Episode 1: Navigating Unpleasantness and Creating Change, with Dr. Todd Kashdan
Updated: Jul 13, 2022
We discuss flourishing with Dr. Todd Kashdan, psychology professor and expert on many areas of research important to flourishing, such as psychological strengths, emotional agility, relationships, stress management, optimal performance, and well-being.
Our conversation focuses on Todd’s work on why negative emotions and curiosity are vital for living well, and why happiness shouldn’t be regarded as life’s ultimate goal. We discuss key themes in Todd’s three most recent books: Curious? (2009), The Upside of Your Dark Side (2014) and, most recently, The Art of Insubordination (2022).
"We have to allow more heterogeneity and variability in how people live their lives as long as they’re not detracted from the well-being of other people."
Todd’s path into researching the science of good living
This episode begins with Todd recollecting his childhood experiences, being raised by his grandmother following the disappearance of his father after his parents divorced when he was two years old and the passing away of his mother just after he turned 13. Being raised by his grandmother helped Todd realize one of the core aims of his life and work: to research the science behind living a good life and how to be effective with your strengths and capacities, because this is the kind of thing someone like him needed growing up. Growing up, Todd had to learn everything by trial and error. As he puts it, "there’s a way of doing good to help the younger versions of me out there."
Todd would go on to enjoy a brief career with the New York Stock Exchange, but realized that his true interests lay in psychology. He has since written an article for Psychology.com on his earlier life experiences in connection with his research on the important role negative emotions play in our lives.
Curiosity and flourishing
Todd’s earliest research was on how people fall in love. His first research study, working with Dr. Arthur Aron at Stony Brook University, investigated what makes people attracted to people similar to themselves in terms of personality, interests and values, and what would make a person prefer someone dissimilar to themselves. He went on to research what happens to us emotionally and mentally during and after panic attacks. During a research study on panic attacks in 1998, Todd coined the term "residual unsatisfied curiosity". When experiencing extreme anxiety, depression or other emotional difficulties, we experience impairment, but part of the impairment that often gets ignored is the paths in life we don’t take due to such difficult experiences. When you avoid your feelings and the situations that might elicit them, you not only constrict your life, but you also forego opportunities, which can become feelings of regret of inaction. Todd became interested in the question, "What’s it like to be curious about these opportunities of inaction not taken?." This question, which captures the concept of residual unsatisfied curiosity, led to Todd researching curiosity as a potential antidote to excessive, unwanted, anxious experiences.
Todd argues that curiosity is vital for flourishing and is some of the fuel behind living well. The subtitle to his 2009 book Curious? is Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. In this episode, he points out that research shows that when we reflect on the curious moments in our lives rather than the happy moments, we get a 20% increase in our physical stamina during physical exercise tasks and an increase in mental stamina when completing problem-solving tasks.
Todd also discusses research showing that when we experience curiosity, we’re motivated to grow and learn more than when we experience happiness. Research suggests that the experiences of satisfaction and feeling good we feel from recollecting pleasant moments motivates us less to exert effort to do things than when we experience curiosity.
Negative emotions and flourishing
We live in a time often described as obsessed with happiness. This obsession is, however, self-defeating: research suggests that widespread pursuits of happiness are contributing to increasing mental health problems among young people and desperately seeking happiness increases the risk of depression. Todd has criticized the manifestation of this attitude in attempts to increase positivity in the workplace.
Todd explores why negative emotions are important for flourishing in his 2014 book The Upside of Your Dark Side. He argues that we should embrace negative emotions rather than seeing them as obstacles standing in the way of flourishing. Todd draws attention to research showing that being in a happy state of mind leads to lower performance compared to being in mildly negative emotional states in situations where you want to reduce conformity among a group of people or detect deception from someone you’ve never met. Being mildly sad, anxious or irritated makes you more effective in these situations if you’re looking to improve your performance rather than feel good.
Theories of human flourishing from Aristotle to today focus on what human beings pursue for their own sake: the things we pursue for no further goal, such as happiness, meaning and close relationships. Influential theories such as those put forward by positive psychology (on which Todd has published a book) and the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard hold that to flourish we should increase the prevalence and depth of these things in our lives as an effective way of enhancing our well-being. These theories and others include positive emotions as those we pursue as ends in themselves, but not negative emotions. How, then, do we incorporate negative emotions into a theory of flourishing?
Todd points out that if we trace flourishing to its ancient Greek roots with Aristotle and his concept of eudaimonia (literally, ‘flourishing’ or ‘happiness’), negative emotions play an important role and in contemporaneous movements. Stoicism, a movement beginning with Zeno a few decades after Aristotle’s death which remains highly influential today, emphasizes the importance of experiencing negative emotions for thriving. The process of negative visualization in Stoicism involves imagining all the possible bad things that could go wrong ahead of an event – giving a presentation, say – and mentally preparing for these possibilities – such as arriving late or facing difficult questions from the audience. Stoicism advocates that we practice negative visualization to develop the psychological strengths we need to endure such experiences, such as resilience. As Todd puts it, we should live as if difficult moments and people are non-threatening and non-obstructive as we strive to fulfil the goals we find meaningful. Navigating negative emotions helps us overcome the difficulties we face trying to fulfill our goals.
Happiness is central in the most influential accounts of flourishing, and some influential thinkers have held that happiness is the ultimate aim of life (for example, economist and author of several recent books on happiness, Richard Layard). Todd, by contrast, doesn’t think we should regard happiness as life’s end goal. A focus of Todd’s research is individual differences between people, such as neurodiversity, and he argues that the idea that there’s one psychological end state that humans pursue is neither hopeful nor aligned with current research.
