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Negative emotions have their uses.

Book Review: ‘The Upside of Your Dark Side’ by Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener

Reading Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener’s critique of the unbridled modern quest for happiness, The Upside of Your Dark Side, I couldn’t help but thinking I had heard something, at lease in part, very like it before. Over and over again, I kept thinking of a poem nearly two centuries old: John Keats’ “Ode on Melancholy.”

Kashdan and Biswas-Diener make it clear that they are not suggesting that readers go out seeking after unhappiness and unpleasant emotions like anger, guilt, and sadness. What they are saying is that such emotions are certain to come—into each life some rain, and all that—so when it starts falling, don’t waste it.  It can be valuable. Use it. Keats agrees. He begins his three stanza poem by telling us not to go seeking melancholy. He tells us don’t look to “Lethe,” don’t “twist wolfs-bane for its poisonous wine,” don’t “let the beetle nor the death-moth be/Your mournful Psyche”—indeed, the whole stanza is a list of things you shouldn’t do to seek melancholy.upside

The second stanza makes it plain that you really don’t need to do anything. Like Kashdan and Biswas-Diener, Keats knows that melancholy needs no help; it will come: “the melancholy fit shall fall/Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud.” And when it comes, he, like our psychologists tells us not to waste it, to make the most of it. “Glut thy sorrow on the morning rose,” he tells us. Don’t just taste, “glut.” Look at your mistress, and remember that she “dwells with beauty—beauty that must die.” We should do this because there is value in recognizing the real sorrows inherent in the temporality of beauty, of happiness, of love. Since it is only those who feel great sorrow, who are capable of feeling great joy.

So Kashdan and Biswas-Diener, likewise, make clear that there are important benefits to what we tend to see as negative emotions. If we allow ourselves to make use of them.  For example, at the end of a chapter called “What’s So Good About Feeling Bad?” they tell us: “In not avoiding negative emotions, we gain emotional agility, the ability to use the full palette of emotional experiences.” And this is only one of the many uses of what we consider negative emotions. Keats may have said it better (if poetic constitutes better, and I think it does), but it sounds to me like they are talking about something very similar.

http://www.keats-shelley-house.org/en/writers
http://www.keats-shelley-house.org/en/writers

Essentially what the authors are saying is not that happiness is bad, unhappiness good. What they are saying is that negative emotional experience is part of life; it can’t be avoided.  In a world where comfort is equated with happiness and the good life, this is a caution worth remembering. The wise person recognizes this and tries to make the most of all experience. What they call “wholeness” is what they say we should aim for; it is a goal certainly worth pursuing. Who can argue with that?

The book is chock full of descriptions of scientific studies to support the author’s contentions. It has some 49 pages of end notes for the scholarly minded, but this is essentially a book for the layman. There is some jargon, but not much, and what there is is usually explained. The authors are not writing for the professionals. There are references to professors and psychologists, and there are references to Shakespeare and Aquaman. There are no references to Keats.

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