How Anger can be a Positive Emotion

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By Petra Walker

The first wave of positive psychology focused on defining what constitutes a good life, with the formation of various models of wellbeing and the development of positive psychology interventions.

The second wave, however, switched the focus to the dynamics between positive and negative emotions, uncovering some of the downsides of positive emotions. One of these positive emotions is false optimism, which can create a situation where we believe things will be so much better than the evidence really suggests, and therefore we do not carry out the actions that would actually make a difficult situation a success. 

Likewise, instead of dismissing negative emotions as inherently bad and something to avoid, second-wave positive psychologists started to examine how these negative emotions could be used for good. One such emotion is anger. 

What is Anger?

Anger has been blamed for the start of wars, for interpersonal violence, increasing anxiety and depression, digestive issues, heart attacks and skin problems. It can range from a mild irritation or displeasure to full blown rage and fury.

Anger is one of the six basic emotions that everyone feels at some point, sitting alongside disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise.

Anger can hit you like a train, increasing your heart rate and arterial tension, stepping up testosterone production and causing a release of adrenaline and cortisol. Your face reddens, your palms sweat, and your body might start to shake as muscles tense up. In your brain, the increase in cortisol suppresses your use of the prefrontal cortex – the seat of good decision making. It can take 20 minutes or more for your body and mind to fully recover. In that time, we are very quick to be re-stimulated. 

So how on earth can it be good? To answer that question, we need to look at the causes of anger and what we then do with it. 

What causes Anger?

What makes one person angry may create amusement in another. How we interpret situations depends on how we grew up, our experiences in life, and the current situation we are in.

Anger can be triggered by threats, or by feelings of powerlessness or injustice to ourselves or even to others. It is a moral emotion where our sense of how things should be is disturbed.

Keeping our expression of anger justified and our response to anger proportionate is the key to channelling the positive side of anger. This is not a new idea, as even Aristotle in 2000 BCE stated, “Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but 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 – that is not within everybody’s power.”

How can Anger be a Positive Force?

By stepping back, taking stock and focusing on what exactly is making us angry, we can identify our emotional and moral sense of injustice. 

We can wait until we have recovered from that initial rush of adrenaline and cortisol before deciding how we can right this – not as I did about twelve years ago, when I found myself standing between two groups of teenagers who were about to start a dog fight in a car park outside a primary school about ten minutes before the children were due to be released at the end of the day. My sense of moral outrage overwhelmed me, my prefrontal cortex was clearly not functioning, as it allowed me to put myself in danger, standing between the dogs, whilst giving the teens a strong ticking-off as I threatened to call the police. That day I was lucky and they backed down, heading in different directions. 

More recently, we have seen and felt collective anger at misogyny and abuse created the #MeToo movement, aimed at creating social change; outrage at ongoing systemic racism launched the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

On a smaller scale, people around the world right small injustices, stand for local councils, report bullies to teachers and are kind to others who have been wronged. All because their anger has alerted them to an imbalance that needs to be righted.

So, next time you find yourself being riled, think about what you can do to right the wrong and channel that anger to do good.

If you want to explore more ways coaching can help you or your clients manage emotions and behaviours, have a look at our ICF-accredited Foundations in Positive Psychology Coaching course.

Petra Walker

Petra Walker

Petra is a passionate and vibrant Positive Psychology Coach, who has worked in Hong Kong, South Korea, Kuwait, Poland, UK and Dubai. As well as coaching at the IPPC, she is also an Associate Coach with NEO Leaders at INSEAD, the Business School for the World.

She is also a researcher, writer and speaker, presenting her research into Posttraumatic Growth, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Scuba Diving at international conferences and is currently co-authoring a chapter on Adventure and Posttraumatic Growth for a forthcoming book on Adventure Psychology.

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