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RHR: Developing a Positive Relationship with Negative Emotions, with Robert Biswas-Diener


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Positive psychologists and happiness experts often harp on the importance of reducing negative emotions in order to make room for optimism and mindfulness. But those so-called negative emotions can actually have an important evolutionary purpose. In this episode of Revolution Health Radio, I talk with positive psychology expert Robert Biswas-Diener about the importance of experiencing psychological, emotional, and physical discomfort in order to develop a better sense of self-awareness, emotional agility, growth, and happiness.

Revolution Health Radio podcast, Chris Kresser

In this episode, we discuss:

  • Robert’s recent work on the pursuit of happiness
  • Defining today’s “comfort crisis”
  • Why people seek comfort, and the importance of experiencing discomfort
  • The evolutionary origins [of] negative emotions
  • How your decisions affect your happiness
  • The difference between wanting and liking; how they impact our happiness
  • Three strategies to exercise negative emotion tolerance
  • When negative emotions interfere with our ability to function well in the world
  • Robert’s take on therapeutic drug interventions

Show notes:

Hey, everybody, Chris Kresser here. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. This week, I’m excited to welcome back Robert Biswas-Diener as my guest.

I spoke with Robert on the first episode about positive psychology. Robert is one of the foremost experts in the world on this topic, and we discussed how important the shift was from an exclusive focus on what can go wrong and on disordered mental and emotional states, mood disorders like anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, psychosis, etc., which is traditionally what psychology focused on most, all of the pathologies and the things that can go wrong, toward how can we make things go right. What can we do that contributes to happiness, well-being, and mental health? That’s really the contribution that positive psychology has made to our overall understanding of human health and well-being.

In this episode, we’re going to talk a little bit about some of the concepts in one of Robert’s books called The Upside of Your Dark Side. So, as Robert will share, this book was written in response to some of what he saw happening in perhaps the popular psychology world, where positive psychology was being misinterpreted to mean that we should only ever experience positive emotions or states, that we should do everything we can to avoid or suppress negative emotions, and that happiness or happy states of being should be the exclusive focus in our lives. And as you’ll learn in this episode, that’s not at all what the positive psychology movement suggests. And so-called negative emotions can actually have a pretty important evolutionary purpose.

We’re going to explore questions like whether we’re in a comfort crisis, and why the ability to tolerate psychological, emotional, and even physical discomfort is so important to our development and growth as human beings. What we miss out on when we try to suppress or ignore so-called negative emotions, and what purpose they really do have, from an evolutionary perspective. We’re going to talk about why humans are sometimes not as good as we’d like to be at making choices that lead to happiness. We’ll talk about the critical distinction between wanting and liking and the impact that has on our happiness. And we’ll talk about some really concrete practical strategies that we can employ for increasing our capacity to experience negative emotions and learn from them, learn the information, the lessons that they’re trying to bring to us. We’ll also talk a little bit about when it might be a good idea to suppress or ignore negative emotions.

I really love this episode. I think one of the most practical and immediately useful things we can do in our life is to figure out strategies for increasing our happiness and our well-being. And I think you’ll get a lot out of this and be able to employ these strategies not only with yourself, but also if you’re a parent, to be able to model these and share them with your kids. It’s so important for kids’ development to be able to understand and embrace some of the topics that we’re going to be talking about in the show. So, depending on the age of your kids, you may even want to listen to some of the episode, if you have older kids, teenagers or above, I would think. But I really got a lot out of this myself, and I hope you will, too. So I bring you Robert Biswas-Diener.

Chris Kresser:  Robert, it’s such a pleasure to have you back on the show.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Thank you so much for having me, Chris.

Robert’s Recent Work on the Pursuit of Happiness

Chris Kresser:  On the last podcast we did, we talked a lot about positive psychology and the concept of focusing on our strengths and building on our strengths rather than fixing what’s broken and talked a lot about the contributions that positive psychology has made. And this time, I want to talk about the, I don’t know if it’s the flip side, but maybe a different angle or an expansion or some nuance related to that, which you talked about in your book, The Upside of Your Dark Side.

And maybe a good place to start would just be to talk about why you even felt the need to write that book with your co-author in the first place.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Sure, great, great question. There was actually a catalyzing moment for me. I was part of a group meeting at Harvard, and we were consulting on a happiness project. So it was very much about happiness, positivity, optimism, mindfulness, you’re hearing all of those kinds of buzzwords thrown around. And we broke for lunch. And a woman said to me, “I have to admit that my dog died this morning.” This sounds like an apocryphal story, [but] I promise that it’s true. She said, “My dog died this morning, and what can I do to be happy?”

And it really kind of took me aback, because my answer to her was, “You shouldn’t be.”

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  “Why on earth would you think you would need to be happy?” And this [was] well over a decade before the term “toxic positivity” was coined. But I realized that a potential downside of the positive psychology movement, of the popularity of happiness science, is that people then think, well, happiness is a choice. And if I’m not happy, it means I’m making the wrong choices and I’m obligated to flip this switch. And so my co author, Todd Kashdan, and myself, we saw a real need for a righting of the ship or a balancing. We didn’t want to throw out positive psychology, but we just wanted to add an important footnote perhaps.

Chris Kresser:  That it’s certainly something, a tool that we can use, or a set of methodologies or approaches that we can use and happiness is a byproduct, perhaps, of some of those practices or approaches or ways of thinking about things. But it’s not the only, or the supreme end goal. And it’s not necessarily, there are some downsides even to an obsessive pursuit of happiness when it comes at the cost of listening to the messages that we might get from some of the emotional states that we label as negative.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Absolutely. I think that’s one of them, that you just named. There are just loads and loads of downsides. Although, I do want to reinforce what you said, which is happiness is highly desirable; it feels great, it’s beneficial, [and] it seems to boost our immune system a little bit. I do think that it is a worthwhile pursuit. I just think this is a case of exaggeration where you find people saying, “I only want to be happy,” or “I’ve been consistently happy for the last 10 years,” which strains credulity.

