The advantages of negative emotions

Happiness is a good thing, but there are also advantages in other emotional states.


Most people would like to be happy, and strive for it in various ways, everything from eating chocolate and taking holidays to helping others. But in the pursuit of happiness, is something being missed? Are there actually some advantages in being unhappy?

From 2009 to 2016, Chris Barker and I coordinated a course on happiness. We assigned weekly readings, most of which were about activities or ways of thinking that research shows increase happiness, for example physical activity, gratitude, mindfulness and optimism. To give a bit of balance to the readings, and encourage students to question the dominant orientation, Chris and I wanted to include a text providing a critique of research on happiness. However, we had a hard time finding a suitable reading. Most of the critiques of positive psychology are written in a technical and difficult-to-understand style and were not suitable for our course, which included students from engineering, science, law, education and other fields, with many international students.

Too late, I discovered the ideal source: The Upside of Your Dark Side, by Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener, published in 2014. The authors are psychologists who have written extensively on wellbeing. They are fully aware and supportive of the goal of being happy and all the things that contribute to improving happiness. However, they became concerned about an emerging obsession with being happy, an obsession that obscures the advantages of other mental states. In short, they think it is important to be aware of, and sometimes embrace, the “dark side” of human emotions.

The Upside of Your Dark Side is a pleasure to read: clearly written without jargon, filled with examples and anecdotes, logically organised, thoroughly referenced and provocative throughout. It is a powerful counter to the usual one-sided emphasis on positive emotional states.

Benefits of the dark side

You might imagine that being unhappy, pessimistic, mindless and manipulative are things to be avoided. It depends, though, on the circumstances. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener cite lots of research showing the advantages of these apparently negative states. Consider, for example, whether it’s better to be happy when on the job. If the task requires close concentration and attention to detail, then happiness can hinder performance. Air traffic controllers, for example, need to be alert and always aware of possible danger. A happy atmosphere would undermine their job performance and put lives at stake.

More generally, it is valuable to be aware of negative emotions, because they provide information that can give courage, stimulate alertness to dangers, and enable creativity. Being positive all the time can hide the information available in negative emotions, and for example lead to poor choices. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener advocate embracing negative states (not wallowing in them) as part of the skill of emotional agility, meaning the capacity to use a variety of emotions as tools chosen for their value in specific situations.

Mindfulness, which involves being aware of your own situation, including your own emotions, is rightly touted at a route to deep satisfaction and a counter to cascades of intrusive thoughts. Mindfulness enables maintaining a distance from negative feelings like anger and anxiety, so they cause less damage.

            Kashdan and Biswas-Diener are well aware of the benefits of mindfulness, but they also point to the benefits of mindlessness. The unconscious mind is a powerful tool if used the right way. For example, in making a difficult decision when multiple factors are involved, for example choosing where to live or what job to take, studies have shown that making a decision based on intuition can be better than one based on a careful, conscious consideration of all the information. Furthermore, it may be best to first make a careful study of the options, then to be distracted (mindless) for a period before making a quick, intuitive decision. The point is to harness both the mindful and mindless capacities of the mind.

Kashdan and Biswas-Diener say there are times when it is possible to take advantage of anger, Machiavellianism, narcissism and even psychopathy. Psychopaths, who are characterised as having no empathy, do not have a good reputation, often being put in the same category as serial killers. However, many psychopathic traits are functional in specific situations. For example, you probably want your brain surgeon to be focused entirely on the delicate task and not disturbed by feelings of empathy. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener also cite research showing that in some situations when a person needs help, psychopaths are more helpful than others.

            Similarly, narcissistic personality disorder – having grandiose ideas of personal importance and intense anger at being criticised – is not attractive. Yet there are some positive aspects to narcissism, for example a drive to achieve so as to measure up to self-evaluations and to attract praise from others.

Other dark sides

Looking at the benefits of anger, manipulation and other supposedly negative aspects of human personality and behaviour raises the question of whether there are any “dark sides” that should be totally avoided, such as hatred, sadism, greed and envy. Certainly they can cause severe damage, as documented by Joseph H. Berke in The Tyranny of Malice.

