It seems contradictory, but more fully experiencing “negative” emotions can make you happier and empower you to change your life, according to psychology professor and author Todd Kashdan (Nikolay Tzolov/iStock)

We all say we want to be happy. But that isn’t the right goal, argues Todd Kashdan, professor of psychology and a senior scientist at the at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. Kashdan is co-author with Robert Biswas-Diener of  The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why being your whole self – not just your “good” self – drives success and fulfillment. He explains:

Q: Just what IS the upside of our dark side?

Kashdan: One of the most important things that we’ve discovered – the message that we should always feel good and try not to feel bad, ends up being a toxic message that doesn’t work well as a strategy for going through life.

One problem is, there are so many things that affect our thoughts and emotions that we can’t control. Temperature. Hormones. Circadian rhythms. And here’s the big thing – we can’t control what other people do, only how we react to them. So that’s a big problem with having positive emotions as an indicator that our lives are going well, or using positive emotions as a goal –we can’t control it.

And when it comes to negative emotions, the more we try to not think about something or try to conceal unwanted thoughts and feelings, the more they pop up randomly throughout our day.

Q: So how do we live with all these negative emotions?

Kashdan: A couple strategies. We should think of emotions as tools, and take the negative out of negative emotions, and the positive away from positive emotions. So joy is not necessarily better than sadness, it just depends on the situation you’re in. It seems so simple, but it’s so fundamentally important.

The second strategy is, we need to be better at distinguishing exactly what we’re feeling in the present moment, because it’s sort of like our own GPS system. If I’m feeling down, and I’m looking at what I’m feeling, and I decide it’s anger, not sadness, that’s important, because its anger that tells me that something or someone is getting in the way of goals that matter to me. It tells me I need to remove obstacles. I may need to talk to people. But I need to do something and not just sit here.

Anger motivates us to go approach the world and get rid of barriers. Whereas, if I notice I feel sad, that indicates that things aren’t going as well as I’d hoped. That could mean expectations are too high. Or something really tragic happened to me. Or it could just mean that right now I’m uncomfortable in my own skin. So maybe I need to take a break and recharge my batteries, or go out and make a social connection. Or maybe take some time to stop collecting information and consolidate it, and ask, ‘Am I thinking about my life and my day in an effective manner?’

Our emotions help us get a foothold, to get some traction to make a better, stronger effort toward the things we care about. And we have a lot of research in our lab to support that.

Q: What did you find in your research?

Kashdan: We used something called Experience Sampling Method and, instead of giving a questionnaire, we would give Palm Pilots and prompt people randomly six to eight times a day for several weeks and ask what they were doing and how they were feeling.

It turns out, the people who were more adept at describing how they felt in a fine-grained way, when they’re extremely distressed in the moment, are less likely to fall to pieces, and less likely to do something desperately to take away the pain, such as abusing drugs or being aggressive to others. The were more likely to be able to sit with those emotions, then continue doing what they care about.

Q: So is that the big message of your research? Life is messy and feeling bad is just part of it?

Kashdan: There are a couple of messages:

  • First, emotions are just tools. Don’t make emotions the goal. Research suggests if we take the goal of happiness out of the equation, ironically, that makes us happier in the journey of our lives.
  • Second, train yourself to be better able to clarify, describe and understand what you’re feeling, because that will help you better figure out what to do next.
  • And the third concrete take away is: you need to know what you value and what you want your life to look like. If you’re happy, then what? If you’re able to get rid of your anxiety, what would you do with your life? If you’re able to end self-doubt, OK, now what?

So what I’m suggesting, is, skip focusing on trying to change hearts and emotions, and do the hard work of figuring out what want your life to be about. Define the source of meaning: People will say, ‘I want to spend more quality time with my family, when I’m there, I want to be fully attentive.’ Or, ‘I want to be a better listener and take other people’s perspective more regularly.’ Or ‘at work, I want to be more open to ideas that change the way I think.’ Or ‘I want to learn something new every day.’

Every one of these things is going to create some tensions, some deviations from feeling good and being happy. But make the goal meaning, not emotion. That frees you.

Learn more about Todd Kashdan and his research on his website

 

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