In this age of the daily diet of Facebook “happy life” photos featuring smiling friends and beaming family members, and all the accompanying “like” icons, is it no wonder that we may be subconsciously striving for the elusive, perfect, happy life. A new book entitled “Upside of Your Dark Side” by Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener may just change the way you perceive that quest for happiness.
The authors had entered the field of positive psychology a decade ago, attracted by the emphasis on the positive aspects of human nature and hopeful that they’d found their niche. There is actually a field named positive psychology, a 15-year-old branch in psychology that promotes the understanding and building of the positive qualities in an individual, such as optimism, social responsibility, work ethic and courage. It sounds good on paper, utilizing such utopian terms as “sustainable happiness,” and is concerned with three issues: positive emotions, positive individual traits and positive institutions.
Soon, however, Kashdan and Biswas-Diener began to question why, if there is so much emphasis on acquiring happiness in today’s society, depression and anxiety rates were skyrocketing. They cite survey results which show only 17 percent of adults are psychologically flourishing.
In the book, the authors visit the theory of “wholeness” as the state of being most psychologically stable and healthy. By “wholeness,” they are referring to an emotional state whereby an individual does not shut out negative emotions such as anger, grief, guilt or boredom, but instead allow those unpleasant emotions to be experienced. The focus, according to Kashdan and Biswas-Diener, of healthy living should be wholeness, not happiness. They estimate that, on average, a healthy emotional state would include 80 percent positive and 20 percent negative.
Most people tend to sweep any uncomfortable emotions under the proverbial rug. This is a reflex we develop as sort of a defense mechanism in our efforts to sidestep the more painful aspects of life. However, the authors theorize that people with an ability to tolerate psychological discomfort will “become stronger, wiser, mentally agile, and, most important, happier in a more resilient and, therefore, durable way.”
Taking that old adage ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ one step further, Kashdan and Biswas-Diener take the position that not only will allowing oneself to acknowledge painful emotions make you stronger, but that it will make you a better employee, spouse and friend as the dark stuff is utilized to motivate and push you out of your comfort zone. For example, a setback at work may evoke emotions such as humiliation, anger or frustration. Instead of pushing those negative emotions into a box in order to avoid acknowledging the resulting sense of embarrassment or shame, a person could use the experience as motivation to excel at the next task.
Humans are adept at avoiding situations they anticipate will cause them distress or a negative outcome. Most of us, the authors state, wrongly predict what things will make us happy and often overlook our capacity to tolerate or adapt to discomfort. They also point out that people are not very good at making choices that will lead to happiness.
By focusing only on the unattainable state of Facebook utopian happiness, people miss opportunities to grow and flourish emotionally. Real growth can be coaxed and shaped by skilled therapists and counselors, especially cognitive behavioral therapists. These professionals can lead their patients through the quagmire of difficult and challenging experiences and help them use the ‘dark side’ to build stronger coping skills and more constructive responses to adversity in the future.