Consider greed, the desire for more, especially for more than others have. “Greed is good” has become the mantra of winners in the neoliberal economy, so in this context greed might be necessary for success. But what about individuals who desire a more egalitarian society? Are there still circumstances in which individual greed is part of reaching one’s full potential? Or is it simply greedy to pursue self-interest at the expense of others?

Envy is another dark emotion. It has a positive aspect: it can stimulate efforts to emulate the person who is envied. The more destructive side of envy is revealed in efforts to denigrate, undermine or even destroy the envied person. Envy is thus assuaged not by personal achievement but by tearing down envied others. Even so, this potentially has a positive function. In a highly unequal society, in which those who are privileged exploit the underclass, envy can contribute to revolutionary change.

            Expressing gratitude is one of the simplest and most powerful ways to increase happiness. Research shows that thinking of a few things you are thankful for just once a week can lead to significant improvements in happiness. This is certainly far easier than doubling your income. Yet might there be occasions when it is better to be ungrateful? Perhaps when someone is showering you with favours, you suspect they are trying to manipulate you. Withholding gratitude might make you more alert to scams.

Then there is physical activity, shown to be one of the most reliable mood-boosters available. Too much exercise can be damaging, to be sure, but what about the opposite of exercise: laziness? Are there occasions when laziness is beneficial? Anyone who exercises regularly needs to recover, and being lazy is an opportunity to do this. But what is the benefit of laziness for couch potatoes who avoid activity at all costs?

Forgiveness – better thought of as emotionally letting go rather than sanctioning another’s actions – enables a person to escape damaging thought patterns. However, the pursuit of justice is sometimes served by remaining vengeful for years or even decades.

Todd Kashdan

The whole self

The Upside of Your Dark Side is a valuable antidote to the one-sided glorification of positive states like happiness, altruism and mindfulness. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener say that a person who is “whole” is able to take advantage of negative as well as positive states. The subtitle of their book states this: Why being your whole self – not just your “good” self – drives success and fulfillment.

            They are careful to say that in most circumstances, maybe about 80% of the time, the “good” states are desirable; for the remaining 20%, using your “dark side” can be advantageous to both you and others. By referring to 80% and 20%, they are really saying to draw on negative emotions just occasionally. They also note that “negative” states like anger and selfishness shouldn’t be faked. To obtain full benefits, they need to be genuine, just kept on a leash.

Robert Biswas-Diener

The whole community?

Kashdan and Biswas-Diener, like most figures in the field of positive psychology, focus on the individual. They give little sense of how emotions are linked to social arrangements. In part this reflects their US orientation and the fact that most psychological research is carried out in affluent countries, often with university students.

Research indicates that narcissism has been increasing in the US for decades: surveys of university students reveal that personal goals are now more commonly to make money and become individually successful rather than to serve broader community goals. In this context of competitive individualism, linked to the rise of neoliberalism, displaying narcissistic traits can be useful for the individual, and those who are too altruistic can be easily exploited. But in a different sort of society, drawing on negative personality traits may not be so advantageous, or may be required less often.

            Looking at the social function of emotions and behaviours brings up the challenging issue of how best to bring about positive social change. If the goal is a more caring society, with greater equality and support for those who are most vulnerable, what is the role of anger, manipulation and unhappiness? There are no easy answers.

The Upside of Your Dark Side is a valuable treatment because it raises questions about things taken for granted. It can lead to a philosophy of moderation or balance. If I were again teaching a happiness course, I would assign one or two extracts from The Upside of Your Dark Side, and then hope to learn more from the response of the students.

“Being whole is about being open and accommodating of all parts to your personality: the light and dark passengers, the strengths and weaknesses, the successes and failures. To this we add the combination of a pleasurable and profoundly meaningful life, and the embrace of both novelty and stability. Acknowledging seemingly contradictory aspects of the self will increase the power and influence you wield in the present, and the vitality, agility, and perseverance you can bring to the life tasks that lie ahead.” (p. 213)

Brian Martin

Mathematics: essential learning?

