On Anger

In Essays, Philosophy, Self Improvement, Stoicism

I’ve often entertained the thought that to be a “real” man (whatever that is supposed to mean) one has to have somewhat of a temper, to show one’s anger at things that are unfair, wrong, unjust, and downright annoying. In this essay I am going to write about my experiences and thoughts on anger, and so I urge any female readers to bear with me, as this is may turn out to be a male-centric essay.

I’m part Italian, and anger is ingrained into that culture. Walk in the centre of any large city in Italy during rush hour and you will hear profanities being exclaimed my multiple drivers against that anonymous, yet highly irritating phenomenon, called traffic. On occasion, the accusers pinpoint the exact cause of the jam, and torrents of abuse shower upon that unlucky individual. This almost makes me want to move back to Italy.

Anger is also sexy. The passionate footballer who is outraged by the decision, the boyfriend who turns into a knight to honour his girlfriend against a perceived slight, the national leader who pledges a tough no-tolerance attitude to crime after a particular incident.

So we might be able to reach the conclusion that moderate amounts of anger are, if not good, at least easily tolerable by both the individual and society.

Time is often said to be the best solution for anger, and my personal opinion is that things that don’t stand the test of time, such as anger, beauty, lies, shoddy construction, are normally not positive or important. Anger can lead to bad decision making and has been shown not to be particularly healthy.

However, sometimes it feels like being angry is the right thing to do. Surely we should get outraged at the a particularly nasty incident, and we should be tough on crime.

*Or should we? *

One side of that argument is that we should keep our cool head, and make decisions for the greater good, not just based on what happened five minutes ago. Acting on impulse is how the United States of America have ended up with the largest incarcerated population on the planet, namely by announcing the “War on Drugs”.

The philosopher Epictetus makes a great point about controlling our emotions. We would be shocked if anyone walking down the street could control our bodies purely by speaking. Can you imagine that? They tell us to jump and we jump, to crawl and we crawl, to strip off our clothes and we strip. That would be downright scary.

But that is exactly what happens to our minds. We let other people control our emotions on a whim. We let them decide if we are going to be angry, hysterical , depressed, envious, amused, shocked, relaxed, and you get the point.

I find this just as scary as letting others have the power over our bodies. In fact, I find this even scarier, because it could potentially be done without us even noticing, and we’ve now just entered right into the world of advertising. I’ve discussed before how advertisers can try to control our feelings and decision making process, and how each year companies, and governments, spend huge sums of money trying to do so.

But perhaps I digress, after all, what as this got to do with anger? Well, it’s simple, anger is just another one of these emotions, and it’s important that we take back control of all of our emotions from other people, and anger is a great starting point.

So the point to take away is this: Don’t let other people make you angry.

If you’re brave, you can extend this to: Don’t let other people or situations make you angry.

This is because if other people can make you angry, it means that the power over your emotive state is in their hands, not yours, and they can pretty much wind you up like an alarm clock and manipulate your emotions at will, and trust me, if they can, they will.

As a starting point, anger is the best emotion to try and keep in check. And by the way, when I am talking about keeping emotions under control, I’m not talking about becoming an emotionless humanoid drone, but reaching a happy middle ground between the general current state, and buddha-like calm.

So why is anger the best emotion to start with when trying to control all of our emotions? The answer is simple, it’s probably one of the most powerful emotions, the one with the most outward physical manifestations, and so this allows us to quickly identify when we are feeling angry.

So before we try and control anger, let’s try and figure out exactly what it is.

I’m fairly mathematical, and so let’s take a look at it from that point of view.

Anger is a product of frustration and of things not going according to our view of how things should go.

So anger can actually be calculated as follows:

The difference between our expectations and reality , multiplied by the importance factor of the situation, divided by our calmness ( acceptance) factor.

((Expectation – Reality)*Importance)/Acceptance = Anger

((e-r)*i)/a = Anger

The higher the number, the worse our anger will be in a given situation. So anger is dependent on high expectations about important (or simply immediate, which we can call locally important) life events.

This idea of locally important events is why people often get angry about seamlessly minor situations, but because it is happening right now, and near them, and affects them immediately, the importance factor goes up considerably, even if in the larger scheme of things it’s not very important.

