the water below.
- The feeling a public speaker gets between the time they are introduced and the time they go on.
- The feeling of hugging a disappointed child.
These are not happy moments. And yet, they are some of the most meaningful moments. What you do in response to these feelings and thoughts will determine what you accomplish in your life, how much fulfillment you acquire. No single moment matters. The pattern does. Do you pursue what matters most to you despite the presence of pain? Or will you wait until the anxiety, anger, self-doubt, and sadness disappear?
Negative emotions are not a sign of weakness. Reducing negative emotions or increasing positive emotions should never be the goal of living. Because emotions are signals from the mind and body for what just happened. They offer information about what to do next. Woe to the human being that ignores the intuition offered up to us from tens of thousands of years of evolutionary carving. We ask you to put a moratorium on asking, “how does this make me feel” in hopes of gaining positivity. Instead, consider asking, “what does this do for me?”
You are vulnerable because you are strong. You are about to enter the arena. You are about to risk failure. You are about to push boundaries. To do anything less is to give up on your personal growth and what makes us feel fully alive.
We love and hate uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. Robert and I grew tired of advice to smile more, laugh more, relax more, even when there are reasons to feel somber or frustrated. We grew tired of advice to use strengths more and feel grateful more often, even when there are real obstacles that cannot be ignored such as how to find a new job, how to start tough conversations with a disrespectful romantic partner, and how to raise a baby – because the truth is, nobody knows what they are doing as a first-time parent.
With 15 years of experience as psychologists, Robert and I synthesized decades of work, hundreds of studies, leading to a compelling story about how to become emotionally agile – where we use emotions as tools to work toward goals that are most meaningful to us; socially agile – where we are kind but selective about how we act depending on the situation being confronted; mentally agile – where we recognize that mindfulness and mindlessness are both beneficial and by learning this, we can be better decision-makers, better relationship partners, and more efficient and effective in work, love, and play. We turned scientific knowledge into a series of stories. If you want to follow the breadcrumbs about the science behind the advice, you can turn to the 50 pages of endnotes in the back.
If you want to know how to be happy, engaged, with a sense of meaning and purpose, you cannot prematurely rule out the advantages of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors that are uncomfortable and socially undesirable. We all have biases about what we want to feel and how we should behave. We learn this from our parents and friends. We learn this from the culture we identify with. We want to gain approval from other people, so we try to put on a happy face and talk about our kind, selfless motivations. This makes sense. Your relationships and the work you create to improve the world will both be unsatisfactory without the support, knowledge, and wisdom of other people.
But here we offer the simple message that you don’t need to choose between feeling good or bad, being kind or selfish, being mindful or mindless. Your evolutionary birth right is to be psychologically flexible. You were born with a complex personality with various emotional shades for a reason. To get the best possible outcome in a situation, you will have to deviate from positivity (some of the time). To develop the healthiest relationships, you will have to deviate from positivity (some of the time). To create great work that matters, you will have to deviate from positivity (some of the time).
By doing so, you will become bigger, stronger, agile. And as a person that harnesses the different sides of your personality, you will end up becoming whole with a happier, fulfilling life.
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University, and Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is a researcher and trainer, and both authored the new book, “The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self – Not Just Your “Good Self” – Drives Success and Fulfillment”.