Anger gets a bad rap. Sure, when there's too much of it or when it's improperly applied it can cause damage, but you could say that for nearly any other emotion. Learn how anger can make you smarter, more competent, and more realistic.
As nasty as anger is, it's a picnic when compared with terror, depression, or despair. That sounds like damning with faint praise, but it's not. No one's ever going to have a life so smooth and sunlit that nothing bad ever happens to them. Unless we are able to achieve serenity to the point of complete detachment, when bad things happen to us we feel negative emotions. Anger can be the best option.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University got 92 volunteers and subjected them to a mildly unpleasant experiment. The volunteers were asked to count backwards from 6233 by thirteens. As the volunteers counted 6220, then 6207, then 6194, the researchers impatiently told them to speed it up. When the subjects screwed up, they had to do it all over again. To add to the unpleasantness, they were on camera. As the volunteers went through the experiment, researchers analyzed their facial expressions, noting which volunteers expressed fear or embarrassment. After the test, the volunteers had their mouths swabbed, their blood pressure taken, and their heart rate recorded. Those who expressed anger at the situation had lower blood pressure and less stress hormones in their saliva than those who expressed fear. Anger isn't great for the body, but it doesn't do the damage that fear does.
Anger also gives people a feeling of power. Power is important if something needs doing, even if that "something" is getting on with life. People who feel angry also feel strong and energized. Just after September 11th, a group of researchers rounded up nearly 2,000 and interviewed them about their feelings. A couple of months later, they called the people back and had them look at two different collections of media. One collection was designed to make the subjects angry. It included, for example, the famous videos of people celebrating the attacks. The other collection of media was meant to make the subjects fearful. After watching the media, the angry people felt more confident and optimistic about the entire situation than the fearful ones.
The angry subjects also were a bit more realistic about their chances of being hurt by a terrorist in the next year. Granted, that was only a bit. The anger group estimated a 19 percent chance, while the fear group estimated a 23 percent chance. Still, anger allowed people to get closer to the truth, which as we know with hindsight was pretty much a zero percent chance. Angry people had a more realistic outlook on life than scared ones.
In the case of the terrorism survey, it's probably true that people not primed for any kind of emotional excess might have been even better at realistically estimating their chances of being attacked. In that case, anger was a smarter response than fear but it wasn't a smart response in and of itself. Anger makes a better showing in other situations.
Ever notice that you're instantly able to spot the flaws in all the political arguments you don't agree with? Of course we all like to pretend that it's because anyone who disagrees with us does so because they're irrational, while our reasoning is watertight, but the truth is, we look at arguments that anger us just a little bit more critically. One study suggests that it's the anger, and not just the political motivation, that helps people spot flaws.
The researchers in charge of the study recruited student volunteers, and asked half of them to recall vividly a memory that still got them mad. (Just in case that wasn't enough, the researchers recruited a whole other group of volunteers and asked them to state their hopes and dreams. Half the time, another member of the group - actually an undercover researcher - criticized the subject's plans in order to make them furious.) After being wound up, the subjects were shown one of two papers that argued for the importance of post-graduation financial prudence. The papers either contained strong arguments supported by solid sources, or weak and unsupported arguments. When asked to critique the logic of the papers, the angry students were much more able to distinguish between weak and strong arguments. What's more, they were more likely to find themselves convinced by the strong arguments. As much as we think anger makes us unreasonable, a little spark of anger can give us the ability to think critically and the willpower to come into line with good arguments.
So anger doesn't always make you a mindless rageball unable to make a point or go through life. It does isolate you, right? There are no relationships that improve with the introduction of simmering anger. This is true. But there's also not a need to let anger simmer, or even a need to express it. In one study, when people were asked to note when they felt anger, and think about what they could do about it, they often found ways to stop being angry. If your spouse has a bad habit of slamming the front door, is it worth stewing about their lack of consideration for five years when forty bucks and a couple of hours can get you one of those slow-compressing hinges? If you hate hearing loud cell phone conversations on the bus, pick up an old ipod and load it up with music and audio books. Thinking of anger as a signal that a problem needs to be solved, instead of as a battle, can improve a lot of your relationships.
Not all relationships need to be improved. Some just need to come to an agreement. Studies on mediation found that, although most disputes are hindered by expressions of anger, when one side finds themselves particularly "vulnerable" a little anger expressed by the other side does no harm to the process. Granted, expressing anger at the vulnerable doesn't sound like a positive thing, but consider that in mediation, being "vulnerable" often equates to being in the wrong. Being wrong about certain things deserves anger.
And anger affects more than just the person expressing it and the person receiving it. It also affects the people watching it be expressed. Anger isn't just personal, it's social - at least according to sociologists. By being visibly angry, we establish social norms, and we establish that social norms need to change. We throw our lot in with a certain group of people, even if our "lot" is just our visible annoyance. Anger isn't just a way of tearing something down. It's a way of showing support for what's right.
Everyone knows there are times when anger spurs people to do terrible things, but it's not just a destructive emotion. It can be smart, restorative, and moral. We just have to use it right.