The Upside of Your Darkside

The following blog post is from Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener, a leading scholar of Positive Psychology.  His firm, Positive Acorn, offers training for coaches and corporations.

I think this new thesis and forthcoming book will be a great addition to the growing body of work within Positive Psychology.

I agree with the perspective that the impact of too much focus on optimism potentially being a bit oppressive to some.  Me, I cannot get enough optimism, and never felt the need to seek discomfort.  Discomfort never seemed to have any problem finding me without my help.  I look forward to this new book.

The Upside of your Darkside by Robert Biswas-Diener

Over the last decade and a half the science of positive psychology has yielded some delicious fruit. Research has resulted in reliable ways to increase happiness, a better knowledge of the links between health and happiness, and greater attention to resilience to name just a few major findings. The unintended downside of this new science is that the focus on positivity can, at times, seem oppressive. There is a tendency to treat happiness, optimism and other positive states as if they are the only useful states.

For the past three years my colleague, Todd Kashdan, and I have been hard at work on a counter-argument. We believe that guilt and anger can be as useful as joy, that mindlessness can be as beneficial as mindfulness, and that small social nudges can be as effective as outright authenticity. What’s more, hundreds of studies from every corner of psychology seem to support the idea that there is an “Upside of your darkside.” (also the name of our forthcoming book: ).

At the heart of our thesis is the idea that people are increasingly avoiding unpleasant and seemingly uncomfortable states and– in doing so– limit their full potential. Some religious traditions, such as Catholicism, have long tried to leverage a bit of discomfort (as in the case of fasting during Lent) to help build character. This seems to be a sentiment that is receding in popularity in modern times. Yes, you certainly ought to seek out success, pleasure, meaning and joy. But you should not try to avoid all discomfort. Instead, you should seek to be flexible; shifting between positive and negative states as is appropriate.

A terrific example of the potential harms of avoiding your darkside can be found in our legacy to our children. Most parents actively seek intellectual challenge for their children at school. Parents seem to have an intuitive sense that challenge, struggle, confusion and perseverance will pay off with better learning. At the same time, however, these parents seek a lack of challenge for their kids in social and emotional realms. They want their children to be accepted, happy, and have high self-esteem. It is as if there is a special form of blindness (and I struggle with this myself) in which we cannot see the clear benefits of having to struggle socially in order to learn skills related to navigating complex social relationships. Why would intellectual discomfort be acceptable but emotional discomfort be seen as so poisonous?

The solution may be found in getting comfortable with discomfort. Welcoming a little hardship and accepting and tolerating it may help people to reach their full potential. Schools, modern parents, and society in general poorly equip us for dealing with hardship. Increasingly we are taught to reframe negatives as positives. Todd and I argue for something more radical: we think you should simply accept a few negatives. It may be that happiness is not the ultimate human condition. It may be that wholeness is. And wholeness includes the ability to use the full range of human psychological experience.

You can view my recent TEDx talk on the related concept of “comfort addiction.” It is drawn directly from Chapter 2 of The Upside of Your Darkside:

Feel the spirit of the season
About the author

Andrea Goeglein is part organizational psychologist, part entrepreneur, and all about success—your success. She understands both the pressures you face and the dreams that inspire you. Andrea merges her experience as a business owner with her training in Positive Psychology to provide effective, efficient and challenging personal development products and services. She combines an emphasis on objective assessment with an approach that is always powered by your spirit and guided by your goals. Her professional development offerings are based in theory and backed by direct business knowledge.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.