Defining Today’s “Comfort Crisis”

Chris Kresser:  So, another thing that you and Todd talk about in the book and maybe was part of the reason that you decided to write this book in the first place is what we might call a comfort crisis. Where, so rather than me even trying to define that term, why don’t you just tell us what you mean by that and why is the ability to tolerate discomfort actually important?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, absolutely. So first, I’ll just say that you’re going to start seeing this all over the place. I’ve seen a couple of books published on this topic recently. You see it on social media. So I don’t think I’m going to get credit for it, and I don’t necessarily think that I deserve credit for it. But I certainly was talking about this many years ago. The idea that in the modern era, we’re more comfortable than at any time before. [If] you want to buy a space-age foam bed that will conform exactly to your body, you can do that, as if just the regular bed wasn’t comfy enough. And this comfort extends across all dimensions. We are less patient than ever because communication is now instantaneous. If I told you that it would take you nine minutes to make microwave popcorn, you’d think that’s too long to wait. Nine minutes, that’s crazy.

So just across the board in terms of time, physical comfort, and psychological comfort, we have more access than ever before. Now, I want to be wary here because I have received some criticism that people are like, “Oh, but you’re just talking about upper class people or middle class people.” And yes, certainly, those people have more access to luxuries and conveniences. But even people who live in, let’s say, poor neighborhoods in the United States, have access to infrastructure, electricity, things that even the kings and queens of old didn’t really have access to. So the interesting thing is, we’ve gotten more comfortable. I think there’s been this ironic effect; we’ve gotten less comfortable with discomfort. So in surveys, if you ask people how long could you live outside or what would it be like to go to the bathroom outside all the time, or what if you had to just not even have a tent, but shelter outside, people don’t really like that. And you find this across the board.

What if your kids didn’t have a formal safe playground, but they just had a bunch of tractor tires and hay bales? Well, parents turn out to be concerned about that. They view that as dangerous. They view kids riding their bike to school as dangerous, even though traffic accidents involving children have declined steadily over the years. So we just have the sense that all of those negative, unsafe, insecure feelings are very, very uncomfortable for us. Our tolerance of them, just I argue, seems to be going down.

Chris Kresser:  Right. So what? A person listening to this might say, “So what? Comfort’s great; I love it. I like my yoga mat to have Wi Fi in it so it can tell me how to do the poses. And I like the coffeemaker to be programmed so that it can make a cup of coffee to be ready right when I wake up. What’s wrong with that?” Why not just wipe discomfort completely off the map so that we can live like the people in the Pixar movie, WALL-E?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  And there are floating chairs. I have to ask you, Chris, in all honesty, are there really yoga mats with WiFi?

Chris Kresser:  I am not joking. I saw an ad for this like two days ago. And I was like, oh my gosh. This is pushing the limits of credulity, even for someone who’s already on the lookout for this kind of nonsense. But yeah, I mean, why not? Why not wipe discomfort off the map if we can?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Well, because we can’t. Because some amount of discomfort isn’t just physical discomfort; it’s emotional discomfort. So think, for example, of being stuck in rush hour traffic. Humans, especially in industrialized big cities, don’t seem like they’re on the cusp of wiping out the discomforts associated with that kind of traffic. But people get frustrated; they get bored. It’s the emotional discomforts that you simply cannot avoid. You’re going to feel irritated in life, you’re going to feel bored, you’re going to feel confused, [and] you’re going to feel all of these so-called negative emotions. And if what you do is try to avoid them because you’re trying to just avoid discomfort, well, then you’re going to have this kind of distant, weird, estranged relationship with this very aspect of your own psychology.

It’s like being a stranger to yourself. So people become, I think, quickly, overwhelmed with their own negative emotions. It’s why people are quick to flip on a TV or uncork wine or go for a run or any number of strategies that vary from healthy to unhealthy. But in an effort to not just experience those negative emotions.

We often hear people striving for pure happiness. But experiencing discomfort, and living through negative emotions, is also part of the journey. In this episode of RHR, I talk with Robert Biswas-Diener about the evolutionary origins of negative emotions, how to exercise awareness of our emotions, and decision-making strategies for optimal health and happiness. #chriskresser

Why People Seek Comfort, and the Importance of Experiencing Discomfort

Chris Kresser:  Right. So, there are a number of authors who have, and just thinkers who have specifically applied this to younger generations, particularly university age adults. And Jonathan Haidt comes to mind with his book, The Coddling of the American Mind. And I’ve discussed this briefly. But let’s talk a little bit about the particular relevance of this aversion to psychological and emotional discomfort for young people. And I can’t believe I’m saying that.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  (crosstalk) demographic.

Chris Kresser:  But it’s true, right? I’m not a young [person] anymore.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Sure, yeah.

Chris Kresser:  Just at heart. Kids these days, college kids, like people in college. So there’s this growing movement for safe spaces and to protect people from ideas that might be threatening or in some way offensive to them. How does this play into what we’re talking about here? And what do we lose as a society? And what do people lose as individuals when they have the belief that they have to completely insulate themselves from psychological or emotional discomfort?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Sure, absolutely. This is a tough question, because I think the real concern is the possibility of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Because on the one hand, the trends we’re seeing in higher education and academia come from a very well-meaning place, and from legitimate concerns. There are students that have these legitimate complaints. I’ve been a victim of racism. I have been sidelined as an LGBTQ identified person. So I’m sick of getting pushed around and I want to do something about that. Whether safe space is the right thing for that, I don’t know.

