“The angry man is aiming at what he can attain, and the belief that you will attain your aim is pleasant.” —Aristotle
Anger has a negative reputation when compared to positive emotions such as happiness, enthusiasm, and hope. Perhaps the lack of respect for anger is rooted in social, cultural, and religious reasons, as well as the obvious manifestation of its often destructive outcomes, such as aggression and violence. In fact, many believe we would be better off without anger as an emotion. However, more and more social and evolutionary psychologists, brain scientists, and mental health professionals are suggesting anger has valuable qualities and can be beneficial to the human condition.
From an evolutionary perspective, all emotions are appropriate in certain circumstances when experienced at an optimal degree, providing the resources to effectively operate toward a desired goal. For example, certain levels of stress and anxiety push us to perform at a high level. Sadness can be cathartic, filling us with appreciation for what we have lost while signaling to others we need support to recover and heal. Similarly, mild to moderate anger can help us positively move forward—yet, of course, extreme or chronic anger can be detrimental to our well-being.
Anger is not just aggressive reaction. It often provides us with information that allows us to better engage with the world around us (as well as ourselves). If we see anger as something that makes us more informed, we can adapt our response accordingly to better our position. To this end, the following is a list of benefits anger can provide when the appropriate level of the emotion is attained.
1. ANGER IS DESIGNED TO PROMOTE SURVIVAL
Emotions evolved to keep us safe. Our fight response, which evolved so we could defend ourselves from an enemy or danger, stems from anger. Anger is embedded in our primitive need to live and protect ourselves against aggression. Anger drives people to be extremely vigilant about threats and sharpens our focus. When we are threatened or attacked by a predator, anger is automatically activated and pushes us to fight back and act quickly and forcefully to protect ourselves.
2. ANGER’S DISCHARGE IS CALMING
When you are angry, you experience physical and emotional pain. When you experience physical and emotional distress, anger strongly motivates you to do something about it. As such, anger helps you cope with the stress by first discharging the tension in your body, and by doing so it calms your “nerves.” That’s why you may have an angry reaction and then feel calm afterward.
3. ANGER PROVIDES A SENSE OF CONTROL
Anger is related to a deep need for control. Anger protects what is ours, helping us feel in charge rather than helpless. The function of anger is to inflict costs or withhold benefits from others to increase our welfare. Individuals who experience and display their anger appropriately are in a better position to fulfill their needs and control their destiny than those who suppress their anger. That said, it’s important to guard against becoming obsessed by the sense of power anger may elicit.
4. ANGER ENERGIZES US
From a survival perspective, we defend ourselves when we retaliate and make other people fear us. Anger guards us when someone wants to hurt us. It gives us the strength and aggression to help us overcome a stronger enemy. In day-to-day situations, anger serves as a positive force to motivate us to stand up for ourselves and creatively find solutions to the challenges we face. As Richard Davidson says, anger “mobilizes resources, increases vigilance, and facilitates the removal of obstacles in the way of our goal pursuits, particularly if the anger can be divorced from the propensity to harm or destroy.”
5. ANGER MOTIVATES US TO SOLVE PROBLEMS
When we feel like things are out of place, we can get angry. If things are not the way they are supposed to be and need to change, anger propels us to do something and motivates us to find solutions to our problems. Anger is triggered when we face an obstacle or individual (or something else) that blocks our needs. It prepares us to deal with the obstruction or problem in our path so we can get to where we want to be.
6. ANGER MAKES US AWARE OF INJUSTICE
We often experience anger when we are denied rights or when faced with insults, disrespect, injustice, or exploitation. Anger serves as an internal guidance system that indicates something is not quite right, that someone has treated us unjustly or unfairly. Anger helps communicate to others: “You’d better treat me fairly; otherwise, you’ll pay a high cost.” On a global level, standing up for a lack of fairness can prevent people from taking advantage of others. This type of anger can bring about positive change in society and increase the social cost of misbehaving.
7. ANGER DRIVES US TOWARD OUR GOALS
Anger pushes us to pursue our desired goals and rewards. When we don’t get what we want, anger is triggered and indicates we have moved away from our desired objectives. Anger tries to eliminate whatever prevents us from realizing our desires. It energizes and pushes us to act in service of achieving our goals and working toward our ideals.
8. ANGER INJECTS OPTIMISM
Surprisingly, anger can trigger optimism. It can encourage us to focus on what we hope to achieve, rather than merely focusing on the pain, insult, or victimization. The anger system is geared toward what is attainable, not the impossible. When we are angry, we often feel positive about our ability to change the situation, empowering us to take action and move from an undesirable position to a desirable one.
