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Can getting angry be good for you?

The philosopher Aristotle certainly thought that anger was good for a person. In the "Nicomachean Ethics," he wrote, "The man who is angry at the right things and with the right people, and further, as he ought, when he ought, and as long as he ought, is praised." But Aristotle didn't have to live in a world where newspapers linked anger to heart disease. He never saw David Banner become the Incredible Hulk, with Banner turning into a giant green monster as the result of his anger. Aristotle never sat on a highway surrounded by drivers with road rage.

Today, many of us see anger as a negative emotion that doesn't serve any purpose. In one study that asked participants about anger, 28 percent of respondents said that their anger was inappropriate, because anger is generally harmful or useless [source: Weber]. We may not like ourselves when we're angry, and we certainly don't enjoy being around other angry people.

Yet, as with most things, Aristotle is right. Anger can be good for you because it's designed to protect us, our relationships and our way of seeing the world. In the everlasting battle between right and wrong, the bodily effects of anger are meant to tell us that something's wrong.

We go through the world with goals and expectations. Some of these goals and expectations are personal -- we expect to get ahead with hard work, and we expect our significant others not to forget our birthdays. Some of these expectations are shaped by societal standards; we expect everyone to wait in line for their turn with a bank teller. When something violates our expectations or blocks our goals, then we get angry.

Think of anger as your own personal police force or sheriff, riding into town when injustice has been done. The sheriff sends out police bulletins to the effect of, "Hey, that's not right. That's not how we do business around here." That guy is going to show up. There's really no way to not get angry.

But if he's showing up for the right reasons, and if he deals with the situation in the right way, then getting angry can be good for you. If he sits down with the perp and has a productive conversation about how to solve the problem, then anger is doing its job. On the other hand, if you've got a reckless vigilante who shoots every time he gets angry, or a cowardly police academy dropout that can't even fire a gun, then anger is not very productive. As with chocolate cake, anger has to be regulated with moderation.

Confused by all this talk of police officers and chocolate cake? Well, check out the next page, where we'll look at some concrete examples of how anger can be a positive force.

Dealing with Anger

To determine whether getting angry can be good for you, we have to look at the factors on each side of that emotion: why you got angry and how you acted when angry. Let's say you're angry because you just spent the last hour doing all the dirty dishes by yourself while your spouse sat in front of the television. You're mad because you wanted to watch television also, and doing the dishes prevented that from happening, not to mention you expect a little help around the house once in a while.

The more you think about it, the more you realize that this is a pretty good reason to be angry. You start getting riled up because your blood is pumping faster, your sudsy hands are clenching into fists and you notice that your jaw is tightened. What do you do at this point? There are three basic options in dealing with anger (or anger expression): holding your anger in, letting it out and controlling it.

The first option might take the form of storming into the living room, throwing yourself on the couch in a huff but then sulkily refusing to answer your spouse's questions about what's wrong. Expressing anger in this way is not doing you much good. If you exercise the second option, you might storm into the living room and start throwing the newly clean dishes. In this scenario, anger's not good for you, and it's certainly not good for those dishes.

But if you walk into the living room and have a calm, controlled conversation about what's bothering you, and how you'd like the other person to address the issue, then anger can be immensely good for you. In studies evaluating anger, participants have described properly controlled anger as an illuminating force, helping to identify both faults and strengths in interpersonal relationships. Getting angry led to making positive changes in those relationships [source: Weber].

When you can manage and release anger in this third way, with a calm conversation, many of those scary studies about heart attacks and early death don't apply. The first instance, of holding anger in, may lead to depression, and one study indicated that women who suppressed anger were three times more likely to die than those who did not hold on to angry feelings [source: Angier]. In the second scenario, overt violence and aggression will take its toll on the relationship and your body.

But releasing anger in the third way is both good for you and for the relationship. The very state of getting angry is telling you that something is wrong in the relationship, and that you'd better address the situation if you want to maintain the relationship. In fact, such an expression is likely good for the relationship. One study found that couples who express their anger productively are likely to live longer than couples who suppress their anger [source: LiveScience].

But what if it's not the kind of situation where you can have a nice productive chat? Find out how that anger can also be beneficial on the next page.

When you feel angry, try to think how you positively address the situation.