So there are legitimate complaints. But then I think at the extreme, the other side of that coin, is are we saying that they can’t tolerate any discomfort? Can we not have a difficult conversation? I talked to someone who’s a university professor this week, who said, “If you want to use an example, you can’t use the army or police as an example of anything. Because that could be too triggering for people.” And I thought, well, then it’s going to be difficult to find things. Food could be triggering; marriage could be triggering. It’s going to be difficult to find examples that feel inclusive to 100 percent of the people.

So there’s got to be some sense that students can handle some discomfort, but what we shouldn’t ask them to handle is outright racism, prejudice, or discrimination and to be able to discern between those two things.

Chris Kresser:  Right. And I think my concern, I have a lot of concerns, and I appreciate how you broke that down, because obviously, we want to protect vulnerable populations from the kinds of abusive situations that have existed and circumstances that have existed for far too long. When I look around and see what’s happening right now in the world politically, socially, and even in my field of medicine and science, like the level of vitriol, and the inability to tolerate differences of opinion has reached alarming levels to me.

The fact that if somebody comes forward and criticizes a dominant paradigm idea in medicine now, related to COVID[-19] or any other topic, they’re almost immediately excommunicated and just basically obliterated off of the map of legitimacy and credibility regardless of their credentials, background, expertise in the subject area, etc. And I just wonder if this is related in some way. Like this move toward more comfort, this aversion to discomfort is somehow tied to our seeming inability to tolerate differences of opinion, which to me is like a foundational principle of democracy and the ability to have (crosstalk).

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Sure, and of science and of friendship.

Chris Kresser:  Exactly.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  I mean, just it’s discourse. So, I think you’re right, and it’s a little bit tough again to parse the political from the psychological. And of course, the psychological is what I’m primarily expert in. But I do think we want to protect people, again, against direct prejudice or discrimination. But having done that, or to the ability, to the extent we’re able to do that, what you want is to bolster people, make them feel more resilient, make them feel like, “You know what? I can handle some irritation. I can handle a little bit of self-doubt. I can handle having countervailing evidence thrown in my face. I would always want discourse to be respectful. But I understand that I can engage in an uncomfortable conversation and that it just might be a difference of two legitimate points of view.”

Chris Kresser:  Right. Yeah. So I think we desperately need more of that in the world that we’re living in today. I’m not going to dwell on that because I primarily want to focus on this from a more individual perspective. Although, of course, you can’t really separate [those areas], the political, social, and larger context with [the] individual.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  I don’t know if I’m jumping ahead. But do you mind if I comment a little bit about that bolstering people idea?

Chris Kresser:  No, please go ahead.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  When I was writing the book you’re referring to, I had an epiphany moment, which was, my son wanted to do an activity on a school night. And I said this standard parenting thing, like, “If you do your homework, then we’ll be able to do it.” And he didn’t finish his homework. So we weren’t able to do the activity. And I think, if I wouldn’t have been writing this book, I would have done what I had done a million times before, which is I would have said, “Oh, but it’s okay, because we can do the activity this weekend.” Or “Don’t worry; it’ll be alright. We can do it tomorrow for twice as long.”

And essentially, what that communicates is you’re feeling the exact legitimate emotional reaction, which is a little frustration and a little irritation. And what I’m trying to tell you to do is not feel that way, even though it is 100 percent appropriate. I’m saying, “Don’t worry; don’t feel bad.” And too often, we try [to] cheer people up or talk them out of these negative emotional states, and parents do this all the time. And in this way, they’re socializing their kids to essentially discount their own negative emotions. Like no, you should actually feel cheerful right now instead of frustrated. On that particular night, I said, “You’re frustrated, and that makes a lot of sense. I think that’s totally the appropriate reaction.” And I just let it go at that. And yes, my son said, “I hate having a psychologist as a father.” But really, I think, if we could do that from an even younger age, just like, “You’re feeling sad; you’re feeling angry. I’m not going to rescue you from that. You’re worried. That’s a legitimate experience. Now tolerate it.” It’s like sending them to the gym every time and they just strengthen those muscles.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, that’s right. It’s so important. And as a parent, I can definitely relate to that. And I make an effort to do that with our daughter. Because the thing that’s interesting to me about that is, I think we’ve all had the experience where we’ve been in a place where we’re feeling sad, or angry or frustrated, or so-called negative emotion, and someone around us says, “Cheer up,” or something like that, and we just want to punch them in the face. Right?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Totally, totally.

Chris Kresser:  It’s not what we want to hear. Generally, we just want someone to be there with us and hear that and maybe reflect it back in some way or just feel like they’re present with us in that experience. We’re not actually asking for them to tell us to feel any different way than we are. And yeah, even though we’ve had that experience, probably many more than one, much more often than one time in our life, we still have the impulse to do that with other people, including our kids.

So is that our own inability to tolerate our discomfort that we feel in the face of someone else’s discomfort? Is it our suspicion that someone else is not capable of handling that discomfort on their own, and that causes discomfort for us? What do you think’s going on there?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Those are great theories, right? And we should be testing those. I kind of lean in my heart, and this isn’t empirical proof toward the first explanation. I think, to a large extent, we can’t tolerate those emotions. So you have a teenager moping around the house, and emotions are kind of contagious. And here you are as the parent enjoying your evening, and really, your kid’s moping is emotionally inconvenient for you, because it’s bringing you down.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  And so you want them to cheer up so that you can have a nicer emotional experience.

Chris Kresser:  I think that’s right.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  And if you also were a little hardier, I think you could give them the space for them to become a little hardier. And then it wouldn’t be as big a deal to anybody.

