If you want to get things done, it can sometimes help to get mad, according to recent research.
A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology tested how anger could help people attain their goals across six experiments. The researchers found that when the challenges were complex and thorny, having participants get angry helped them achieve their goals ― more than feelings of amusement, sadness, or a neutral emotion.
“Participants in the anger conditions did better in a variety of situations in attaining goals despite challenges, compared to neutral conditions and several other emotional states. This included doing better at solving puzzles, cheating to attain prizes, video games that involved skiing around poles, and taking political action by voting or signing a petition,” said Heather Lench, the study’s lead author, and a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Texas A&M University.
However, “anger did not lead to better outcomes in fairly easy situations that did not involve the same types of challenges,” Lench said.
Why anger can help you achieve your goals
In one of the studies, 233 college students were randomly assigned an emotion. The students in the anger condition would watch insults to their football team, while students in the desire condition saw dessert, those in the amusement one saw cute kittens and laughing infants, and those prepped to feel sad saw images of funerals and sickness.
Then, the students got 20 minutes to write out and unscramble as many words as they could from four sets of seven anagrams in varying levels of difficulty. Students who were primed to get mad solved 39% more anagrams than those in the neutral condition.
Why did anger help with tough memory puzzles but did not improve people’s performances when it came to easier assignments?
“We don’t know for certain in the studies, but the theory is that the responses that come with anger ― such as focused attention, increased physiological arousal, a tendency to approach issues ― are helpful in situations that are challenging,” Lench said. “In easy situations, those changes are less likely to be important to do well.”
“The interesting thing about anger is that it’s a cognitively clarifying emotion.”
Soraya Chemaly, an activist and author of “Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger,” said the findings align with what she has seen in her research. While rage can be a self-harming, destructive emotion that corrodes your relationships and undermines your goals, she said, anger can help you see things more clearly.
“The interesting thing about anger is that it’s a cognitively clarifying emotion,” Chemaly said. “When people feel angry, it’s often the case that they are thinking methodically, strategically, quite clearly, because the anger distills complex emotions, but also complex ideas.”
And while sadness can make you retreat inwards, anger pushes you to reach out and make demands of other people, she added.
“We’re socialised to think of anger as destructive, or socially isolating, or a threat to relationships. It’s actually immensely social,” Chemaly said. “Because usually when a person is angry, they have to engage other people in order to be efficacious, to change the circumstances that are making them angry. Nine times out of 10 [that] involves other people acknowledging the threat or injustice, or people who have the power to help, or people who you need to get a response or change from. And sadness doesn’t do that.”
She cited a September study on climate anger, which found that anger was the strongest emotional predictor of people doing climate activism and policy support as a result, as an example of anger’s uses.
“The challenge of climate is a significantly big complicated one,” she said. “There’s something in the idea that the harder the challenge, the bigger the obstacle, the angrier you get.”
In this way, it can be helpful to understand anger as a potential tool you can access when needed instead of something you need to suppress when it naturally arises.
“We know from other studies that people will intentionally seek out anger experiences before entering a confrontation, intuitively believing that it will be useful for them to confront issues,” Lench said. “Our study suggests that this belief is often well grounded ― a moderate intensity of anger does seem to have benefits for overcoming challenging situations.”
Other research has found that inducing anger can help people be quicker with creative problem-solving, too.
So the next time you feel a building sense of frustration at a complex work task staring back at you, embrace the anger ― it might just help you reach the finish line sooner.
“All emotions have value ... if you can name them and label them and make meaning from them, they can all have a place of worth in reaching goals,” Chemaly said. “If you are feeling anger ― which is an uncomfortable emotion for most people to feel ― don’t shut it down. Don’t try and repress it or suppress it ... There’s so much information and knowledge that comes with the anger.”