The Bright Side of Our Darkest Instincts

UPDATED: September 29, 2015
PUBLISHED: February 14, 2015

“Happiness is pleasant, but it is problematic as an objective in life,” said Todd Kashdan, Ph.D., professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. “We should all stop trying to be so positive.” As someone who writes regularly about the science of happiness and the life-changing power of positivity in a column called, not subtly, “Positivity,” my defenses shot up.

Kashdan’s latest book, co-authored with Robert Biswas-Diener, is The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self–Not Just Your "Good" Self–Drives Success and Fulfillment. And it’s not the first book to lob black paint balls at the shiny yellow face of positivity. Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America , believes that Americans’ “almost mandatory” obsession with positivity directly contributed to the 2008 financial crisis. And Oliver Burkeman’s 2012 book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking is billed as a “celebration of the power of negative thinking.”

But I didn’t need to ready my ramparts; Kashdan is on my side. He and Biswas-Diener are mainstays of the positive psychology movement. (Biswas-Diener is the son of Ed Diener, aka Dr. Happy, the researcher and author considered one of the field’s founding fathers.) They’re not down on positivity; they just don’t think it’s the whole story.

Kashdan offers the amusement-park ride analogy: Most people think of roller coasters as supremely fun, part of a happy day full of cotton candy and ice cream. But the experience is also filled with fear, anxiety and maybe even nausea. Without those negative feelings, the ride wouldn’t be, well, a ride. It’s the mix of positive and negative that makes the roller coaster so enjoyable. And while getting fired from a job, say, or being rejected by a romantic interest isn’t nearly as thrilling, Kashdan and Biswas-Diener believe these experiences—and their accompanying painful emotions of anger, sadness, self-doubt, envy and resentment—to be just as integral to an overall happy life. The ability to tolerate psychological discomfort—known as distress tolerance—is one of the best predictors for success in business, marriage and parenting, they explain. If we learn to mine the murkier aspects of ourselves instead of wallowing in them, we can become “stronger, wiser, mentally agile, and most important, happier in a more resilient, and therefore durable, way.”

Seeing the bright side of even our darkest instincts? Sounds pretty lemonade-out-of-lemons positive to us. A few keys:

Value usefulness, not just happiness. Instead of “categorizing things as positive or negative,” says Kashdan, “rate them instead as either helpful or not helpful.” Debating whether or not to take a new job? Don’t make your decision based on how happy the job might make you feel. It might very well be a demanding, soul-sucking beast of a gig, complete with a windowless office and a two-hour commute. But will the position get you to the next spot in your career? The spot where you’d have enough experience, contacts and capital to start your own business? Then suck it up and be miserable for a year or two, Kashdan advises. Pursuing happiness at all costs can actually interfere with your overall life satisfaction—and we are terrible at predicting what will actually make us happy anyway. “The highest springboards in life are not from being happy,” he says.

Feel guilty. Get jealous and angry, too. Though we are often admonished to not waste time on those negative emotions, there is no reason to berate ourselves as weak, petty or bad for feeling these emotions, Kashdan says. Envy can spur us to action. Anger motivates us to maintain healthy boundaries with those who might cross them. And guilt is a sign that we have “violated our own moral code” and need to change our behavior in the future. Studies show that people who experience more guilt are significantly less likely to engage in criminal activity. All healthy stuff. What’s unhealthy is when we try to conceal, ignore or deny our negative emotions. “These feelings are adaptive,” Kashdan says. “They’ve evolved to help us.” Instead of working on how you can suppress your anger, for example, learn appropriate ways to express it.

Take a break from mindfulness. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener believe mindful awareness is a beneficial practice that we all should cultivate. But “it’s ridiculous to think we could be mindful all the time,” Kashdan says with a laugh. In other words, in the classic example of mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh, sometimes you wash your teacup as if it were baby Buddha, aware of your every movement. And sometimes you toss your teacup in the dishwasher without giving it a second thought.

It’s OK, really, not to emulate a Zen master at all times, Kashdan says. “When I’m walking through Grand Central Station, I don’t want to be mindful. I don’t want to make meaningful eye contact with everyone I pass. Sometimes I want to be [a jerk] and just get to my train.”

Be a little anxious. Too much anxiety is debilitating, but a “just right” amount is motivating. This uncomfortable feeling is a key element in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, in which the optimal emotional state for productivity lies between anxiety and relaxation, with a high challenge level that’s doable within a person’s skill set. Anxiety sharpens awareness and problem-solving skills. The preponderance of current research on stress, too, shows that its benefits (skill mastery, mental toughness) far outweigh its much-ballyhooed detriments. The lesson? Appreciate your moderate anxiety instead of attempting to bubble-bathe it away.

Basically, honor and utilize all the parts of your self, including not-so-sunny ones. The goal is to pursue wholeness, Kashdan says, and catch joy along the way.

Want to catch a lot of joy along the way? Check out 7 surprisingly easy practices that can mold you into a more cheerful, appreciative person.