Chris Kresser:  Right. So it’s like, “You’re killing my buzz. Please, please cheer up, because I’m trying to watch this show or read this book or whatever it is.” Yeah.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Exactly.

Chris Kresser:  Then it comes back to what you said, our own resilience. I know, that’s kind of a buzzword right now, too. But our own ability to tolerate a shift in gears. “Okay, I’m sitting here, I’m trying to relax, and it’s been a long day. I’m reading a book, or I’m watching a TV show or something. But my daughter, my son, my wife, my partner, whatever, is having a different experience, and do I have the capacity to shift in that moment and be present for what’s going on there? That’s a skill set or a capacity that needs to be developed over time.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  And in all fairness, I think it’s really hard to develop. I think sometimes, people probably come on with you. I present myself as an expert, and it’s easy for listeners to think, “Oh, this guy’s got it all figured out.” Or, “I’ve been doing this method for 18 years, and now I’ve got it completely dialed in.” I don’t think it’s like that. I think it’s really, really tough. I struggle with this. I find myself trying to talk people out of their emotional states. I’m pretty good at catching myself and saying, “What am I doing?” But it’s such an ingrained habit. I find myself occasionally trying to avoid emotional experiences. I also make an effort to just experience them and tolerate them. But I’m not going to blame anyone if they’re not ace at this.

Chris Kresser:  Absolutely, yeah. This is a lifetime endeavor. It’s not something that we’re just going to master after a couple of workshops and that’s the last time we’re ever going to have to think about it again.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Exactly.

Chris Kresser:  And that’s important, too. I think just even, for me, at least speaking personally, just having empathy and compassion for myself, and recognizing that I’m not going to be perfect, and I’ll probably never be perfect at it, and that I’m doing the best I can. And that actually opens up more space and capacity for me to, if I’m able to be that way with myself, I find that I’m generally able to give more space to whatever it is that’s causing difficulty for me.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, that makes sense.

The Evolutionary Origins to Negative Emotions

Chris Kresser:  So, we’ve already been talking about this, but I want to just ask you this specific question; maybe we can get at it in a different way. When we try to suppress or ignore the negative emotions, what are we really missing out on? Or put this a different way. My listeners are very familiar with an evolutionary perspective, right? They know that behaviors evolved for a certain purpose, and that goes for everything from our desire for sweet and salty and calorie-dense food, which protected our survival in the natural environment to our essential laziness, because that was an energy conservation strategy. And in a natural environment where we are constantly spending energy to gather food and hunt and build shelter and fight, it made sense for us to be lazy when we weren’t doing that. So why do we have negative emotions at all?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  I think you teed it up nicely in terms of the evolutionary perspective. Our emotion system is an evolutionary adaptation that’s hugely beneficial to us and that’s part of our psychological infrastructure for functioning. These aren’t things to be overcome or vanquished or to be victorious over. They’re just like our eyes and ears. There are channels of information. So I think of the negative emotions as being sort of like a radar tracking system, kind of telling you what’s out there in the world. And when you experience the so-called negative emotions, and psychologists don’t mean bad emotions, we just mean unpleasant feeling[s], each one sends a different message.

So sadness, for example, tells you things aren’t really turning out the way you expected, and maybe you should consider conserving your resources and not throwing more resources at this, which is why sad people tend to sit around. They’re sitting on the couch. The emotion’s not directly causing that behavior, but it’s sort of like a lobby, like suggesting, hey, here’s something you might consider doing. Fear. Fear tells you there’s a threat in your environment and that you might consider running away or maybe fighting. Anger also tells you that something that you care about is under direct threat, and that it prepares you to defend, that is it’s pushing blood to your extremities and making you physically aroused, ready to defend that thing you care about.

Chris Kresser:  Right. And guilt might be something related to our prosocial tribal tendencies.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, because it could be, you’re going to defend, someone’s stealing your car, or someone coming after your kid. I mean, whatever it is.

Chris Kresser:  No, no. Sorry, guilt.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Guilt. Oh, yeah. Guilt is a great one, and guilt maybe got the worst rap of all these emotions.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  But guilt just is a signal to you that you violated your own code. And it’s kind of saying, hey, you might consider a course correction. And that’s one of the reasons why guilt feels so icky. Because that motivates you to take a different course of action. And when you do, usually relief or acceptance, like some kind of emotional exhale is the result. So, do we want to just beat ourselves up and feel guilt for years and years? No. But is your guilt architecture functional just in the moment? You steal something from a store, and then you feel bad about it? Fantastic. I want to live in a society where people feel that kind of guilt.

Chris Kresser:  Right. Take that to the other extreme. What would the world be like with no guilt? That’s scary; that’s psychopathic people just acting in their own self-interest with no mechanism for putting the brakes on behaviors that might violate their own code or anyone else’s code.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, absolutely. So when you start thinking about emotions as information, just kind of telling you a message, that changes your relationship. So like, “Oh, yeah, I’m feeling really jealous right now.” If that jealousy had a voice, what would it be saying to you? What’s it telling you about the world around you? If it had an agenda, what’s it encouraging you to do? And I think it’s worth asking those kinds of questions and just being in dialogue with your emotions, because that makes them seem much more like potentially helpful messengers and much less like something that you have to be at war with.

