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