Anger Is the Key to Happiness

martin luther king with a quote from martin luther king.

I started off 2017 with an education resolution: I wanted more of it. And so, I signed up for a class on Happiness, created by the Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and offered by edX. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

In my first lesson, I had a couple of significant take-aways about happiness: it’s correlated to a longer lifespan, the ability to regain health after disease, greater creativity and problem solving. And if you’re going to live a long life, heck — you might as well be happy.

But the part of the conversation that stuck with me most of all was the value of anger.

Angry BabyOne of the best things I did recently with a large amount of anger I was feeling was to find an immediate physical outlet for it. I don’t remember what caused the anger, but I was fuming. I told my husband I wanted to throw something. He suggested plates, but I didn’t want to be wasteful (I was angry, but not irrational!). However I wanted to see something explode. Eureka. “ICE! GRAB THE ICE!”

We went outside and damned if I didn’t destroy an entire bucket of ice. It exploded all over the ground, and my body released. That tension, that anger, I released it.

And I don’t remember what I was so angry about, but I do remember the cathartic thrill of the release. It was great. My husband was impressed with my vigor, and I enjoyed release. It was almost orgasmic.

And yet, I felt guilty for getting “out of control”. As a person, as a woman, as a mother.

As it turns out, there’s NO NEED to feel guilty!

Here’s something I learned in my very first class from Dachel Keltner, the co-director of the GGSC:

“So Aristotle writes [when articulating his Principle of Moderation], anyone can become angry. That’s easy. But to be angry at the right person and imagesto the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose and the right way that’s not within everybody’s power and that’s not easy. When our passions are cultivated in the right context, they bring us happiness and the good life.

And even passions like anger when, for example, engaged in societal injustice can bring about a lot of good and happiness. Aristotle is suggesting moderation and acceptance of our passions as a pathway to happiness.”

So. The ice smashing brought me relief and release. Admiration from my husband, and some humor. But I didn’t really take action. I didn’t use the anger; I just got rid of it.

More research, this time from postdoctoral scholar Lahnna Catalino of UCSF, found that

“The negative emotions that arise from negative life events, big or small, are natural and help us better understand ourselves—they provide vital information about what we value and what might need to change in our lives. For instance, feeling a wave of anxiety about your physical health may actually motivate you to improve your dietary habits.”

Aha! So in this case, a little anger is good for you. It’s your brain trying to say, “Wake up, Buddy. We have work to do.” Pay attention to the anger, it’s a message: Time for a change.

Anger is the indicator light in the dashboard that you’ve got to tend to something, something that’s wrong. I want to finish with a quote from Psychology Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky of UC Riverside which closes the loop on what happy people can do with their anger.

Happier people are more likely to tackle the problems of the world. They have more energy, they are more goal oriented. They are very focused on others. If you’re not happy, you tend to be self-focused, you want to solve whatever problems you have. If you’re happier, you’re more likely to go out and do something about those problems that are going on.Women's March on Washington

Happy people make change happen because they have the energy and the creativity to see the opportunity. Fuel your happiness to fuel change. Visit with your anger, because anger is important, telling you what you value, and what needs your energy (after all, anger can use up a lot of energy). But as Aristotle noted, how you use that anger: in the right way, at the right time, directed to the right person, that is the key.

And the more positive change you create, based on that useful anger, the happier you’ll be.


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