Chris Kresser:  I don’t really want to go down this road, because it would be a big tangent, but I’ve been thinking a lot about free will. I don’t know how much this interests you. But it’s interesting. Basically, my interpretation of what you were just saying is don’t take your emotions so personally. What if we look at them as just useful information, and that doesn’t mean that they’re not going to be, that that’s going to change how they feel, or the subjective experience, but it might change how we respond to them in some way if we’re able to see them in that light. And that’s interesting to think about in this whole conversation about whether we have free will. And the core argument for people who believe that we don’t is that those thoughts and emotions and experiences arise in consciousness but we’re not the ones that are doing those thoughts or emotions or experiences. They are rising, we can respond to them, but we’re not controlling the script, so to speak.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Well, that’s interesting. And there is this debate, and it gets quite metaphysical, kind of like are your emotions you or is there sort of a you that’s separate from your emotions.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  And then, that latter camp if you can observe your emotions, well, then there must be some you that’s separate from your emotions that can look at them. And that’s kind of cool because then you don’t necessarily feel overpowered; you just feel like oh, yeah, they’re up on stage. I see what they’re doing. I’m observing them. And they’re not necessarily me. Some people find that very helpful. Also, though they’re kind of within you. So I see the other point of it, too.

How Your Decisions Affect Your Happiness

Chris Kresser:  Right. So I’m going to switch gears a little bit here, because one of the most provocative ideas that I came across in your book, The Upside of Your Dark Side, and I’ve read this before and in other sources, is that humans are pretty terrible at making decisions that lead to happiness. And first of all, why is that? Because I have some questions about even why that would be from an evolutionary perspective, for example. But why is that and what are the consequences of that? What do we make of the fact that we’re not very good at predicting what will make us happy?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  I think I would say kind of a milder version of that.

Chris Kresser:  Okay.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  I think people get it a little bit right but make mistakes. So I don’t think they’re getting it really wrong. They’re not making terrible decisions; they’re making sensible decisions that just aren’t paying off as much as they think. So one element of this is called effective court forecasting. It’s just a fancy [term] that means do you think this will make you happy in the future? If I eat this cake, will it make me happy in the future? If my team wins the playoffs, will it make me happy at that time? And people generally get the direction right. You think your team winning will probably make you be like a thumbs up, and if your team loses, it’ll be a thumbs down. And it turns out that that is true. The problem is, we exaggerate in our own minds the duration of the effect and the intensity of the effect.

So you think, “If my candidate for president wins or conversely loses, I’m going to feel this predictable way in an extreme amount and for a long period of time.” But the truth is, we don’t. These are minor blips to us. Another obstacle is that we sometimes don’t have the feeling of permission to pursue what’s happy. Or we somehow do make mistakes in that prioritizing some things. I do this all the time with workshops I give. I said, “Hey, go do something to make yourself happy and take 10 minutes, or whatever it’s going to be. And people have good instincts. They go for a walk outside, they call their kids, they take a nap, they stretch out, they do yoga, and they’re not making themselves permanently happy. But those seem to be little boosts.

But some of them just check email. And I kind of say, “Well, you thought that was going to make you happy?” And what they’re really saying is, “Well, I have a lot of stress at work, and I thought this would lessen my stress.” And because those negative emotions can feel so pressing on us, things like stress and worry, I think sometimes we feed them first before thinking about things like self-compassion, taking breaks, and so forth.

Chris Kresser:  I think this might have been in one of Ken Sheldon’s papers. I recently interviewed him on the podcast, and thanks to you for that intro again. What about the fact that we tend to, I might be phrasing this incorrectly or getting the nuance not being exact with that. But we discount the amount, the impact, the wearing off effect. So let’s say, “Oh, I’m going to buy this new car. I’ve wanted it for a long time. It’s going to make me happy.” We buy the car, we’re happy for a day, and then it’s just our car now.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  That’s absolutely right. And I’ll give you a great example. For anyone listening, if you’re wearing shoes right now, I want you to think about the last time that you totally appreciated those shoes and were like, “These shoes are amazing.” And then I want you to think about the day you bought those shoes, and that little jolt of excitement, how much you appreciated them, how fun it was to try them on or receive them in the mail. And you can see how completely you have adapted.

Chris Kresser:  Right, yeah. The Buddhist, the concept of that is the hungry ghost, right? The idea [of] that big, big belly with [a] very narrow neck that no matter what you put in there, it can’t satisfy the hunger.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yes.

Chris Kresser:  It’s interesting that that concept has been around for a long time.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  In terms of happiness decisions, one of the things that is often recommended in terms of spending money on happiness is spending money on experiences rather than on material purchases. So, if you have the same amount of money that you could spend on, let’s say, a pair of shoes, or on going horseback riding or taking a cooking class or whatever it [is], maybe that’s an expensive pair of shoes. But really, by rights, the experience, things like horseback riding or cooking courses, are going to pay off longer and better happiness dividends, because you’ll be able to remember them fondly; you won’t adapt to them, [and] they actually change you and help you grow. Whereas you just become accustomed to most of your material items.

The Difference between Wanting and Liking, and How They Impact our Happiness

Chris Kresser:  Right. That makes sense. So there’s another distinction you make, which is between wanting and liking, and how those two experiences impact our happiness. Can you say more about that?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Absolutely. To me, this is a revelatory notion. And this is actually just right in our brain are different systems. You have a system for wanting things, and you have a separate system for liking things. And to understand the distinction between wanting and liking, consider a child [who’s] at a store, sees a shiny toy, and she wants it so much. “Please, please, will you get it? I want it.” And the amount of appetite for it, the appetite of wanting is so consuming. And then you purchase it, you bring it home, and the amount of liking of the toy isn’t comparable to the amount of wanting. The wanting is like this voracious appetite, and the amount of liking [is] sort of like a mild, yeah, that’s cool.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  And I think it’s great to know that those two things are distinct, because in the adult world, this happens all the time. People, for example, feel the pull of, “I want to be promoted at work. I’m going to have more supervisory power, a bigger budget, a better office,” and they don’t stop to think if they’ll like the new role. Like, “Oh, now, I’m going to be in committee meetings all the time. Now, I’m going to have to write reports; I’m not actually going to get to do the day-to-day work that I used to love and find invigorating.”

