by Mina Simhai
How refreshing! It turns out, that, according to psychology researchers Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener, my anger is not something to be ashamed of, but rather an inevitable part of life—one that, if leveraged wisely, can make me more optimistic, more creative, and a better negotiator.
In their thoughtful book The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self—Not Just Your “Good” Self—Drives Success and Fulfillment, Kashdan and Biswas-Diener present provocative research that shows the benefits of emotions, personality traits, and states of mind that typically have negative connotations. Being our whole selves, not just our “good” or “socially acceptable” selves, can actually improve our well-being and success. They posit that wholeness, not happiness, should be our goal, and back up their findings with engaging descriptions of dozens of scientific studies.
Much of what they say makes good sense. Anger, anxiety, and sadness do serve useful purposes; they should not be denied or brushed under the rug. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener point out the difference between those events we can change and those beyond our control; anger can be beneficial in impacting the former, they say, but not so much the latter. In the words of Aristotle, “Anybody can become angry—that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” Yet that is just the kind of anger that can lead us to take bigger risks, become more altruistic, and negotiate better deals.
As a meditator and yoga teacher, I particularly enjoyed the chapter touting the benefits of mindlessness—what I would consider the subconscious or unconscious mind. The authors claim that “our behavior can be dramatically changed without any awareness on our part,” and back up their claim with science. For example, they describe a study in which white adults who were primed “mindlessly” with subtle, positive images of black people sat six times closer to a black stranger than those who were not primed. Another study showed that employees in a call center who were primed with images of accomplishments had a 58 percent increase in the number of callers pledging money. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener are quick to point out that mindfulness is not bad, but they propose that unconscious thinking can actually lead to better results and decisions. Armed with this knowledge, what kinds of pictures do you want to hang in your office and home?
Focusing only on positive emotions and mental states limits our potential, because we’re denying part of who we are. Rather than striving for calm, we should strive for authenticity. Buddhism teaches us to observe our thoughts without judgment and meet strong emotions with gentle curiosity. Biswas-Diener and Kashdan take it a step further and encourage us to not only observe our mental states, but also consider whether they are useful or not. According to Alison Wood Brooks of Harvard Business School, anxiety can be useful if we reframe it as excitement, rather than trying to make the anxiety go away by inducing a calm state; for example, reframing anxiety about public speaking in this way, she states, yields “more persuasive, more competent, and more confident” speakers.
So step into your discomfort. Let yourself be who you are. Find more purpose and meaning in your life. And bring your whole self to our lively discussion of The Upside of Your Dark Side on Monday, July 6, at 7:30 pm EST or join our online discussion here.
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Mina Simhai earned her Certificate in Positive Psychology from the Wholebeing Institute, and currently serves as a teaching assistant for CiPP4. She is a recovering lawyer turned yoga teacher and mother. Her latest project is bringing the tools of positive psychology to lawyers and others in the DC area and across the country. Her top strengths are judgment, love of learning, curiosity, love, and appreciation of beauty. Mina is an avid reader and looks forward to launching the WBI Book Club with you.
Mina, you are a step ahead of Pixar. I couldn’t help but think of your post as my son begged me to take him to “Inside-Out.” With your counsel, I will do it this week. And here’s to priming mindfully!
Mina- I thought a lawyers thinking would be able to see through the hype of the “Upside of your downside”. Follow the trail of the research and you will be decidedly underwhelmed.
Re mindfulness and mediation – Kashdan is looking at it from a wetsern perspective (carol dweck’s version). Its useful to disconnect mediatio and mindfulness. Meditation helps you let go of emotions which really makes Kashdan’s book redundant
Thank you for reading my bio. We talked about this on the book discussion call last week – that the book seems to be a response to public misperceptions of positive psychology. So the authors are presenting the other side too. They are trying to sell books, so of course there is some hype with titles like “How Positive Emotions Can Lead to Your Downfall”. Research from Barbara Fredrickson certainly disputes this title, and the authors do mention the research on the other side. They choose to show the other point of view too. Despite, the hype, they raise ideas that are worth considering. Ideas that can spark constructive conversations. Of course one could critique their title choices and the research they chose to elevate, or one could choose to be open to considering the ideas and studies presented in the book.
If you are looking for a more complete discussion of the benefits of meditation I would recommend the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener’s chapter “Beyond the Obsession with Mindfulness” looks at mindfulness as paying attention and focusing on the details, especially in the context of decision making. As you point out, meditation is a different subject.