Anger serves as a social and personal value indicator and regulator. It is activated when our values are not in harmony with the situation we face. Accordingly, it makes us aware of our deep-seated beliefs and what we stand for.
9. ANGER PROTECTS OUR VALUES AND BELIEFS
Anger serves as a social and personal value indicator and regulator. It is activated when our values are not in harmony with the situation we face. Accordingly, it makes us aware of our deep-seated beliefs and what we stand for. It also motivates us to rectify the discrepancy and take action to change the situation (or our belief) to align the reality we face with our values.
10. ANGER IS A BARGAINING TOOL
Anger erupts naturally when someone puts a lower value, or weight, on your welfare relative to their own. Anger is designed to recalibrate the situation and thus increase our value. Anger also strongly asserts our position and may lead to compliance by others. Anger drives us to respond to conflict in a way that helps us bargain to our advantage. It causes others to rethink their positions against our position. It signals to the other side: “What you propose is too costly for me. You would be better off if you changed the value you assign to me (decrease my cost or increase your value).”
11. ANGER INCREASES COOPERATION
If anger is justified and the response is appropriate, usually the misunderstanding is corrected, leading to increased cooperation. Anger tells others it is important to listen to us—that we feel annoyed and it is wise to pay attention to our words. Anger communicates: “I don’t like the situation, and we need to work together to find a better solution.” Anger makes you stand up for yourself and constructively challenge the other side. As such, anger encourages cooperation.
12. ANGER IMPROVES NEGOTIATING POSITIONS
Anger may lead to better outcomes in business negotiations. While two parties negotiate, the negotiator who seems angrier may be in a better position to tilt the agreement in their favor. Similarly, when one party believes the other negotiating side is angry, they may be more willing to compromise. In that regard, anger serves as a negotiating tool used to persuade, reach a deal, or improve the negotiated position.
13. ANGER COVERS PAINFUL FEELINGS
Similar to Sigmund Freud‘s defense mechanisms that exist to protect the personality from an unbearable anxiety when the ego is under attack, anger serves this critical psychological function. Anger is a raw, “superficial” emotion that prevents (defends/blocks) you from feeling even more painful emotions. For example, a person who was betrayed by their partner may use anger to control their partner rather than share their own pain, which is difficult to bear.
14. ANGER PUSHES US TO REACH A DEEPER SELF
Anger is generally a very apparent emotion and at times can be volcanic. Yet—like a volcano that is formed when magma pushes up through the earth’s crust from below, depositing lava on the surface—there are many forces that push anger to surface, such as fear and defensiveness. It might be a fear of losing control or fear of being alone, rejected, abandoned, unloved, etc. Anger provides insight into ourselves, as it is the layer of deeper issues that are most hidden. This is why it is important to trace the trail of anger and dig down to find and address its source. Only after addressing the blockage that leads to anger can we free ourselves from the misery it sometimes induces.
15. ANGER CAN LEAD TO SELF-IMPROVEMENT
Anger can make you a better person and can be a force of positive change. It provides insight into our faults and shortcomings. If looked at constructively, this can lead to positive outcomes. Just like motivation, it can lead to self-change. For instance, if one knows certain things make them angry, they can work on these triggers to improve their response to them and, by doing so, improve their quality of life and relationships.
16. FEELING ANGER ENHANCES EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE
Individuals willing to embrace uncomfortable emotions such as anger, rather than avoiding or repressing them, have greater emotional intelligence. Emotionally intelligent individuals do not resist anger, instead utilizing its “wisdom” to gain its positives. As a result, they have highly flexible emotional response systems and are more adaptive and resilient.
Despite an unfavorable reputation, the concept of constructive anger is gaining more empirical support from researchers and can have a beneficial role in our lives. Anger is an integral part of our fight-or-flight mechanism. It had a survival necessity in the past and has some positive value in the present, too. The motivation and action that is powered by anger can move us toward reaching our goals. It pushes us to fix the wrongs we see in the world and make it right.
Extreme anger is effective in serious life-or-death situations. Yet, this modality is rarely useful in day-to-day living. The key to its effectiveness is for anger to be expressed with the appropriate intensity to the situation, while feeling it (rather than repressing it) and utilizing it in a wise manner. As Aristotle said, we have to be angry “with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way.” He added this is not easy.
I would like to end by using a metaphor: Anger, like a fire, is a primal force. When left unchecked, it can be destructive, yet when managed and used wisely, it can be a beneficial and powerful instrument that leads to enlightenment.
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