So I think, looking past the wants and thinking about the likes. I know, in my own life, I see this all the time with cookies, because I really tend to want cookies. And I almost never like a cookie as much as I thought that I would like it, as much as I wanted it.

Chris Kresser:  Right. Well, yeah, and this happens in relationships, right? How often has it happened to us or people we know in our lives, where if we’re pursuing someone, and then we end up in that relationship, and it’s not what we thought it would be in the pursuit. [There are] so many ways that this can play out in life. I agree with you; it’s a really revelatory distinction and potentially life-changing if you really allow it to sink in. But I think it requires then the ability to witness the wanting, and then to engage in a process of inquiry around the potential liking there. And how do you approach that? Is there a way with your clients that you invite them to cultivate a better ability to estimate the ratio between wanting and liking for something, for example? Do you know what I’m saying?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, this is a great question. And dammit, if it’s not just another instance of it’s hard work. There’s no easy hack for this. But first, you’re right; you have to recognize that it’s the want, and the want is artificially powerful. Which is why sometimes it’s nice to just delay things, right? But why don’t I just press pause for 24 hours? Why don’t I not respond to this email, even though I really want to? Why do I not purchase this thing from Amazon, even though I really want to? I’m just going to pause. So that’s the recognition of the want. But then understanding what the experience would be like, and we do this in ways large and small. Someone says, “Hey, do you want a bite of my cake?” And you say, “Well, how is it?” You’re sort of asking them to be your taster. “How much do you like it?” They might say, “It’s okay.” And then you say, “Oh well, then that’s probably not worth it to me.” Or maybe you want that promotion I mentioned. It would be cool to go and interview someone who’s already in that role about what their day-to-day work is like. Not just assume you know. See what they like and don’t like about it. But again, these things are effortful and require a little bit of elbow grease.

Chris Kresser:  It seems like there’s a time dimension to liking, as well. So using a food example, you want the cookie, and then when you eat the cookie, there might be an initial liking, but then toward the end of the cookie, the liking [is] not as much as it was to begin with. And then if you happen to be someone who’s very sensitive to sugar, maybe three hours later, the next morning after you ate the four cookies that you wanted, you’re actively disliking [it]. So I also wonder about like, is that sort of time dimension or different aspects of how liking transpires over time factored into this?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, I definitely think it’s an angle. And on the other dimension, it’s sort of the intensity dimension. And what I think is curious, so you’re saying you get this big spike in intensity; you eat your first couple bites of the cookie, you get a little sugar rush, [and] that legitimately feels good. But then it’s got diminishing returns, and then it even becomes, perhaps for some people, a negative over time. But your wanting was pretty aroused; [it] was kind of a spike. It’s almost like the wanting is the best part. Like if you could just leave it at that, that’s as invigorating and satisfying as the sugar hit.

Chris Kresser:  I read a story that was pretty heartbreaking. I can’t remember what the book was or where I came across it. It was about a couple who didn’t make a lot of money. But they were fairly frugal, and they saved money for like 25 years for this retirement trip that they had envisioned for their whole life together. They made some sacrifices, and they raised kids during that time, but they didn’t go on vacations or spend much money, and they were really focused on this mega retirement cruise trip that they were going to take when they retired. And you probably know where this is going.

It was heartbreaking to read it because you knew where it was going. But they wanted for 25 years. And then they had the experience, and it was so disappointing for both of them. And what I came away feeling like was, it would have been better if they had never done it. Because they enjoyed the wanting to some extent. They looked forward to it, it produced feelings of pleasure, they talked about it, [and] it was something that they could envision far off in the future. And it would actually have been more satisfying, I think, for them to just never have done it than to have done it and have the liking be such a disappointment.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  That’s right. Although, you could imagine an alternative where they did end up liking it.

Chris Kresser:  True.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Right.

Chris Kresser:  Maybe. I mean, maybe it’s hard. If you’re thinking about something for 25 years, it’s going to be hard to live up to the wanting that happens over that period of time.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Sure, sure. But I wouldn’t want to say to my friend who wants to go to Paris, “I’m just going to tell you, you’re probably not going to like it as much as you think. So you should save yourself the money. You should just look at the pictures of the Eiffel Tower.”

Chris Kresser:  Or give your ticket to me.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah. Just look at the pictures online. But I do think, to bring this back to the negative emotion and tolerance, there’s something about the wanting, but not getting that is that same tolerance of that negative emotional state. And if you can tolerate that, in the same way that sort of like being curious, or the tip of the tongue phenomenon are sort of unsettling, right? They don’t feel good. It’s not like “Oh, great. I can’t remember the name of this person. I wish I could.” It feels a little bit icky. But the more you can tolerate that, the wanting, the better you’re going to be positioned, I think, to make decisions that suit [you].

Three Strategies to Exercise Negative Emotion Tolerance

Chris Kresser:  [I have] a couple of questions to finish up. We’ve established that negative emotions play an important evolutionary role that’s still relevant to us today. They help us to recognize areas where we’re maybe causing harm and we don’t want to, or we’re moving in a direction that might not be the best direction for us and all of the other things that you mentioned. And yet, it’s still difficult to allow ourselves to experience negative emotions because they don’t feel good. So what are some of your, I have my own, but what are some of your strategies that you practice yourself or that you recommend for your clients when you teach that help people to cultivate more capacity and willingness to experience so-called negative emotions?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Sure. I’ll give you three. Hopefully, I can remember them all; they’ll be pretty quick.

