Anger might help you achieve your goals, study says — but beware of risks
Have a challenging goal ahead? Some anger could help you achieve it, according to new research.
For the study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers analyzed the role of anger in different scenarios, including a variety of challenges and a survey. One experiment, for example, focused on participants’ completion of word puzzles after being shown images designed to elicit specific emotional responses.
Across all the experiments, researchers found anger improved the participants’ ability to reach challenging goals compared to a neutral emotional condition. In some cases, anger was associated with higher scores or faster response times — while in one experiment, they found, it increased the rate of cheating to win prizes.
Anger did not, however, seem to improve outcomes when the goals were easier instead of challenging. In certain experiments, amusement or desire were also associated with increased goal attainment, but anger was associated with increased success across the board.
“People often believe that a state of happiness is ideal, and the majority of people consider the pursuit of happiness a major life goal,” lead author Heather Lench, a professor at Texas A&M University, said in a news release. “The view that positive emotion is ideal for mental health and well-being has been prominent in lay and psychological accounts of emotion, but previous research suggests that a mix of emotions, including negative emotions like anger, result in the best outcomes.”
Researchers also analyzed survey data collected from the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential elections, where people were asked how angry they’d be if their candidate didn’t win. Though it had no effect on who they voted for, those who said they would be angry were more likely to vote in the election.
“These findings demonstrate that anger increases effort toward attaining a desired goal, frequently resulting in greater success,” Lench said.
So, is anger always beneficial? Not exactly.
Nicholette Leanza, a licensed professional clinical counselor with mental health care company LifeStance Health, who was not involved in the study, told CBS News that the findings didn’t surprise her.
“Often with my own clients, I’ve noticed when they move from being sad about something that didn’t happen for them to feeling angry about it, they’re more likely to take action to make things better for themselves,” she said. “Their anger about the situation is the motivator behind moving them forward.”
Alyssa Mairanz, owner and executive director of Empower Your Mind Therapy, who was also not involved in the study, explained how emotions can be strong motivators.
“In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) we like to look at emotions as neither good nor bad; they are the reality,” she says. “In DBT we also talk about emotions having three main functions: Emotions can communicate to and influence others; they can organize and motivate for action, which is what the study showed; and they can be self-validating and indicators of our needs.”
While any emotion, including anger, is valid, Mairanz says, they should be used as guidance on how to proceed — but this can be done effectively or ineffectively.
“Impulsively acting on an emotion can lead to negative consequences if we don’t act in our best interests,” she says. “Anger is an especially risky emotion because it tends to be the one where people act most impulsively. Acting on anger without thought can cause someone to lash out verbally or even physically. Generally, that is not the most effective action in the situation.”
“As we can see from the study, anger can be a motivator. But if a person stays angry for extended periods of time, that is not helpful or healthy at all,” Leanza says. “We often say anger turned inward is depression, and we definitely see this when people struggle to manage their anger over long periods of time. So, anger can be positive for short blasts of motivation, but long periods of it can really turn a person toxic.”
And because of the connection between brain and body, anger can also impact our physical health.
“Like other emotions, (anger) is accompanied by physiological and biological changes; when you get angry, your heart rate and blood pressure go up, as do the levels of your energy hormones, adrenaline, and noradrenaline,” according to the American Psychological Association.
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