By Michael Winters
Part 1: All emotions are needed to be whole.
Since Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, the words “the pursuit of happiness” have served as a motto for this nation. Essential to our culture is the belief that there is a fundamental urge—indeed, a right—to seek happiness. The field of psychology, however, had been largely silent on how to achieve happiness until about the year 2000. Since the turn of the millennium, there has been an explosion in research on happiness.
This torrent of research was in response to the overwhelming amount of research focused on anxiety, depression, and other forms of mental illness. Coined “The Positive Psychology Movement,” positive psychologists set out to understand and promote happiness rather than focus on ways to identify, manage, or avoid suffering and melancholy.
Indeed, positive psychology has produced much research on how to be happier. Over time, researchers have used findings from empirical studies to compile lists of specific suggestions on how to increase one’s happiness. For example, studies show that physical affection is associated with the release of oxytocin, a hormone that promotes feelings of calmness and contentment. But has positive psychology gone too far? Is it realistic—or even desirable—to expect to be happy all the time?
Some believe that happiness is overrated, or at a minimum that it should be balanced by wholeness, embracing the full spectrum of emotions. Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener’s 2014 book The Upside of Your Dark Side explores the notion that negative emotions can be as beneficial as positive emotions.
In Part 1 of this series, we will further explore the concept of wholeness. In Part 2, we will examine how life meaning may be more important than happiness.
Wholeness over happiness
Kashdan and Biswas-Diener introduced a wholeness approach, suggesting that by learning to accept and embrace negative experiences and emotions, we are more poised for success than if we were focusing on how to find happiness at every corner.
The authors cite a large amount of scientific research that supports the hypothesis that negative emotions can be useful in motivation and in preparing for the inevitable range of life experiences. For example, people who are best able to endure negative experiences have an advantage in negotiating business deals, managing marital conflict, parenting effectively, and succeeding in highly competitive military training programs.
Conversely, further research shows that people who are most focused on finding happiness are lonelier than those who are less focused on finding happiness.
The wholeness hypothesis is also consistent with an evolutionary perspective. If negative emotions had no survival advantage, they would have been “weeded out” of experience by now, and only positive emotions—such as happiness—would be left. For example, when a person is alone in his house and hears a strange noise, he might feel fear. With fear comes a keen awareness of any sounds and movements of a potentially threatening presence, as well as a lowered awareness of other needs, such as hunger, so that the person can fully focus on surviving the threat.
Get comfortable with discomfort
As well as citing the researched benefits of wholeness, Kashdan and Biswas-Diener highlight some interesting cultural analysis on the subject of comfort. They found that the more we seek comfort, the less we are prepared for dealing with discomfort. A prominent belief that saturates our culture is that discomfort is a state that we should not experience. Thus, when we inevitably experience discomfort or pain, we feel that something is wrong, rather than recognizing that pain, pleasure, comfort, and discomfort are all normal parts of life. When we obsessively seek comfort—and are not able to tolerate any discomfort—we create more anxiety because we are seeking a state that is simply not sustainable or realistic.
How can you use the wholeness hypothesis to your benefit? Start by interpreting sad, angry, and anxious feelings as alerts from your body and psyche. Rather than perceiving discomfort as an indication that something is wrong, see it as something that needs attention. Calmly listen to your emotions, rather than trying to ignore or pacify them immediately. Tuning into negative emotions can help us understand ourselves better.
The wholeness hypothesis provides a useful corrective to the all-consuming focus on happiness. By becoming aware of and tolerating a wide range of emotions—both pleasant and unpleasant—we are more able to appreciate the life that we have and to work toward success in a wide variety of arenas.
Michael Winters is a psychologist in Houston. He has cultivated his practice around the concept of meaning-centered living and is a frequent guest on local television and radio programs. For more information, go to DrMWinters.com.