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Anger and Control

One reason that people generally regard anger as a negative emotion is that you get yourself worked up over something, but it's something that's out of your control and will never change, no matter how many well-mannered conversations you have. Some theorists think that we appraise our anger for its usefulness [source: Weber]. But it may be worth thinking outside the box about how to make your anger useful.

For example, it may make you angry when cars fly through a nearby intersection without stopping. You want them to be more aware of the children that walk and ride their bikes there. You could honk or flag down the offending cars to give them a piece of your mind, but sitting at the offending crosswalk, stewing over fast cars and waving your arms is not the most effective way to deal with your anger. What might be effective, though, is working with the local police department to acquire better signage or a traffic light at the dangerous spot. This is an example of how getting angry can create positive change in society; larger examples of this include the civil rights movement and the women's suffrage movement.

Creating change in this way can give you a way to take back control, something that would be lacking if you just felt fearful about sending your children outside to play near the speeding cars. The bodily response to anger is similar to that of fear. You start releasing chemicals to prime the body for action, what we know as the fight-or-flight response. Anger definitely trumps fear in dealing with the situation.

In 2005, a study showed that responding to a stressful situation with anger instead of fear gave you a greater sense of control and optimism about the situation [source: Lloyd]. In the study, researchers analyzed facial expressions, coding them for fear and anger. Those who showed more fear had higher blood pressure and stress hormones. Another study by the same psychologist found that those who responded to the attacks of Sept. 11, with anger instead of fear were more optimistic and realistic about the risks of another attack in the following year [source: DeAngelis].

But maybe you think these people aren't thinking clearly, that their rage is clouding their brain. Anger does change your thinking, but recent research indicates that it might change it for the better. A 2007 study demonstrated that angrier people were better able to differentiate between strong and weak arguments [source: Wenner]. Those who weren't angry were equally convinced by both arguments. This study seems to suggest that anger can help you focus on what's important to you and make decisions that will meet your needs.

As we mentioned, you can't just walk around angry all the time and expect good things to happen. There has to be a level of moderation associated with this anger on either end -- in the things that make you mad and in the way that you deal with it. As Aristotle said, you have to be angry at the right thing, for the right amount of time and deal with it in the right way.

So the next time you feel yourself getting angry, ask yourself what you can do to correct the wrongdoing and stand up for yourself. You may just learn something about yourself in the process -- more than half of a group of Russians and Americans who participated in a 1997 study about their anger reported that anger created positive change, with a third of them saying that it specifically helped them address personal faults [source: DeAngelis].

To learn more about anger and other emotions, see the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Sources

  • Angier, Natalie. "If Anger Ruins Your Day, It Can Shrink Your Life." New York Times. Dec. 13, 1990. (June 2, 2008) http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C0CE7D61731F930A25751C1A966958260&scp=1&sq=if+anger+ruins+your+day&st=nyt
  • Carpenter, Sandra and Amy G. Halberstadt. "Mothers' Reports of Events Causing Anger Differ Across Family Relationships." Social Development. 2000.
  • DeAngelis, Tori. "When anger's a plus." Monitor on Psychology. March 2003. (June 5, 2008) http://www.apa.org/monitor/mar03/whenanger.html
  • Finlay, Liza. "The Art of the Hissy Fit." Flare. April 2008.
  • Lench, Heather C. "Anger Management: Diagnostic Differences and Treatment Implications." Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. 2004.
  • Lloyd, Robin. "Anger is Good For You." LiveScience. Nov. 3, 2005. (June 5, 2008)http://www.livescience.com/health/051103_anger.html
  • Ross, William David, trans. "The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle." 1908. (June 5, 2008)http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/ari/nico/index.htm
  • "Spouses Who Fight Live Longer." LiveScience. Jan. 23, 2008. (June 5, 2008)http://www.livescience.com/health/080123-spouse-fights.html
  • Tavris, Carol. "Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion." Simon & Schuster. 1982.
  • Weber, Hannelore. "Explorations in the Social Construction of Anger." Motivation and Emotion. June 2004.
  • Wenner, Melinda. "Anger Fuels Better Decisions." LiveScience. June 11, 2007. (June 5, 2008) http://www.livescience.com/health/070611_anger_rational.html