"One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious."
“Attitude is everything!” I always said. And what I thought that meant was that I should create a positive attitude at all cost. Turns out, that might not be the best plan! In The Upside to Your Dark Side, Kashdan and Biswas-Diener push our thinking beyond positive emotions. They go so far as to suggest that our modern quest for happiness through positivity, mindfulness and optimism is doomed!
While positive emotions can take us far, emotions that make us uncomfortable can take us even farther! They aren’t advocating that we live our lives in misery. Neither are they advocating for us to avoid large parts of who we are and how we feel. They encourage us, rather, to embrace our full range of emotions – not just the good ones – to be our most effective selves.
The authors have been studying the science of happiness, love, creativity and relationships for many years. They were dissatisfied with what was in the literature about how to integrate this science into the workplace. So, they wrote this book to rectify that dearth. In it, they share what they’ve learned we need to do to flourish and function optimally in a world where we often feel overwhelmed. Their goal is to bring you to your next level.
The Big Idea
Maybe perfect balance is NOT the goal
"You can’t always be happy, but you can almost always be profoundly aware and curious."
Phew! The pressure is lifted. Are you on a constant quest to keep love, work and play in perfect balance? And it always seems just slightly out of reach? The authors teach us that perfect balance is not what it means to be whole.
Being whole, they say, is rather about being open to and accommodating all aspects of your personality; the light and dark passengers, the strengths and weaknesses, the successes and failures.
They assure us that acknowledging and welcoming the seemingly contradictory aspects of your self will increase your power and influence as well as the vitality, agility and perseverance you can bring to work and life.
What they discovered is that by understanding and distinguishing negative emotions, we can transform them and detoxify them. Knowing whether someone is experiencing a great deal of negativity does not tell us whether they are going to be successful. That depends, rather, on whether they are effective at differentiating what they are feeling.
This is a huge step beyond simple “positivity = good and negativity = bad” thinking. Your attitude toward the emotions being experienced and your ability to identify what you are feeling are key to your success.
Instead of sweeping these feelings under the rug, I am going to be more conscious of them and how they are serving me.
Wholeness is better than happiness
"…the counterintuitive truth: happiness sometimes backfires, and bad states are sometimes good."
The authors present a new way to pursue happiness or what is desirable in life: wholeness. They believe that every emotion is useful. Think about the unwanted, even negative events in your life – when hearts were broken, interviews were botched, shots were missed. These undoubtedly became seeds of growth. They likely shaped some of the most memorable and inspiring experiences in your life. When we learn to embrace these negative emotions, we position ourselves for success.
The authors assure us that they are not opposed to happiness, positivity, kindness and mindfulness. In fact, they embrace them. And they believe there is more. When you accept the challenge of drawing on the dark side when it’s most helpful, you bring wholeness within reach. The authors “reject the notion that positivity is the only place to search for answers.”
I found this especially comforting. I’ve loved and embraced the lessons from the new positive psychology movement. And at times was frustrated that I couldn’t push out the less than positive emotions. I see now that it may be a good thing I didn’t. Those emotions help me to be whole. It reminds me of exercise. By exercising one muscle group, it will help another. They are interconnected.
"We now have scientific evidence suggesting that this single-minded pursuit of happiness is akin to trying to grab a bar of soap in the bathtub."
What quality do you think distinguishes those best equipped to resolve marital conflict? Not sure? This quality is also the leading predictor of success in elite military training programs. Still not sure? And this same quality distinguishes those best equipped to achieve favorable deal terms in business negotiations; and to bestow the gift of good parenting on their children! Whatever it is… I bet you want it!
It is the ability to tolerate psychological discomfort.
Psychologists refer to it as distress tolerance. Think of it as the emotional equivalent to camping (no shampoo, flush toilets or walls to keep out the bugs). People with distress tolerance don’t shy away from feelings that make them feel bad, like boredom, anger or guilt. Instead they withstand the discomfort and even draw on what they can learn from those feelings.
The authors reject the belief that being healthy is marked by a life with as little pain as possible. Embracing the discomfort allows you to become stronger, wiser, more mentally agile and happier in a more resilient and durable way.
We are now much less accustomed to hardships than our ancestors were. The 1990’s were when the comfort addiction began in earnest, the authors suggest. Researchers observed a related drop in our psychological health. Anxiety was on the rise (and continues to this day).
Think of road rage. We no longer have the capacity to tolerate the small frustrations of rush hour traffic. Today we enjoy unprecedented comfort yet depression is higher than ever. Too much comfort is undermining our hardiness and that of our children. Sadly, in our obsessive effort to create safe, hygienic and psychologically supportive environments for our children, we may be making their lives more difficult by not strengthening their hardiness muscle.
I always thought that my husband’s childhood experiences camping with hundreds of mosquitoes, hauling canoes for mile-long portages and enduring time alone on an island for “survival” training made him a better, more patient man. According to these authors, I should profusely thank his parents for that investment in building John’s distress tolerance!
We all have an overwhelming desire to improve the quality of our life. Instead of focusing on avoidance of pain and doubling down on pleasure as solutions, we should embrace the myriad of emotions and experiences life offers and learn from each of them.
On our journey to personal growth, we need not repress, ignore or hide our darker emotions. By embracing all aspects of our self, including the darker emotions, we will gain greater access to well-being and becoming whole.