Are there things everyone should be required to learn? If so, what are they?

 page of logarithms from the Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, 44th edition, 1962-1963

There are lots of things that are useful to know or be able to do. Reading and writing are fundamental. Knowing how to count, add and subtract. Grammar can be useful, and spelling too. So is recognising street signs. The list could go on.

These are things that are useful to know, but they are not identical to things students have to study. In high school in the US, I had to take two years of a foreign language in order to get into a good university. French was my worst subject. Then, at Rice University, I had to take two years of a language to graduate, even though my major was physics. I chose German this time around, and despite studying hard, was lucky to pass. For me, studying foreign languages was challenging, and I retained little of what I learned.

I vaguely remember some of the things learned in school mathematics classes, like interpolating in a table of logarithms. To multiply or divide numbers, we would look up the logarithm of each number, add or subtract the logarithms and then find the number corresponding to the result. For greater accuracy, we would interpolate in the tables, namely estimate the number between two entries in the table.

I learned how to use a slide rule, which is basically two rulers with logarithmic scales that can be used to multiply and divide. I remember in year 8 daring to use my slide rule in an exam, and then checking the result by calculating it longhand.

These skills became outdated decades ago, after the introduction of pocket calculators. No one says today that anyone should have to learn how to interpolate in tables of logarithms or to use a slide rule. Most young people have never heard of a slide rule.

Some knowledge becomes obsolete and other knowledge is never used. So is there anything that everyone must study and learn?

The math myth

These reflections are stimulated by Andrew Hacker’s new book The Math Myth. He is greatly disturbed by the requirement that all US students must study math (or maths as we say in Australia) to a level far beyond what is required in most people’s lives and jobs.

Hacker, a political scientist at Queens College in New York City, actually loves maths, and shows his knowledge of the field by dropping references to polynomials and Kolmogorov equations. He is ardent in his support of learning maths, primarily arithmetic (requiring addition, subtraction, multiplication and division) and practical understanding of real world problems. His target for criticism is requirements for learning algebra, trigonometry and calculus that damage the morale and careers of many otherwise capable students.

Andrew Hacker

In the US, according to Hacker, the most common reason students fail to complete high school or university is a maths requirement. Everyone has to pass maths courses, and learn how to solve quadratic equations, whether they are going to become a hairdresser, truck driver or ballet dancer. His argument is that many people have talents they are prevented from fully developing because of an absurd requirement to pass courses in mathematics. Even when students pass, many of them quickly forget what they learned because they never use it.

Hacker makes a bolder claim. He says that in many professions in which maths might seem essential, actually most practitioners use only arithmetic. This includes engineering. Hacker interviewed many engineers who told him that they never needed to solve algebraic equations or use trigonometric functions.

On the flip side, Hacker cites studies of some occupations, like carpet laying, in which workers in essence solve difficult equations, but they do it in a way passed down from experienced workers. The irony is that many of these workers never passed the maths classes mandated for finishing high school.

The resulting picture is damning. Millions of students struggle through maths classes, some of them falling to the wayside, others developing maths anxiety, yet few of them ever use the knowledge presented in these classes.

Why maths requirements?

How has this situation arisen? Hacker puts the blame on leaders of the mathematics profession, mostly elite pure mathematicians, who sit on panels that advise on high school and university syllabuses. Few of these research stars have any expertise in teaching, and indeed few of them spend much time with beginning students. Not only do they seldom visit a high school classroom, but most avoid teaching large first-year university maths classes. Educational administrators defer to these gurus rather than consulting with teachers who actually know what is happening with students.

It might be argued that being able to do well in maths is a good indicator of doing well in other subjects. Perhaps so, but this is not a good argument for imposing maths on all students. Research on expert performance shows that years of dedicated practice are required to become extremely good at just about any skill, including music, sports, chess and maths. The sort of practice required, called deliberate practice, involves focused attention on challenges at the limits of one’s ability. This sort of practice can compensate for and indeed supersede many shortcomings in so-called general intelligence. In other words, you don’t need to be good at maths to become highly talented in other fields.