Think about this example: some people might have an angry outburst over a broken glass, but a broken glass is hardly going to have a large effect on our lives as a whole, but if it happens when you’re just about to leave the house because you’re already late for work, then it immediately becomes locally important.

So there are four variables in this equation:

  1. Expectations
  2. Reality
  3. Importance
  4. Acceptance

The awesome thing about this is that we actually control number 1, 3, and 4. The only variable out of our control is reality. This is something that we simply have to accept. In life things will just happen that are completely out of our control.

So, let’s focus on what we can control.

Expectations

I wrote an entire essay regarding expectations (and acceptance), entitled “[It Could Be Worse]” and I think it is worth reiterating the fantastic quote from Tyler Durden, a character in the hit movie Fight Club:

It could be worse. A woman could cut off your penis while you’re sleeping and toss it out the window of a moving car.

While this also touches on the subject of acceptance, it mostly speaks about the power of negative visualisation, or expecting the worst, and hoping for the best.

If we become more comfortable in thinking about the potential downsides of any given situation, and actually consider the downside as something that could really happen, to us (not to other people, as it always seems the case), then of expectations will probably be more in line with reality.

Setting high expectations for every situation is a sure fire way to kickstart frustration, which will eventually lead to anger.

I think this is a key part in becoming a well balanced adult, and it’s incredible how many people go through their entire lives with completely unrealistic expectations.

Now I am not saying that we shouldn’t dream. It’s more subtle than that.

There is a great example that the philosopher Seneca gives us about one of his friends become very angry and punishing a slave for breaking a plate at a dinner party. Seneca thought this was ridiculous, mostly because a slave breaking a plate is something that at some point in your life (well, two and a bit thousand years ago) you should probably expect. It’s not an event that could never have been imagined to have happened, and so it’s ridiculous to get angry over something as minor and natural as someone dropping a plate.

Importance

Why do we view certain things or events as important to us? On the whole, it’s because, in some way, they affect us, or because we feel that we own it. Our child is important, because he or she is ours, someone else’s child is nowhere near as important to us.

In the above equation of anger, the importance variable multiples the result of the difference between our expectations and reality.

So if our expectations are much greater than the reality (e > r), and it’s an important event, then this will lead to greater frustration. If, however, r is greater than e, then this will result in a negative number, and our anger index will be negative, which means we will be pleasantly surprised, because reality actually turned out to be better than our expectations – sweet.

So it’s important to note (excuse the terrible pun), that while the importance variable does not affect whether a certain situation is likely to result in frustration or pleasant surprise, it does affects the degree of frustration or pleasant surprise.

This leads us to the logical conclusion that it is a wise move to be somewhat pessimistic about our expectations for important events, because it limits our downside of frustration by a huge degree.

In fact, it is generally good practice to make the “i” in the equation as small as possible, and to avoid placing much importance on outside events. This is exactly what the Stoics advocate, that nothing outside of our thoughts and actions are important, because we cannot control them. Plenty of my other essays expand on this very point.

Acceptance

Because, in our equation, Acceptance (or “a”) divides the total of the other variables, it’s important to try and make this value as large as possible, so it makes our final result (anger) as small as possible. Of course, this also works the other way, and if we have a negative value (which, in our equation, means a pleasant surprise), then this also limits the upside of this too.

In reality, this works somewhat like this, but, of course, having complete acceptance that external situations are our of our control will not stop us from having a smile on our face when things go right, but it will really help when things go wrong.
So that’s how you work with the equation of anger!

An Interesting Question.

Is it possible never to get angry again?

Of course, the immediate question following this, is whether never getting angry again is healthy, or even desirable. Perhaps anger has some use in our lives?

I think that emotional control is a sign up maturity, and I am often surprised how people who are much older than me (I’m just 24 at the time of writing) still act primarily out of emotion, instead of using rational thinking, which is the huge advantage we have over all of the other species that coexist with us on planet earth.

Yes, that’s right, I am suggesting that acting purely from an emotional state puts us on the same level as an animal.

Think about it, we have this wonderful gift of rational thought. We can run thought experiments, weight up pros and cons, understand, to some extent, cause and effect. So it’s really a shame when we throw this gift out of the window and act purely based on our current emotional state, which more often than not is based heavily on transient events, which have no long term effects.

I’ll be continuing my investigating on anger in the near future, as we’re far from finished.