Sunday, March 08, 2015

Being your whole self

The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self — Not Just Your "Good Self — Drives Success and Fulfillment, by Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener, is not the sort of book I usually read. I'd call it pop psychology. Its tone was such that I was ever afraid of it veering toward self-help territory, but I think that's more an artefact of how it's marketed than the intent of the actual text.

It was given to me as a gift, because I've had a lot of dark looming up in my life lately, in both my home and work lives.

Its starting point is the American obsession with positive thinking: the right to the pursuit of happiness has been confused with an obligation to be happy, all the time.

I've been obsessed with the notion of happiness since I was in grade 7. Not that I wanted a direct path to it. I just wanted the idea of it defined. (Were we reading Brave New World?) I wanted to establish the difference between thinking you're happy and really being happy. Cuz goddamit I know there's a difference. And real happiness is an elusive, if not altogether imaginary, beast. I've known all my life that it is not possible to live in a state of constant joy. Contentment is another matter. Which is where the problem of definition comes in. In fact, for some 30+ years, I've been a proponent of happiness being just one aspect of living a full life. Which is what this book is about. (Gosh, I was a smart kid.)

So the fact is: people get angry, or sad, or bored, or frustrated, all the time. When we experience physical pain, we tend to take it seriously. But we're generally pretty dismissive of emotional pain and view it simply as wrong, without ever listening to what that pain is telling us about ourselves or our environment.

The upshot: it's OK to feel angry, sad, mean, selfish, whatever, in certain contexts, and it's better for us to acknowledge those feelings, even indulge them, than to mask them because we're supposed to be happy all the time. These "negative" feelings are shown to fuel creativity, heighten awareness, and enhance performance.

But you already knew that, right?

Regarding one study conducted in a workplace setting:
The take-home lesson is simple: do not create a culture based on the assumption that positivity must reign supreme. Instead, create a culture where everyone knows that it's safe to be real, and that depending on the situation it's sometimes better to feel something other than happiness.
I worked for a company some years ago where the gung-ho, go-get-'em, go-go-go all-American attitude just didn't fly with us Canadian counterparts. So I can see how HR departments could learn from this book, to build the right corporate culture for the right skills to flourish.

In addition, the book is full of little insights on sprawling topics, like:
Love is about adopting another person's perspective of the world, and when overvaluing your happiness gets in the way, it leads to unfortunate by-products such as loneliness.
Research suggests that you, like everyone else, think that you are better than other human beings. This so-called better-than-average effect shows that most people believe that they are above average, which, of course, is a mathematical impossibility.[...] The average person lives inside a narcissistic bubble, a self-serving bias that gives most of us the confidence we need to face a complex and uncertain day.
So I don't think I learned anything, but the book is full of interesting research studies, and it's nice to have my intuitive thinking validated. A pleasant-enough way to while away a train ride on a wintry afternoon.

Huffington Post
Positive Psychology


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