Is Zero Anger Optimal? Yes (with Footnotes)

Aristotle famously wrote:

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; that is not easy.

—Nicomachean Ethics, 1109a25

A lot of people nod their head at this quote, and every second anger-management book includes it in full (including my own, though only to make a point). It’s a sentence that’s pretty hard to disagree with, as it is essentially stating the bleeding obvious: ‘we should strive to be angry in the right way, not the wrong way’. But it does raise a serious question: what is the ‘right’ way to be angry—the right time, place and degree? And what does ‘right’ even mean here? How do we evaluate it?

‘Right’ is often taken to mean culturally appropriate or socially sanctioned. As in, ‘you are right to be angry, you have every reason to be angry…’ The problem with defining the ‘rightness’ of anger this way is that it then becomes a matter of socially defined opinion, which varies considerably depending on time and place. In some cultures, stoning a woman to death for adultery is the ‘right’ way. In Israel or South America the right degree may be ‘red hot’. In many cultures the right person and purpose will depend on whether you are a man or a woman, with men being encouraged to display their anger while women are expected to stifle it. We suspect Aristotle, whether he knew it or not, when he wrote ‘right’ meant ‘normal within the higher circles of Greek society circa 340 BC’. So the right person might have been your slave, and the right way with a whip. In white middle class America, the right time and place appears to be at any and every infringement of any right, rule, sanction, principle, or custom the individual can put into words: from the ‘right’ to come home to a lowered toilet seat, to the entitlement to drive unimpeded to work; from ‘deserving’ to sit on a bus without overhearing someone’s telephone conversation, to the demand that as a woman walking in a poor neighbourhood men must never call out ‘Hey honey!’ as you pass them by.

As a therapist, I’m not interested in working out what amount of anger is normal or appropriate in these scenarios. The answer to this will change from suburb to suburb and from week to week. The therapist is not there to make you conform to the status quo, or to tell you which stance you should or shouldn’t take on a given matter of ethics. He or she is there to help you maximise your psychological health. In the case of anger, the question becomes not what is ‘right’ but what is healthy, what is optimal. And it is rarely optimal to be angry as much as your culture prescribes, unless your community happens to be Buddhist, Swiss, or Inuit.

In terms purely of what’s good for you, then—good for your life—I’d operationalize anger’s right time and place and degree as never and nowhere and nil, with these exceptions:

In physical fighting when there are no better options than to fight, you have no skill or knowledge in fighting, and there is no opportunity for improvisation, or problem-solving.
In one-time negotiations with ‘weaker’ opponents with whom a relationship is unimportant, and provided they have no opportunity for deceit or revenge and that any onlookers you may have future dealings with won’t think less of you because of it, including yourself.
In method-acting angry scenes.
These are three scenarios in which, I’ll concede, being angry might be helpful. Well, two. The third is really neither here nor there.

How precisely I arrived at these conclusions is unpacked in my book, The Anger Fallacy. But for now, a little explanation of each point is in order.

1. For most of our history (and that of our pre-human ancestors), fighting, hunting, and warring was a crucial part of daily life—especially for males, and anger was a value-add. In the civilised world of today, however, this is no longer the case. Most of our conflicts are resolved through legal, verbal, contractual or other means, and best served by a calm, alert mind, not an angry one. The physiological and autonomic fireworks associated with anger, which are all geared towards fighting, are completely unnecessary in the boardroom, or the bedroom; they’re hazardous to your health, and mess with your ability to think straight. I’d go a step further: They’re even mostly unnecessary in actual fights! When confronted, if you have other options than to fight (e.g. talk the assailant down, flee, threaten, bargain, beg, hide…), then these are usually preferable to fighting because fighting so often ends badly. You get physically hurt. Or else the other guy does, and you get legally hurt. Fighting is a slightly more viable option if you are a skilled and trained fighter. But then if you are a skilled and trained fighter, anger will impair your ability to fight. Hence the provisos in the list above.

P.S. Do not underestimate the power of fear to turbo charge fighting. The unskilled, backed-against-the-wall individual even if he/she isn’t enraged, will inevitably be terrified. Fear and anger are physiologically very similar. So this loss to the non-angry is both rare and minimal.

2. Negotiation/persuasion. The convoluted description I gave above was derived from a review of research pertaining to negotiation and dispute resolution (see chapter 2 of The Anger Fallacy). The negotiation-type situations in which you hold a stronger position than the other person (he/she has more to lose than you) include such things as getting a frightened salesman to refund a purchase, a tradesman to make amends for a slip up, or your seven-year-old to turn the T.V. off. In these situations, research suggests, getting angry may intimidate the person into doing what you want a little more than remaining calm. Anger has evolved to project toughness and a preparedness to attack and so it’s no surprise that it pays off exactly when intimidation would be expected to. Anger works here in the same way bullying works: when your target is in a weaker or more desperate position and thus has no options but to comply.

