Using Anger to Fuel Your Growth

Studies suggest that anger can help you achieve difficult goals, if used wisely.



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Anger is not usually a pleasant feeling. When we feel we’ve been wronged—by, say, a slow driver or a boss or a noisy neighbor — our heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature go up, preparing us to confront the challenge.

While releasing that tension may feel good in the moment, the aftereffects can be harsh. Getting angry can hurt our relationships with other people, especially if our anger is misplaced. People who are frequently angry are more prone to having health issues, too, like inflammatory diseases, heart attacks, strokes, and pain.

For these reasons, many of us try to tamp down anger when we feel it, assuming it does more harm than good. But there’s a downside to doing that. Repressing anger can still hurt our physical health and well-being, especially if the underlying cause isn’t addressed.

All emotions have value — otherwise, we wouldn’t have evolved to feel them. Just like feelings of fear, joy, or sadness, anger helps us to focus on our experience in the world and prepare an appropriate response. While there isn’t as much research on the upsides of anger (in comparison to its downsides), there is some—and it’s instructive. Here are three ways that anger can be good for you.

Anger helps us with challenging goals
Feeling anger calls our attention to the ways we’re being thwarted in meeting our goals and motivates us to take steps to overcome challenges, according to a recent study.

Heather Lench of Texas A&M University and her colleagues prompted study participants to feel anger or another emotion (like sadness or amusement) by looking through a series of images that had been shown by previous experiments to elicit those feelings. Then, they were given challenging tasks to do, like solving difficult puzzles or winning a video game.

Results showed that people performed best when feeling anger as opposed to the other emotions they tested. This suggests anger may help us meet goals that would otherwise be hard to meet.

“[In] situations that include challenges to clearly defined goals, anger is helpful,” says Lench. “[Anger] leads you towards responses that help you overcome obstacles.”

In the experiment with puzzles, angry people persevered longer at the tasks, which was tied to their superior performance. In contrast, spending extra time on the task while sad or amused or feeling desire didn’t seem to help with performance at all.

“When you’re angry, you might be persisting more effectively than when you’re in other emotional states, which is interesting,” says Lench.

Of course, while feeling anger may help people meet goals, those goals aren’t necessarily worthy—nor are the ways people choose to meet them, says Lench. For example, in one experiment within the study, people were given a difficult task, but with an opportunity to cheat without being detected (or so they thought). Angry people succeeded more, but they also cheated more than other groups.

“Obviously, cheating isn’t a good or a successful thing to do in real life, as cheating is likely to have other negative consequences for you,” says Lench. “The organized responses that come with anger are not directional; they’re not necessarily leading you towards a good or beneficial response.”

That’s why it’s important to channel anger toward something that matters—and not just use it blindly. “Being thoughtful about what we’re doing, even when we’re experiencing a very intense emotion, like anger, is important,” says Lench.

Anger may increase civic engagement
In the same way anger calls our attention to ways we are being thwarted from reaching important goals, it can also spur us toward more civic engagement.

In another part of Lench’s study, she and her colleagues surveyed nearly 1,000 people from California and Texas before the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections to find out how angry they were at the thought of their non-preferred candidate winning. After the election, the researchers then checked to see if people voted and, if they did, for whom.

Results showed that angrier people were more likely to vote, no matter which candidate they supported. Interestingly, feeling fear did not predict more voting.

“Anger seems to be an approach motivator, so when we feel anger, we want to go towards the problem,” says Lench. Although fear can help focus us on a threat the way anger does, it may lead to more avoidance, she adds.

Of course, anger probably played a role in some people rioting after the 2020 election results came in and their candidate lost, says Lench. This means that pumping up our anger can backfire, if we don’t take stock first and think about how to manage it strategically.
“Taking that step back can really help people use emotions well instead of just leaping forward,” says Lench.

Still, anger can motivate us to take action in social and political issues that matter to us—a finding that seemed to hold true in another of Lench’s experiments.

In this one, some participants were induced to feel angry by playing a game that became unfair in the third round, while others played the first two rounds of the same game, then exercised briefly (to get their heart rate and body heat up). After being told the experiment was over, the participants were then offered an opportunity to sign a petition (purportedly from other students) to support protesting an unfair tuition hike at their university.

Those in the anger group were more likely to sign the petition than those in the exercise group, suggesting that something about anger (and not just a fast-beating heart) helped them to take action on their own behalf. Though the main purpose of this experiment was to compare physical stimulation (an element of anger) to anger itself, it also suggested that the feeling can drive people to address a social issue.

Anger can help us recognize our needs in relationships
Though Lench’s study was focused on non-social goals, there are instances when anger can be useful within relationships, too. For example, anger can lead people to clarify their needs within a relationship and to communicate those needs, which can help the relationship over the long run.

“There are some really interesting studies from the 80s that suggest when romantic couples get into an argument about an issue, which includes anger and frustration, the most common outcome is an improved relationship,” says Lench. “Expressing what you need in the conversation can actually strengthen relationships.”

On the other hand, showing anger, especially intense anger, toward a loved one may not serve your goals, depending on what your goals are, says Lench. For example, if your goal is to improve your relationship, then anger motivates you to communicate frustrations to your partner and resolve issues. On the other hand, if your goal is to prove you’re right in a fight, anger might make you talk over someone or try to intimidate them, which will likely hurt your relationship.

“It really matters what you’re aiming for,” says Lench. “Although anger can be motivating, it can lead to negative outcomes, too.”

Although anger helped people in her experiment, she says, the participants weren’t feeling intense anger — rage or fury — but more the kind of frustration you might feel when a computer crashes. Intense anger may not have the same benefits as milder versions, which help you focus without overwhelming you.

“If we had been looking at very intense anger, it likely would have interfered with performance instead of helping it,” she says. In a relationship with a person, using anger as a tool of control instead of a way of getting your own needs recognized may get results in the short term — but over the long run it will erode trust and good feeling.

So, intensity matters — and so does frequency. Expressing anger a lot, or having the same argument over and over again, can drive out positive feelings. Many disagreements between people are cyclical in nature and require deeper engagement — and, potentially, compromise—in order to get beyond anger toward a resolution.

The main purpose of anger is to call our attention to things that are hindering us in attaining important goals, says Lench, and that’s important to remember. “It’s an important signal to let you know that you should stop and think about your situation.” When we understand anger’s purpose, we can use it more effectively and not fall prey to its darker side.

“The goals that we have and what we’re working towards really matter when you’re talking about whether emotions are helpful or not,” she says. “And, of course, how we choose to respond when we’re angry is also very important.” Expressing your needs in assertive ways, while recognizing the needs of your relationship partner, is bound to help support a more authentic, mutually satisfying relationship.

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This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. Click here to read the original article.