In praise of ‘mild unhappiness’

White coffee mug with the text 'Meh.'

Happiness, it seems, has become synonymous with success. It won’t do to feel meh or mild unhappiness about something: we aspire to having constant positive emotional responses that boost our mental resources and motivation.

Positive psychologists, Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener penned a new book titled The Upside of Your Dark Side in which they argue the case for what they term ‘mild unhappiness’, a term perhaps best explained as dependent on context.

They explain that there are tasks which really benefit from a certain level of fed up-ness to get them done. Familiar and routine tasks which no longer excite us but require our full attention to be done well are such an example. Also tasks which ask us to engage on a level of detail we do not normally favour or things we have been putting off because they take us out of our comfort zone in some other way.

One can be too happy

Feeling (too) happy too often, Kashdan and Biswas-Diener argue, can get in the way of getting things done, because:

  • we get used to being comfortable, and start taking things for granted
  • we are less likely to attend to detail and think more in broad terms
  • we tend to minimise negatives to maintain our happy outlook
  • we become desensitised to feeling happy, and so start seeking out events that trump the last one that made us feel happy
  • we can also become far more sensitive to negative emotions to the point where they become overwhelming – amplification
  • our happiness can impair our own and others’ performance

Of course the authors acknowledge there is a great deal of evidence of the benefits of happiness brings. Being happy is linked to benefits such as higher incomes, better immune systems, kindness and wearing seatbelts. They caution against the unrealistic pursuit of happiness, and argue the case for a better balance.

Mild unhappiness is also clearly distinct from serious, debilitating unhappiness which leads to social isolation or mental and emotional disorders. Mild unhappiness is more about being on the fed up side of indifference.

The business case for mild unhappiness

Emotions which we habitually label as negative can in fact be very helpful in business situations. Here are some examples.

Angry people are less gullible

Being aware of anger rising is informative to you. Because anger is disagreeable in itself, we tend to check whether it is justified to feel angry, and pay closer attention to what is happening. We read the situation in more detail than we would if we were happier about it; in other words, we are less easily influenced by someone’s arguments if we angry.

Anyone who works in customer services knows how hard it is to convince an angry customer who is scrutinising a product or service they are unhappy with!

Anxiety is a safeguard

Anxiety deservedly gets a bad press, because we know high levels of anxiety are bad for our health. At the same time anxiety serves its purpose: it is a very clear indicator something isn’t right.

Short bursts or low levels of anxiety shake us out of complacency and trigger processes that sharpen our senses and heighten our perception and awareness. Anxiety also boosts our problem solving capability, and helps us see creative answers to problems where in a less heightened mental state we would have made no such links.

Approaching deadlines are a prime example of anxiety triggers. In my practice as a marketer I hurtled from one to the next, and realised that I seemed to meet certain deadlines much more creatively (a very important ingredient of marketing) when I was experiencing the right amount of anxiety.

The high of mild unhappiness

The productive use of happiness and mild unhappiness dependent on context is what the authors refer to as ‘wholeness’.

Something the book doesn’t mention, but which I experience often myself, is the feeling of achievement that follows the productive use of mild unhappiness.  It is not only that the task ended up being done after getting angry about it and taking a few risks which feels great. The memory of how it got done is so vivid that it serves as a useful reminder of where the line is between mild and full-blown unhappiness.


We are a species in peril

We are a species in peril

Our species is in crisis. Increased psychological spaciousness is needed more than ever to help us solve the devastating problems the world faces today.