Today I was reading a recent, and interesting, article by Emma Young in the New Scientist (Feb 2013) entitled ‘Do get mad’. It suggested that, in the right context, anger can be beneficial. She argues that, although much modern thought sees anger as destructive, some strategic anger can help with both happiness and achievement.
She offers three main arguments, apparently supported by studies:
- Anger somehow causes optimism. Evidence: those with greater anger (e.g. after 9/11) turn out also to be more optimistic about the future.
- Anger is good for your health. Evidence: anger causes a lower stress response than fear
- Anger somehow causes well-being in confrontations. Evidence: people who use anger in confrontations seem to report greater well-being than people who are simply happy during confrontations.
- Anger helps drive improvement. Evidence: anger can energize collective action under threat (e.g. the passive resistance of Gandhi).
- Anger gets you status. Evidence: male political leaders who get angry rather than sad are given higher status.
- Anger improves relationships. Evidence: anger-suppressors die earlier than anger-expressers.
But let’s look at these arguments in more detail.
- OK, so angry people may express greater optimism. But to say the anger somehow causes the optimism is bizarre. In fact, the common factor may be a ‘bullish’ nature which jumps to both anger and optimism too readily.
- OK, so fear might be even less healthy than anger. But how does that make anger healthy? It’s just marginally less unhealthy. We don’t face a straight choice – there are other responses than fear and anger.
- People who rise to anger in confrontations may well be more ‘bullish’ about their own well-being. But, as in 1, this proves nothing about causes. And what about the recipient of the anger? How do they feel afterwards?
- The social change argument seems a stronger one. But do we need to be angry to change things? It is possible to see injustice, and be motivated to change it, without anger. Indeed, Gandhi himself said ‘It is not that I do not get angry. I don't give vent to my anger. I cultivate the quality of patience as angerlessness, and generally speaking, I succeed. But I only control my anger when it comes. How I find it possible to control it would be a useless question, for it is a habit that everyone must cultivate and must succeed in forming by constant practice.’ So Gandhi cultivated patience, and saw it as angerlessness. Arguably it was his patience, not his anger, that made him so effective a social agent.
- Is Emma Young really arguing that it is constructive to get angry, just because it can confer status? Since when was status a virtue in itself?
- The relationship argument uses anger-suppression and anger-expression as the only two possible responses. What about not having the anger in the first place? Although it takes practice, this seems an infinitely better option, and yet it’s not even mentioned.
In summary, I’d suggest it’s perfectly possible that the most happy, healthy and effective people are those who are free from anger. As the Dalai Lama commented last year: ‘The first drawback of anger is that it destroys your inner peace; the second is that it distorts your view of reality. If you think about this and come to understand that anger is really unhelpful, that it is only destructive, you can begin to distance yourself from anger.’ I agree.