Mason psychology professor Todd B. Kashdan is a world-recognized expert on the science of well-being, stress, and anxiety. A senior scientist at Mason’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being, he uses cutting-edge science to help people function optimally in life and business. In his newest book, The Upside of Your Dark Side (Penguin, 2014), he talks about how our pursuit of happiness is not just making us unhappy, it is making us less resilient than our ancestors were.
You say that we have a comfort addiction. Can you explain that a bit more?
There is no time in history like the present. Modern people are better able to achieve comfort—with smartphones in our pocket we can dispense with boring wait times, with central air I can alter the atmosphere of my house to avoid even the slightest bead of sweat or chill—and this new comfort is leaving us psychologically weaker.
Although parents recognize that challenge is good for building math skills, they are blind to the idea that similar struggles on the playground are equally as healthy. While adults recognize the importance of personal growth, they are blind to the importance of moving beyond their comfort zone.
You also talk about the importance of embracing negative emotions. How does being angry or sad help a person?
From an evolutionary perspective, negative emotions helped us deal with functional problems that needed our attention—making friends, finding romantic partners, fending off enemies and rivals.
We think differently when we are mildly unhappy. Our negative emotions facilitate more detailed and analytic thinking, reduce our reliance on stereotypes, enhance eyewitness memory, and promote persistence on challenging mental tasks.
Finally, one of the most stable findings in all of psychology is that attempts to hide or suppress negative emotions backfire. We end up ironically feeling even more distress and become susceptible to unhealthy strategies to try to feel less bad, such as binge drinking, aggression, overeating, and even [entertaining] suicidal thoughts. It is wrong to believe that negative emotions are inherently bad for us. This attempt to distance ourselves from negative emotions is what leads to poorer psychological adjustment and weaker coping skills.
So if our ultimate goal isn’t happiness, should we be striving for, perhaps, peace of mind?
Happiness is a horrible choice as a goal, but it is a great byproduct of the journey of being present, open, and in pursuit of what matters most to us. My suggestion: Get out of your head—trying to be happy—and live your life. On the way, you might catch happiness here and there.