Chris Kresser:  Great, three sounds good.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  One, I try [to] think of what is this emotion telling me? Like, I’m angry right now. I don’t say to myself, why am I angry? Because that just begs for some explanatory theory, right? Well, I’m angry because everyone’s a jerk, or something like that. But what is this anger telling me? What would this anger want me to do? And very rarely [does it want] me to punch someone in the face. Like, this anger wants you to stick up for yourself. Oh, well that’s interesting. So the anger is seeing some threat. And just even that kind of mental process of questioning my anger, considering my anger, helps make it feel more mild. It takes the edge off. It still feels unsettling; I still have that feeling in me. But it’s not a big spike of anger; it’s a tolerable smaller amount of anger.

The second thing I do is called emotion differentiation. A fancy word for labeling your emotions and understanding that emotions are often complicated, and not just one at a time. So it may not just be [that] I feel angry. It may be, I feel angry and disappointed, and a little guilty. And the more you can sift apart all the little angles that fit together in your emotion, that also takes the edge off. It’s funny, and there’s research on this, you can even see people relax into their emotions. You’re not getting rid of that anger, disappointment, [or] guilt. People are just relaxed into it and kind of accepting of it. So being able to label each part of the emotion understanding that there might be two or three emotions at play at any given time.

And then the third, for people who are familiar, I think, Wim Hof and his icy showers and whatnot are kind of a popular thing these days.

Chris Kresser:  You’re talking to the right people here.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Okay, good, good. So, you might start with your 10 seconds of cold blast in the shower, and it makes you gasp, and wow, that’s a really intense experience. But you can definitely tolerate it for 10 seconds. Maybe you can’t tolerate it for two minutes or five minutes. And I think the same thing goes for emotion, sort of that baby step like, “Okay, I’m really frustrated right now. And I am just going to let that frustration shower over me and tolerate it. And all I have to do is tolerate it for 60 seconds, like just one minute of this; I’m not going to ask more of myself than that. But I’m just going to flex those muscles and build that amount of tolerance.” And I think that can be helpful over time, as well.

Chris Kresser:  I love those strategies. So just to recap, we have asking what the emotion can tell us, what is it trying to tell us; the second is labeling the emotions, which tend to come in groups, and not maybe be clearly differentiated, but a little bit of effort there can be helpful because it tends to diffuse the response somewhat. And then the last step is just baby steps or shrinking the amount of time that you’re committing to experience that emotion as a way of inching into it rather than going whole hog. Those all seem like very effective strategies to me.

I was going to ask about kids and how this relates to education and parenting. But we’ve already talked a little bit about that, and I can see how all three of these strategies would be very relevant compared to perspective.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  I’m curious, Chris, you said you had a strategy. I was curious about yours.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah. Well, I think that it’s important, [for] all of the strategies that you just mentioned, there’s something foundational that’s required to even employ those strategies, which is self-awareness. Right? Like, if you’re not even aware of what’s happening, because you’re so consumed by the experience or so reactive to what’s happening, I think it’s very difficult to engage in that kind of process. So for me, some kind of awareness practice, whatever that might be for folks. For me, it’s been a meditation practice for over 30 years now, and that’s just the way I look at it. It’s very mundane for me in a certain way. I just look at meditation as awareness practice, practicing being aware of what’s going on both internally and in my environment. When I just sit there for 30 minutes a day, that’s essentially what I’m doing. I’m just cultivating that ability to be aware of what’s happening. And I feel like that provides more capacity for me to witness and even be able to label and even be able to make decisions about how I’m going to respond. So I think that’s what I would say has been instrumental for me.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, I think that’s a great point, especially just in promoting the awareness because you [have] to be able to catch it at the moment and realize it. So many people are overwhelmed with anger, and it just feels like that is their legitimate experience, instead of wait, what’s going on here? I’m noticing something.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah.

Chris Kresser:  Some layer of being able to witness and narrate what’s happening is, and what’s been interesting for me as a parent is to see, is just to look at that across the arc of development. You have no expectation that a two- or three-year-old will be able to do that, right? They are one with their experience, and that’s beautiful in a way. They’re 100 percent whatever is happening inside of them; there’s no separation at all. There’s no frontal cortex or function that enables them to say, “Oh, wow, I’m really angry right now and that’s why I’m dumping this bowl of food on the floor.” No, they’re just dumping the bowl of food on the floor. But we hope that as adults, we have that extra whatever you want to call that extra layer, that pause where we notice the anger and instead of dumping the bowl of food on the floor, we make a different choice. And for me, that’s where the awareness practice comes in, is just strengthening that muscle and creating more of that space so that I have more freedom in terms of what choice I make in that moment.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, absolutely.

When Negative Emotions Interfere With Our Ability to Function Well in the World

Chris Kresser:  Is there any contraindication or let’s say any situation in which you think experiencing negative emotion can be harmful? Or put a different way, is there a time when distraction and avoiding or suppressing negative emotion is actually an adaptive response? I’m thinking of severe trauma, or what when overwhelm is present. Is there a time and a place for suppressing and ignoring negative emotions?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, I would say severe trauma, for sure. And these would be instances where it is [an] emotion of such acute, intense, and overwhelming nature. I’m thinking of bereavement, for example. I would be loath to say to someone, maybe you should just meditate and really get into that bereavement. Some people would say that, of course, but I’m not going to fault someone if they want to check out for a moment. And I think people do even disassociate naturally, because they are kind of checking out of this overwhelming emotional experience. And we also think that we know that there are mood disorders, right? Depression that seems to interfere with people that goes on for long periods of time. And really, that’s [a] long period of time. If you felt pervasive guilt across two weeks. And I don’t mean, like, “Oh, I had an affair; I embezzled from my company,” or something that, like over something minor, that might seem sort of out of proportion. Or if you were like, “I’m so depressed; I feel hopeless, lethargic, I can’t sleep, and this has been going on for 2, 3, 4 weeks.” Those seem like negative emotions that are not working for you, right? That might need intervention of some type.