Hacker argues that the test most commonly used for entry to US universities, the SAT, is unfairly biased towards maths, to the detriment of students with other capabilities. Not only do maths classes screen out many students with talents in other areas, but selection mechanisms for the most prestigious universities, whose degrees are tickets to lucrative careers, unfairly discriminate against those whose interests and aptitudes are in other areas.

Education as screening

Hacker’s analysis of maths is compatible with a wider critique of education as a screening mechanism. Randall Collins in his classic book The Credential Society argued that US higher education served more to justify social stratification than to stimulate learning. In other words, students go through the ritual of courses, and those with privileged backgrounds have the advantage in obtaining degrees that give them access to restricted professions.

In another classic critique, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis in Schooling in Capitalist America argued that schooling reproduces the class structure. Their Marxist analysis gives the same general conclusion as Collins’ approach. Then there is The Diploma Disease by Ronald Dore, who described education systems worldwide, but especially in developing countries, as irrelevant in terms of producing skills that can be applied in jobs.

Schooling, up to teenage years, remains one of the few compulsory activities in contemporary societies, along with taxation. (In some countries, military service, jury duty and voting are compulsory.) There is no doubt that education can be a liberating process in the right circumstances, but for many it is drudgery with little compensating benefit, aside from obtaining a certificate needed for obtaining a job, while what is learned has little practical relevance.

A different system would be to set up entry processes to occupations, ones closely related to actual skills used in practice. Exams and apprenticeships are examples. Attendance at schools and universities then would be optional, chosen for their value in learning. There is one big problem: attendance would plummet.

Some teachers set themselves the task of stimulating a love of learning. Rather than trying to convey particular facts and frameworks, they see that learning facts and frameworks is a way of learning how to learn. The ideal in this picture is lifelong learning.

The trouble with schooling systems is that they undermine a love of learning by imposing syllabi and assessments. Students, rather than studying a topic because they are fascinated by it, instead learn that studying is tedious and to be avoided, and only undertaken under the whip of assessment.

How many students do you know who keep studying after the final exam? On the other hand, people who are passionate about a topic will put in hours of concentrated effort day after day in a quest for improvement and in the engaged mental state called flow.

The paradox of educational systems is that they are designed to foster learning yet, by subjecting students to arbitrary requirements, can actually hinder learning and create feelings of inadequacy. The more that everyone is put through exactly the same hoops — the same learning tasks at the same time — the more acute the paradox.

A different sort of education

Taking this argument a step further leads to a double implication. Education should be designed around the needs of individual students, as attempted in free schools and in some forms of home schooling. The second implication is that work should be designed around the jointly articulated needs of workers and consumers. Rather than students having to compete for fixed job slots, instead work would be reorganised around the freely expressed needs and capacities of workers and local communities.

Whether this ideal could ever be reached is unknown, but it nonetheless provides a useful goal for restructuring education — including maths education. This brings us back to Hacker’s The Math Myth. There are two sides to his argument. The first, as I’ve described it, is that US maths requirements are damaging because few people ever need maths beyond arithmetic and the requirements screen talented people out of careers where they could make valuable contributions.

The second element in Hacker’s argument is that for the bulk of the population, there are useful things to learn about maths and that these can be made accessible using a practical problem-solving approach. To show what’s involved, Hacker describes a course he taught in which students tackled everyday challenges.

Hacker’s course shows his capacity for innovative thinking. The Math Myth is not an attack on mathematics. Quite the contrary. Hacker wants everyone to engage with maths by designing tasks that relate to their lives.

Whether Hacker’s powerful critique will lead to changes in US educational requirements remains to be seen. Although Hacker talks only about pointless maths requirements, his arguments challenge the usual basis for screening that helps maintain social inequality. If maths cannot be used to legitimise inequality in educational outcomes, what will be the substitute?

Whether you respond to maths with affection or anxiety, it’s worth reading The Math Myth and thinking about its implications.

Brian Martin