The Upside of Anger

Self on 03.15.12
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Recently I wrote about how keeping up with the joneses (and coveting what they have) isn't just a waste of time, but that the brain processes bouts of envy in the same region that we process painful physical stimuli -- demonstrating once again the profound connection between body and mind. It's just one of the intriguing nuggets of information I've stumbled upon as my Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast partner and I look at the science behind the seven deadly sins.

Next up on our tour through human transgressions is wrath, also known on the street as rage, rankle, the green meanies, or just plain anger. It's a topic of personal interest because underneath my hippy dippy exterior lays a very short fuse, one that I've waged a lifelong battle to keep in check through yoga, meditation and mantra-chanting, like "Don't be a jerk. Don't be a jerk. Don't be a jerk."

Can anger be positive?
But here's something that I've noticed about anger, something studies corroborate: When I unleash the hounds of hell I get a lot done, a hell of a lot. After all, I'm experiencing a burst of adrenaline and I'm laser focused on getting to the bottom of what's vexing me or removing the obstacle that's incurred my ill temper.

In several studies published in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology researchers Matthijs Baas, Carsten De Dreu, and Bernard Nijstad found that participants who were made to feel angry and then asked to brainstorm exhibited key hallmarks of creative brainstorming, including unstructured thinking. And in comparison to their counterparts (identified as sad or neutral) the pissed off participants came up with more ideas as well as more original ideas.  According to Scientific American:

"People who feel angry (vs. sad, for example) are less likely to think in systematic ways, and are more likely to rely on broad, global cues when judging information. This kind of global processing tends to be associated with literally seeing the 'bigger picture'."

Identifying the Real Problem
So anger can be motivational - we have the ability to seize on a problem and dissect it in ways that previously may have been blocked. But how else could getting red in the face be helpful? Think of anger as a way to interrogate your feelings. Rather than actually wielding a frying pan and hitting someone over the head with it, pause and ask yourself why you'd want to ruin their day like that.

Redirecting your anger toward the problem (and not the person) is an effective way to focus on the reasons you want to tear your (or someone else's hair) out. Of course this takes some mental space, something not much of have these days while we're multitasking our lives away. And it requires us to dive into the deep end of our emotions and figure out how much of our ego is bound up in the situation.

But, yes, there's a silver lining to getting bent out of shape, as long as we can focus on the big picture.  Otherwise we run the risk of submitting ourselves to a state of chronic anger, one where we take on every little indignity handed to us in life and respond by volleying a constant stream of frying pans.

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