Note well, however: the bullying tactic is counterproductive if you’re the one in the weaker position, and a risky ploy if you and the other person are evenly poised (it essentially constitutes bluffing). It also backfires if you need something from the person in the future, or in some way value the relationship—especially in terms of fun, intimacy or trust. Because no matter what your position in terms of bargaining, your anger is guaranteed to predict resentment in the other person. The vast majority of our day-to-day anger (over 80% in one U.S. study) is directed at family and friends. In the vast majority of your interactions, therefore, it’s in your interest to be diplomatic and understanding (albeit firm, clear, and persistent on any issues you deem important enough), and anger becomes a hindrance.

But for the cases where you do hold the upper hand and don’t stand to lose anything in getting your opponent offside, then I’d have to say I have no practical or psychological arguments against your getting angry. One can raise ethical/aesthetic arguments against berating and intimidating desperate strangers or subordinates. But if this is something you have no qualms about, or indeed take pride in, then there is little that I can tell you here except to point out that your partner or other onlookers may not share your views. There are intellectual arguments against viewing others’ behaviour as ‘preventable’ (in a deterministic universe) and judging it as ‘wrong’ (in a meaningless universe). But you could argue that seeing reality for what it is in these scenes mightn’t necessarily be what’s best. (I’ll address the intellectual arguments against anger in another post.)

Practically speaking, what I can say, however, is this: the situations where anger may lend some bargaining power are precisely those where anger is unnecessary. That’s the beauty of being in a position of superior bargaining power. You can be firm and intransigent without needing to lose your calm. Equanimity is a pleasant luxury your position affords you. If a neighbour’s tree is overhanging, AND you don’t especially wish or need to have any kind of relationship with said neighbour, AND civil law is squarely on your side, then you can go ahead and get angry if you wish. But you also don’t need to. You’ve got the upper hand here, so you can ask nicely, or even threaten legal action, with the easy confidence of someone who knows they’ll win. If you do value the relationship, of course, or don’t have much of a legal leg to stand on, then it becomes a no-brainer: you must employ sweetness and light (or deviance) to get him to hedge his tree. So the non-angry individual would stand to gain most of the time, with negligible and rare losses of a percentage here or there in situations of an assured win.

There are other, more dubious, circumstances where anger seems propitious, which I’ve collected from readers and patients over the years. These so-called perks of anger are more easily dismissed (though actually now that I think of it, each is a contender for a future post or further comment if anyone is interested):

Adopting angry views to ‘fit in’ socially with your angry group [Comment: I’d suggest googling ‘groupthink’ here…].
Reducing longing for exes you still have feelings for by hating them [Comment: textbook rationalising. I would argue it interferes with grieving and growing, leaves you ‘bitter’ in subsequent relationships, and shuts down options for being friends with exes later].
Enjoying the perks of make-up sex or hate sex [Comment: really?…]
Finding the motivation to perform acts you consider immoral, overly harsh, or uncomfortably confronting, and which you wouldn’t have the courage or the will to carry out otherwise [Comment: So don’t! If you are too ambivalent about something to carry it out, then you don’t need more anger; you need more conviction (one way or the other). If you are too timid when not angry, then you don’t need more anger; you need less fear. Classic case of swallowing the spider to catch the fly].

So a 100% non-angry individual would theoretically stand to lose in these regards: He wouldn’t get that adrenalised boost in fighting [though he wouldn’t want it if he had skill or options, and wouldn’t need it if he was scared enough]; he’d negotiate a little less forcefully with strangers who lacked bargaining power [but would achieve almost the same outcomes with calm persistence]; his righteous in-group might find his views a little tame [but would ultimately respect his independence of thought and rationality, I’d like to believe]; he might pine for his ex and not pretend to hate her when he was dumped [but could keep a friendship with her if he wanted, would move forward without a ‘chip on his shoulder’, and would be more likely to re-couple]; he’d have to rely on love and sexual attraction to get his kicks in bed [I can live with that…]; and he’d be loathe to perform acts he deemed cruel [… this is a problem why?].

Where he would stand to gain, on the other hand, is in feeling calmer and happier, cultivating closer relationships, having a cooler head when managing tricky situations, being a better negotiator with his peers and superiors, and holding a truer, wiser vision of himself and the world. No small payoff for having to wait an extra week for his neighbour to trim the bloody hedge.