Chris Kresser:  Right. So what you’re saying is there’s a level where the negative emotions are serving us from an evolutionary perspective. They’re giving us some kind of useful information. But of course, we all know that there’s also a pathological expression or at least there’s a way that negative emotions can go beyond that and just become something that interfere with our ability to function well in the world that we’re living in and can interfere with our well-being.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, absolutely. In which case, you intervene, and I think, and this is an interesting thing, you can’t really intervene directly in emotion. That is you can’t, just like you couldn’t stop your heart if you wanted just by thinking about it. Your heart’s so critical for you to be alive that nonconscious systems are running it. Same thing, our emotions are part of our survival architecture, so we can’t turn them off. And so really, how we intervene in emotion is either through our body, think exercise, psychotropic medication, drink a glass of wine, whatever it is, or through our mind, meditation, cognitive reframing, therapy, talking to a friend, whatever.

Robert’s Take on Therapeutic Drug Interventions

Chris Kresser:  Yeah. I don’t think I’ve talked to you that much about this, but it just popped up when you were talking about various interventions. But what’s your take on the growing interest in psychedelics, and particularly for therapeutic purposes, like the research that’s happening with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, and ketamine and psilocybin. It seems to me that part of what is happening there, particularly with MDMA and also with ketamine, is that sometimes people get very stuck in these intense negative emotions and states, and these psychedelics enable them to experience life, even if temporarily, without being relatively free of the state that they’ve been in, those negative emotions that they’ve been stuck in for so, so long. And it gives them a sense of hope, and, in some cases, even permanently, or at least semi-permanently shifts their emotional state. So I don’t know if this is something you have paid much attention to or think about much.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, I’m encouraged. But I like that they’re doing the research. I don’t think that somehow Prozac or Xanax should be accepted medications. But MDMA should not be because it’s historically been associated as sort of a club drug. And if there are therapeutic benefits, I think we should be testing those. It seems like there’s some preliminary and mounting evidence, so I’m encouraged by that. But I also want to caution people that preliminary evidence doesn’t mean now you should just go out and do all the MDMA you want because it’s obviously good for you.

Chris Kresser:  Right. Not to mention that going out and buying MDMA on the street rarely results in you getting actual MDMA, or at least not exclusively MDMA. There’s typically a lot of other stuff in there. So we’re still a ways from, like you said, being certain that this is an intervention that should become more common and then, being able to go to your doctor and get this prescription and get the right kind of supervision and support to make it a good experience. We’re not there yet. But I’m also encouraged by the potential.

And I had Michael Mithoefer who is the [lead author] of MAPS, who’s doing all the research, on the podcast a while back, and we had a good chat. And I’m really glad that someone of his caliber is trying to follow the proper procedures for investigating this the way it should be done before it’s widely recommended.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, absolutely. And as a scientist, that’s what I like about it. Someone can tell me they went to an ayahuasca party, and it was great for them. But that feels less compelling to me than [running] clinical trials at 10 different locations under controlled circumstances.

Chris Kresser:  Right. And compared this with existing treatments and showed that it was more effective and safer, etc. So, yeah.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Exactly.

Chris Kresser:  Well, Robert, [it’s] always a pleasure to speak with you. I know the listeners are going to get a lot out of this. Where can people find out more about your work? I know you’ve got a lot of different pots on the stove, so to speak. I know you have different types of work for different types of people. But is there anywhere you want to tell people they can find out more?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Sure. So anything about coaching or my blog posts are at PositiveAcorn.com. My personal website is IntentionalHappiness.com. And the book you referenced is The Upside of Your Dark Side.

Chris Kresser:  So one last thing on a more personal note before we finish. I’m aware that your father, Ed Diener, passed away recently and that he was a giant in the field of positive psychology and made such an enormous contribution to much of what we’re talking about now. So I just wondered if you wanted to say a few words about him in this forum.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, thanks. I think that’s great. My father, Ed Diener, spent more than 40 years studying happiness, more than 300 or maybe even 400 publications. He was one of the top 1000 most highly cited scientists in any discipline in all of history. And he is, in part, why we get to talk about things like happiness and positive psychology because he boldly, many decades ago, said, “I’m not going to study depression, although there’s nothing wrong with studying depression. But I really want to study what’s right with people and study how people can live good, fulfilling, meaningful, and joyful lives.” So it’s nice, although he’s passed away, I definitely feel like his impact lives on and that he has affected so many, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

Chris Kresser:  And he gave us you, as well, which is another gift.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, there’s that. There’s that, as well, sure.

Chris Kresser:  The choice that he made then was a bold choice at that point. So many people now are studying positive psychology. That’s not a revolutionary career choice. But at that time, correct me if I’m wrong, that was not a pre-approved direction to take.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Absolutely not.

Chris Kresser:  It was not at all clear that that would lead to an illustrious career. It was a big risk that he took [in] doing that.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  As recently as 2000, I had people telling me personally happiness is a waste of time; it’s a fool’s errand. It doesn’t, like all this positivity is just naive. And that was just 20 years ago. So imagine what the climate was like in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s. So yeah, I definitely think he was courageous.

Chris Kresser:  Right. Well, much gratitude and appreciation to Ed Diener.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Thank you.

Chris Kresser:  Thank you again for coming on the show. And all the listeners out there, keep sending your questions [in to] ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion. We might even start doing some Q&A episodes again. So get your fingers on the keyboard and send [in] your questions, and I look forward to answering them. All right, everybody. That’s it for today. We’ll see you next time.