I recently interviewed the German psychologist Gabriele Oettingen about her WOOP motivation method, which switches the focus from dreams to the obstacles that block those dreams.
It’s an interesting take on positive psychology, and refreshing, too. The well-worn theme that happiness will get you everywhere is beginning to ring a bit dull, probably because I’ve heard it once too often. So, when a book crossed my desk called “The Upside of Your Dark Side,” I wondered if a backlash against happiness theory was underway.
Like Oettingen, authors Todd Kashdan (pictured right) and Robert Biswas-Diener are academics in the field of positive psychology. And, like her, they’ve carved their own path that meets difficult emotions head on, leading ultimately, they believe, to improved performance. In the words of the book’s subtitle, “being your whole self, not just your ‘good’ self, drives success and fulfillment.”
When I talked to Kashdan for our Expert Interview podcast, he explained to me what drew them to the dark side.
“We were unsatisfied with the field of research that says: if we focus on people having more sunny days, then they’re going to be more productive, more creative, more loving with their children, less prone to conflict if they get provoked by some obnoxious person that cuts them off on the road,” he said.
“What we thought is, it’s just like farming. If every single day is sunny, you’re going to have a desert. You’re not going to have any crops to [harvest]. The only way to really understand how to be fully functional as a human being, with the complexities of everyday life – where you don’t know how people are going to treat you, you don’t know how you’re going to wake up in terms of your hormone levels, you don’t know what the weather is going to be like, you don’t know if someone is going to try and have a verbal argument with you in front of 50 of your co-workers – in that world, you can’t just study positive emotions and virtues. You need to understand other parts of your personality that are a little bit less comfortable.”
Beyond providing a sense of balance, this understanding of negative emotions can help you perform at your best, he believes. The key is to use the right emotion “in the right dosage to best handle a situation.”
Let’s take anger. “It’s a negative emotion because it’s uncomfortable, but a healthy emotion because it gets you towards the outcomes that are desirable to you,” Kashdan explains.
He gives the following example. You’re in a meeting about cuts to the workforce and suddenly the chair turns to you and says your team will be the one to take the hit because they’re not performing as well as other teams. You may have to lose three people.
“Now you’re probably going to get a little bit aroused, upset and angry,” Kashdan notes. But that’s actually a good thing, especially if this is the first time you’ve become riled during the meeting.
Hypothetically speaking, “because I’ve been nice and friendly up til now, I actually have a nice license to say, ‘You know what? There’s something wrong with that. I have not seen those numbers. My team hasn’t seen those numbers and this is unfair of you to be bringing that up without them having a fair chance to respond to them.’
“Everyone will take a step back for a second and say, ‘Whoa, where is that coming from?’ Because this has been very friendly up til now, people are more likely to be responsive and say, ‘You know what? Todd has got a point, because it’s not like he walked into the room with a chip on his shoulder’.”
Revealing anger in a controlled way can add weight to your arguments, but only when it’s justified. The same is true of anxiety. Here’s a clip from our interview in which Kashdan talks about “defensive pessimism” – harnessing anxiety to good effect.
Kashdan says we should see negative emotions as “tools,” and it’s a good analogy. You have to know how to use them to your advantage, just like a hammer or a chisel. When wielded with a light and expert hand, they can produce just the result you want. But use them well: if you unleash them without due care, they can also smash your hopes, limit your chances, and restrict your performance.
“The Upside of Your Dark Side” takes a more realistic stance than many other personal improvement guides. So, instead of trying to suppress your negative feelings, grab a copy of Kashdan and Biswas-Diener’s book and find out how to put it to good use.
Have you ever used your “dark side” to your advantage? I’d love to hear about your experiences. Share them in the comments, below.