Book review: Kashdan, Todd Biswas-Diener, Robert. Just out! The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self–Not Just Your “Good” Self–Drives Success and Fulfillment.
Several weeks ago, maybe longer, I started to hear through the rumor mill that Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener were releasing a new book together.
Ok, the rumor mill was Todd’s Facebook page, so I was pretty sure that it was really happening, but I might be the sort of person who leafs through Us Weekly at the grocery store check-out line, so I’m used to rumors and I don’t believe everything I read on the interwebz.
Then I heard a rumor that I was going to be reviewing it for PPND and I got excited, and then disappointed because the book didn’t show up when I expected it.
Then excited when the book did come.
Then I enjoyed reading it, and then it was done too soon because the last pages weren’t actually the book content but the endnotes, so I felt a little cheated because I really wanted more content.
Then I felt anxious because I actually had to write this book review instead of just savoring the book’s content and re-reading it at my leisure…
Emotional Life of a Human Being
So goes the emotional life of a human being on the face of this planet. Sometimes it’s up, sometimes it’s down, sometimes it’s unpredictable, and sometimes it’s not even worth mentioning. That’s what makes us human. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener argue that we should put aside notions that happiness is our end goal because these notions could actually hurt us in the long run.
The field of positive psychology has been around for over 15 years, starting with Dr. Martin Seligman’s APA Presidential address. In his speech, he called for a reoriented science that emphasizes understanding and building the most positive qualities of an individual: optimism, courage, work ethic, future-mindedness, interpersonal skill, the capacity for pleasure and insight, social responsibility, and so on.
Positive psychology should not only have as a useful side effect the prevention of serious mental illness. It should also support the pursuit of the best things in life, including family cohesion, civic virtue, and work engagement. The original vision of positive psychology was not to focus entirely on happiness, and yet that is how many have interpreted Seligman’s call for a recalibration of psychology.
Of course, a backlash has ensued with such titles as Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America and Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.
Of course, there are several blogs and articles also highlighting the problem with various positive psychology topics, such as the Dark Side of Optimism, the Dark Side of Happiness, and the Dark Side of Resilience. Basically, pick your most favorite (or least favorite) positive psychology topic, put “the dark side of” in front of it and pop it into google. Someone has lambasted it. Even some positive psychology researchers investigate both the positive and negative side concurrently of their chosen topic, as Dr. Robert Vallerand does with obsessive and harmonious passion.
Kashdan and Biswas-Diener’s new book calls for balance and draws on the research to substantiate its case. The authors encourage us to embrace the fullness of our human psychological experiences without doing a full take-down of either positive psychology or “psychology as usual.” Whereas positive psychology has traditionally (can we use this word in a field that’s not even two decades old?) been seen as a science for those who are psychologically healthy, Kashdan and Biswas-Diener remind us that there are many other wonderful researchers and studies where the population is also statistically normal. In this sense, they offer a solid middle ground. It’s just about psychology. Not abnormal, not positive, just human.
There are reasons why we feel anger, sadness, shame, guilt, anxiety, disappointment, remorse. By and large, these are adaptive emotions, and if we embark on the relentless pursuit of happiness all the time, then we are denying ourselves the benefit of full human interaction with the rest of the world, we cut ourselves off from learning and socialization, and we risk our well-being in the process.
This is not about cherry-picking the evidence either. It’s about looking at equally valid studies that have been done on the benefits of the full emotional experience.
Why is this such a great book?
The Upside of Your Dark Side neatly fills the empirical space between “positive psychology is the best thing going” and “positive psychology is bunk.” It also fills the space around “psychology as usual is for the broken and distraught.” This book brings humanity back to psychology in all its forms. The human experience is real and worth living fully and intimately.
If happiness is not our end goal, then what is?
In 2010, Kashdan co-authored a paper on psychological flexibility which, quite honestly, I felt was one of the best papers I had read. It felt fresh, insightful, honest, and respectful.
It was a call to be human and accepting of our humanity.
The Upside of YOur Dark Side feels like a mass media expansion of this basic hypothesis, that “life worth living” isn’t about gaining happiness any more than it is about avoiding misery. The true good life is a life of your whole self. That’s how we grow and that’s how we develop, not just in bits and pieces, but in wholeness.
Kashdan, T. B. Biswas-Diener, R. (2014). The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self–Not Just Your “”Good”” Self–Drives Success and Fulfillment. Hudson Street Press.
Kashdan, T. B. Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(7): 865-78
Britton, K. H. (2011). What about passion? Positive Psychology News.
Ehrenreich, B. (2009). Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America. New York: Metropolitan Books.
Jewell, L. (2010). Bright-sided (Book Review). Positive Psychology News.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1998). President’s address to the American Psychological Association.
Photo Credits: Pictures of Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener are used with permission.