What constitutes happiness and how it’s experienced varies a lot among people and depends on many factors. Todd argues that there are multiple states and aims we might pursue as end goals, such as energy, vitality, resources, relationships, creative accomplishments, self-understanding, and freedom. “We have to allow,” he says, “more heterogeneity and variability in how people live their lives as long as they’re not detracted from the well-being of other people.”
Flourishing as the aim of our lives
In his book published earlier this year, The Art of Insubordination, Todd investigates why people build the strength to tolerate distress – “distress tolerance”. Todd explains in this episode that people build distress tolerance not to flourish, but because it’s “the springboard for developing character.” Many people are motivated to become psychologically and/or physically stronger to cope with the difficulties they encounter in their lives. Todd points out that for some this may be among the end goals of their lives because it’s vital for taking care of themselves and those close to them. For some people, the end goal may be to care for their loved ones. Important to this is tolerating distress, such as that some encounter in the workplace day to day.
The role of negative emotions in education
Research by positive psychologists such as Martin Seligman has shown that positive moods produce more creative and holistic thinking, and broader attention, whereas negative moods produce more critical and analytic thinking, and narrower attention (Flourish, p. 80). Some influential philosophers such as John Stuart Mill and Mary Warnock have held that education’s fundamental aim is to increase happiness or pleasure.
What is the role of negative emotions in education? Todd connects negative emotion with curiosity and creativity. The mood we feel is important for getting into a psychological state where we can be creative, and thereby for facilitating innovation. But to make the most of being in this state, we need to be motivated to solve or address some problem. Negative emotions are important here: they can motivate us to try to address an issue, such as trying to solve a world problem. They also help us persevere. In this way, negative emotions take or return us to the drawing board to try to solve problems. As Todd puts it, negative emotions take us into the drawing room, and positive emotions provide us with the mindset for creativity.
This relates to Todd’s recent work in The Art of Insubordination, in which he emphasizes the importance of building psychological strengths. Young people need to understand the importance of developing psychological strengths, Todd argues, to prepare themselves for life’s difficulties.
Three key takeaways from this episode are, first, that unpleasant emotion plays an appropriate and, at times, useful role in our lives. We need to learn to understand it and navigate it when it’s there. This should typically mean we’re working with it, not trying to suppress it, which will usually make matters worse. Second, one of the most important traits you can cultivate for your well-being and success is curiosity or openness. And third, there are different paths in life to the one that pursues happiness.
Todd recommends that we look for opportunities to stand in for others and provide protection for those who might not be as psychologically or physically healthy as ourselves, or have enough power or status to protect themselves. He also recommends that we look for opportunities to innovate where it’s most needed and can do something to improve it, such as where there’s dysfunction in our homes, workplaces or local communities.
On individual diversity, Todd recommends that we view ourselves in the way we want to live our lives, and celebrate our differences rather than try to conform to norms that differ from our personalities. To do this, we need to practice coming to terms with our individual differences – seeing that you might not, for example, want to get married, have kids, or travel with a group of people – that, perhaps, you really value solitude in a world that tells us that the best route towards happiness is cultivating close relationships.
This is what Todd means by the "art of insubordination": such attitudes are acts of insubordination – proudly asserting to differing from the norm as a means of self-understanding and living well, of what Todd calls “principled insubordination.” This requires a lot of distress tolerance: to live your own way, knowing that you’re going to get friction and static from people who say, “that’s no way to live your life, that’s not what the people around you are doing.” As he continues:
“There’s something that I want to really honor and create a guidebook for people on; there’s a way to kind of carve your own lifestyle that is so idiographic and idiosyncratic to other people, because it fits your personality, your life history, your values. I’ve spent 10 years trying to figure out how to basically find your own voice, amplify your voice, amplify the voice of other people, so we can have more innovators and have more people living off the grid in their own idiosyncratic ways”.
The Flourishing Question
We ask all our guests “the flourishing question”:
What’s one lesson on flourishing you want our listeners to walk away with, and what might be a practical step for putting that lesson into action?
Todd’s answer is that people need to increase and broaden their tolerance for experiencing pain. He recommends that we spend time with people who think differently to ourselves without automatically rejecting them or discarding their ideas. He also recommends that we allow ourselves to experience boredom, and when experiencing it, work hard to not seek out stimulation to escape it, and just allow ourselves to see where our minds go. This may enable us to cultivate and synthesize those incubated ideas that only emerge when we explore our minds rather than fill them with stimulation.
About our guest
Todd Kashdan, Ph.D., received the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientific Award in 2013 and Distinguished Faculty Member of the Year at George Mason University in 2010. He has published over 210 scientific journal articles on psychological strengths such as curiosity and courage, emotional agility, meaning and purpose in life, social relationships, leveraging stress for optimal performance, resilience, and well-being.
Author of several books, Kashdan’s latest is The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively (Feb 2022). His work has been featured on CNN and NPR, as well as media outlets including the Harvard Business Review, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Time Magazine, Newsweek, Fast Company and Scientific American.
Todd is a TEDx speaker and works with organizations as diverse as Mercedes-Benz, the World Bank, United States Department of Defense, Merck, Hormel, General Mills, Gensler, the Gap, and Standard Chartered Bank. He gives keynotes and workshops to business executives, schools, parents, retirees, scholars, and health professionals.
Todd is a twin and has twin 14-year-old daughters (plus one more), with plans to rapidly populate the world with great conversationalists. He says the things other people want to but are afraid to.