Getting Angry Makes Almost Everything Worse

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Broken news: people these days are angry about lots of stuff. This anger has manifested in varying degrees of badness and goodness, depending on your perspective: the ascent of Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter activism, comments sections anywhere at all.

It may also not surprise you that anger plays an outsized role in American society, and that many aspects of society would be better off if we learned to rein it in, as philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues in a new book. Like a lot of Nussbaum’s work, it treats emotions not as fluffy things we can abstractly discount, but as real factors in society worthy of analysis. Her distillation of anger, as she explained in an interview with the Atlantic, goes: “you think you’ve been wronged,” you think “the damage was wrongfully inflicted,” and “it was serious damage to something you care about.”


She is careful also to note two other features of the emotion—it tends to be the response to damage that chipped away at one’s status somehow. And that anger consists not just of pain, but also the anticipation of payback—someone has to right this wrong. These are the elements you can easily identify in the stereotypical economically disenfranchised Trump supporter—though it’s a question how much truth there is to that stereotype—they no longer have the jobs or the stability they feel they deserve; they no longer feel in control of their fates. And they expect someone to come in and tip the scales back in their favor. Someone promising a large wall, a refocus on American industry, a blanket ban on potential, um, undesirables.

The takeaway here is that anger (sometimes intentionally) hijacks the conversation from any focused attempt at repairing the situation—the part where one actually tries to make the future better. An excess of anger, Nussbaum writes, corrupts our criminal justice process, our domestic politics, even romance:

[Anger] diverts one’s thoughts from the real problem to something in the past that cannot be changed. It makes one think that progress will have been made if the betrayer suffers, when, in reality, this does nothing to solve the real problem. It eats up the personality and makes the person quite unpleasant to be with. It impedes useful introspection. It becomes its own project, displacing or forestalling other useful projects. And importantly, it almost always makes the relationship with the other person worse.


There are good arguments to be made that anger serves as an empowering tool for the weak and voiceless, but most of us, on the level of the individual, have little reason not to follow her word and focus on fixing what’s broken.