Book review: The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self–Not Just Your “Good” Self–Drives Success and Fulfillment

The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self–Not Just Your “Good” Self–Drives Success and Fulfillment. By Todd Kashdan & Robert Biswas-Diener. Avery, 2014.

This book was written by a pair of psychologists who thought that the excessive focus on good and positive feelings in positive psychology was a little overblown, and that the value of so-called “negative” feelings or aspects of personality was being neglected. They do think that it’s good for us to be happy most of the time, but that it will be even better for us if we have a flexibility that allows us to switch to non-happy states of mind when it’s beneficial. They suggest an 80:20 ratio as a rough rule of thumb: be happy 80% of the time and non-happy 20% of the time. They call this philosophy “wholeness”: a person is whole if they are able to flexibly tap into all aspects of their being when it’s warranted.

The authors offer a number of examples about the value of so-called negative states. Too much comfort makes us oversensitive to inevitable discomfort. Anger motivates us to act, fix injustices, and defend ourselves and our loved ones; guilt tells us when we’ve screwed up and motivates us to improve our behavior; anxiety helps us catch mistakes and take safeguards against risks. Happy people are less persuasive, can be too trusting, and are lazier thinkers. Intentionally trying to become happy easily backfires and makes us less happy; and there are situations where happiness feels inappropriate and will make others respond worse to you. Sometimes it’s better to act on instinct or engage in mind-wandering than to always be mindful and think things through consciously. The “dark triad” traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy are all useful in moderation and provide benefits such as fearlessness and self-assuredness.

The following paragraph from the final chapter is a pretty good summary of the book’s message:

The basic idea is that psychological states are instrumental. That is, they are useful for a specific purpose, such as finding your car keys, being physically safe in a parking garage, negotiating a business deal, or arguing with your child’s teacher. Rather than viewing your thoughts and feelings as reactions to external events, we argue that you ought to view these states as tools to be used as circumstances warrant. Simply put, quit labeling your inner states as good or bad or positive or negative, and start thinking of them as useful or not useful for any given situation.

While I liked the book’s message and agreed with many of its points, I felt like it was mostly trying to tell a story that sounds plausible to a layman, rather than making a particularly rigorous argument. The authors tend to base their claims on isolated studies with no mention of their replication status; some of their example studies draw on paradigms and methods that have been seriously challenged (social priming and implicit association tests); occasionally they made claims that I thought contradicted things I knew from elsewhere; and some of the cited empirical results seem to have alternative interpretations that are more natural than the ones offered in the book. It’s plausible that they are drawing on much more rigorous academic work and that the argument has been dumbed down for a popular audience: even granting them the benefit of doubt, the book still feels way too much like a collection of examples that have been cherry-picked to make the wanted points.

Regardless, the book’s general message feels almost certainly correct – after all, why would we have evolved negative states if they weren’t sometimes useful? – so if anyone feels like they’ve been overwhelmed with too many messages of positivity, I would recommend this book for inspiration and an alternative viewpoint, if not for any of its specific details.

Meditation and mental space

One effect that I often notice after my meditation practice has been interrupted and I then manage to resume it again, is an increase in a kind of mental resilience.

That is, when I have a lower resilience, feeling bad for any reason feels much more like an emergency. It’s something that forces itself into my consciousness, takes over, and refuses to go away. I would like to ignore it, but I can’t; as long as it’s there, it’s hard to think of anything else.

When my resilience is higher, it’s like my mind has more room for thoughts and emotions. Something might be making me feel bad, but something else might also be making me feel good, and there’s space for those two to intermingle. It becomes much easier to accept that I’m feeling a little bad, but I don’t need to do anything about it. I can just go on and do something else, and the nasty feeling might go away on its own – or if it doesn’t, that’s fine too.

Interestingly, being on antidepressants can also give me a similar effect.

Of course, in itself this kind of an effect isn’t too surprising, given that it’s one of the explicit goals of the practice. Culadasa’s The Mind Illuminated notes that two of the goals of mindfulness practice are an increase in the amount of “conscious power” (roughly, the amount of things that can be consciously processed at a time), as well as learning to more intentionally shift the focus of attention, so that it won’t just automatically go to the most painful or pleasant thing and become preoccupied with that, but can rather be controlled in a more useful manner. Still, it’s nice to see that the practice is bearing fruit.

Anti-tribalism and positive mental health as high-value cause areas

I think that tribalism is one of the biggest problems with humanity today, and that even small reductions of it could cause a massive boost to well-being.

By tribalism, I basically mean the phenomenon where arguments and actions are primarily evaluated based on who makes them and which group they seem to support, not anything else. E.g. if a group thinks that X is bad, then it’s often seen as outright immoral to make an argument which would imply that X isn’t quite as bad, or that some things which are classified as X would be more correctly classified as non-X instead. I don’t want to give any specific examples so as to not derail the discussion, but hopefully everyone can think of some; the article “Can Democracy Survive Tribalism” lists lot of them, picked from various sides of the political spectrum.

