What stormy emotion helps your heart and clears a cloudy mind?
“MY BEHAVIOUR WAS UNACCEPTABLE,” said master butcher Jason Wells in 2015. “I shouldn’t act like that.” Wells was contrite for good reason: he had threatened to smash a cyclist’s teeth down his throat after struggling to overtake him in his Land Rover. Helmet-camera footage of the altercation had gone viral, and two-wheeled YouTubers had caricatured him as a snarling “road-rage champion”. In an interview conducted by a catering magazine not long before, however, Wells comes across as a decent, ordinary man – a father of two motivated by his “love of family, food and people”. What happened was probably just a moment of everyday madness. Countless scientific reports have found that anger can cloud our judgment of risk, make us crueller and encourage careless thought. And it’s an extremely common feeling: according to psychologist James Averill of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, “Most people report becoming mildly to moderately angry anywhere from several times a day to several times a week.”
It’s a relief, then, that seeing red has its uses. A study published in Health Psychology showed that venting our anger can help us maintain our resting blood pressure, while suppressing it has been linked to potentially cancer-inducing increases in stress. Righteous indignation also aids weight loss by reducing our appetite; in a 2014 study, test subjects who were made to feel a sense of injustice consumed fewer snacks than members of the control group. Their outrage had presumably left behind a bad taste.
Most curiously of all, a University of California paper demonstrated that rage – when it doesn’t overwhelm us – improves our ability to process information, increasing our motivation to “discriminate between weak and strong arguments”. Under control, it can make us more, not less, rational. So, it’s a matter of extent. Don’t go menacing cyclists on the road, but don’t resist the urge to release the pressure valve now and then, either. As the Dalai Lama observed, “If a human being never shows anger . . . he’s not right in the brain.” ■