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Is There an Upside to Feeling Angry all the Time?

I’m mad for the reasons you are. Thankfully we are not alone.

Photo: Henrik Sorenson/Getty Images

SShortly before my 31st birthday a couple of years ago, my boyfriend gave me an ultimatum: Start going to therapy (again) or say goodbye to the relationship. When my boyfriend told me something had to give, I knew — for my sake more than his, or even ours — that he was right.

Something had unraveled in me. I turned romantic disagreements into unnecessary blowouts, unleashing blistering screeds in fits of rage. I picked arguments with loved ones over what were, in retrospect, minor perceived slights. It occurred to me that I was no longer a person who merely felt anger as an emotion, an occasional waltz with the cartoon frown we learn as kids to call “mad.” Anger was now, it seemed, integral to the way I processed reality. The transition had felt somehow developmental, like an initiation into a new phase of being. I wasn’t just a person who got angry sometimes. I was an angry person. The feeling was corrosive.

There are plenty of things for me to be angry about. It’s no secret that ours is a hyper-polarized political environment. We’re living in angry times, inundated with angry headlines and exchanging angry ideas in angry forums. It makes sense that a group of people whose worldview overlaps with my own would also notice an increase in their own sense of rage, given the circumstances of our era (say, for instance, two deadly mass shootings in the span of a single weekend).

At the same time, it feels as though my very capacity for anger has expanded, independent of the myriad events that might feed it. I’ve aged into a deeper emotional well, at a moment when there’s no shortage of things to fill it.

A few weeks ago, I tweeted an observation: that nobody had warned me my thirties would be so angry. Dozens of women, and some men, responded in the affirmative. This had been their reality, too. “Just wait until your fifties,” one woman warned.

The responses gave me pause. I couldn’t stop myself from asking whether there’s more to the story than what’s in front of us, a developmental footnote inscribed somewhere in the recesses of our brains.

Scientists once believed that the human brain became more or less fixed during a person’s early childhood, an understanding that has aggressively shifted, in recent decades, toward a theory of neuroplasticity. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, and one of the world’s leading researchers in adolescent brain development, further found that the brain can change throughout a person’s life, and that the prefrontal cortex undergoes radical maturation well into a person’s thirties and forties. As we leave young adulthood, the part of our brains that makes us socially aware and empathetic comes into its own. I seized on Blakemore’s findings as my critical a-ha.

The timing certainly lines up. Maybe the anger I was feeling, and that people echoed on Twitter, was the result of accrued wisdom. Had the activist rage I once sported as a hobby in high school and college finally become a symptom of just how deeply I really cared? Unfortunately, in addition to being a baldly self-serving theory, it turns out that there’s no conclusive evidence to suggest that people become more empathetic over their lifetime. The way we feel for others is driven by mechanisms more complex than the shape and size of our prefrontal cortices.

Anger can be a galvanizing force for good; a 2018 book that argued as much became a New York Times bestseller. But anger in and of itself isn’t necessarily righteous — not even, I regret to admit, my own. As a neurological function, anger is primal and mammalian, a response to perceived threat. It’s impulsive, reactive. It risks driving harm instead of repair — and can, quite literally, break a person’s heart.

Another thing about anger is that it’s contagious, fueled by the mere sense of its proximity. In a recent nationwide poll by NPR and IBM Watson Health, 84% of the 3,000 people surveyed said they believe Americans are angrier than they were a generation ago — a self-fulfilling prophecy. And, way back in 2012, researchers found that anger is the emotion that travels fastest online. It’s doubtful that my anger exists in a vacuum, even one created by chronology. Instead, the riddle of my rage has a far more boring answer: I’m mad for the same reasons that you are.

Being kind spreads kindness, and each of us is happier when we decide not to indulge our inner troll.

The upside of being a grim statistic is that it means we’re not alone. Researchers have spent the better part of a decade figuring out how to counter this so-called “age of anger,” and the verdict is clear. Being kind spreads kindness, and each of us is happier when we decide not to indulge our inner troll.

Ironically, any contagion of kindness would come from the same hard-wired instinct that causes us to become angry when we’re around other people’s anger. In short, we’re conformists.

A few years ago, a team of Stanford psychologists ran a series of studies in which people were given a $1 “bonus” on top of their honorariums for participating. They were then shown a list of 100 charities and given the option to donate any or all of their bonus. They were also shown a made-up figure that was said to reflect the average donation amount of the last 100 study participants. Participants who were shown a higher amount donated more, and vice versa.

Altruism doesn’t just spread more altruism — it makes us psychologically healthier in the process. To paraphrase another 2016 study: In a culture that emphasizes a “treat yourself” brand of self-care, treating others might be the best medicine for the anger that ails us. I’m angry, and you might be too. Let’s be better to each other.

Currently: Writer, editor, author at-large | Recently: Senior Books Editor @ Forge

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