Joshua Greene (among others) makes the argument, in his book Moral Tribes, that tribalism exists for the purpose of coordinating aggression and alliances against other groups (so that you can kill them and take their stuff, basically). It specifically exists for the purpose of making you hurt others, as well as defend yourself against people who would hurt you. And while defending yourself against people who would hurt you is clearly good, attacking others is clearly not. And everything being viewed in tribal terms means that we can’t make much progress on things that actually matter: as someone commented, “people are fine with randomized controlled trials in policy, as long as the trials are on things that nobody cares about”.

Given how deep tribalism sits in the human psyche, it seems unlikely that we’ll be getting rid of it anytime soon. That said, there do seem to be a number of things that affect the amount of tribalism we have:

* As Steven Pinker argues in The Better Angels of Our Nature, violence in general has declined over historical time, replaced by more cooperation and an assumption of human rights; Democrats and Republicans may still hate each other, but they generally agree that they still shouldn’t be killing each other.
* As a purely anecdotal observation, I seem to get the feeling that people on the autism spectrum tend to be less tribal, up to the point of not being able to perceive tribes at all. (this suggests, somewhat oddly, that the world would actually be a better place if everyone was slightly autistic)
* Feelings of safety or threat seem to play a lot into feelings of tribalism: if you perceive (correctly or incorrectly) that a group Y is out to get you and that they are a real threat to you, then you will react much more aggressively to any claims that might be read as supporting Y. Conversely, if you feel safe and secure, then you are much less likely to feel the need to attack others.

The last point is especially troublesome, since it can give rise to self-fulfilling predictions. Say that Alice says something to Bob, and Bob misperceives this as an insult; Bob feels threatened so snaps at Alice, and now Alice feels threatened as well, so shouts back. The same kind of phenomenon seems to be going on a much larger scale: whenever someone perceives a threat, they are no longer willing to give someone the benefit of doubt, and would rather treat the other person as an enemy. (which isn’t too surprising, since it makes evolutionary sense: if someone is out to get you, then the cost of misclassifying them as a friend is much bigger than the cost of misclassifying a would-be friend as an enemy. you can always find new friends, but it only takes one person to get near you and hurt you really bad)

One implication might be that general mental health work, not only in the conventional sense of “healing disorders”, but also the positive psychology-style mental health work that actively seeks to make people happy rather than just fine, could be even more valuable for society than we’ve previously thought. Curing depression etc. would be enormously valuable even by itself, but if we could figure out how to make people generally happier and resilient to negative events, then fewer things would threaten their well-being and they would perceive fewer things as being threats, reducing tribalism.

You can never be universally inclusive

A discussion about the article “We Don’t Do That Here” (h/t siderea) raised the question about the tension between having inclusive social norms on the one hand, and restricting some behaviors on the other hand.

At least, that was the way the discussion was initially framed. The thing is, inclusivity is a bit of a bad term, since you can never really be universally inclusive. Accepting some behaviors is going to attract people who like engaging in those behaviors while repelling people who don’t like those behaviors; and vice versa for disallowing them.

Of course, you can still create spaces that are more inclusive than others, in being comfortable to a broader spectrum of people. But the way you do that, is by disallowing behaviors that would, if allowed, repel more people that the act of disallowing them does.

If you use your social power to shut up people who would otherwise be loudly racist and homophobic and who then leave because they don’t want to be in a place where those kinds of behaviors aren’t allowed, then that would fit the common definition of “inclusive space” pretty well.

That said, the “excluding racists and homophobes” thing may make it sound like you’re only excluding “bad” people, which isn’t the case either. Every set of rules (including having no rules in the first place) is going to repel some completely decent people.

Like, maybe you decide to try to make a space more inclusive by having a rule like “no discussing religion or politics”. This may make the space more inclusive towards people of all kinds of religions and political backgrounds, since there is less of a risk of anyone feeling unwelcome when everyone else turns out to disagree with their beliefs.

But at the same time, you are making the space less inclusive towards people who are perfectly reasonable and respectful people, but who would like to discuss religion or politics. As well as to people who aren’t so good at self-regulation and will feel uncomfortable about having to keep a constant eye on themselves to avoid saying the wrong things.

And maybe these people would feel more comfortable at a different event with different rules, which was more inclusive towards them. Which is fine. Competing access needs:

Competing access needs is the idea that some people, in order to be able to participate in a community, need one thing, and other people need a conflicting thing, and instead of figuring out which need is ‘real’ we have to acknowledge that we can’t accommodate all valid needs. I originally encountered it in disability community conversations: for example, one person might need a space where they can verbally stim, and another person might need a space where there’s never multiple people talking at once. Both of these are valid, but you can’t accommodate them both in the same space.

I wrote a while ago that I think this concept extends to a lot of activist/social justice community challenges and a lot of the difficulty of designing good messages. For example, body positivity: some people need to hear “love your body! no matter who you are you are soooo sexy” and some people really hate being told that they’re ‘sexy’. Or some gay people might need a space where it’s against the rules to ask “well, what if it actually is morally wrong to be gay?” but other gay people (like me of a few years ago) might need a space where they can ask that so there can be a serious discussion and they can become convinced that they’re okay.

Every set of rules is going to be bad for someone, so a better question than “how to make this space inclusive” is “who do we want to make this space inclusive towards”. You’re always going to exclude some people who aren’t jerks or bad people, but would just prefer a different set of rules. And you just have to accept that.

See also: The Unit of Caring on Safe Spaces and Competing Access Needs.