Lifestyle Lift: Why Am I Productive When I Get Angry?

The inspiration for this article truly comes from a personal question I often ask myself. Why do I get things done when I’m mad, angry, frustrated or annoyed?

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First thing is first, when we get angry, the heart rate, arterial tension and testosterone production increases, cortisol (the stress hormone) decreases, and the left hemisphere of the brain becomes more stimulated.

This is indicated by a new investigation lead by scientists from the University of Valencia (UV) that analyses the changes in the brain’s cardiovascular, hormonal and asymmetric activation response when we get angry.

Turns out there’s evidence for a strong correlation between testosterone and thinking abilities such as verbal memory and faster processing speed. Normal or decreased levels of cortisol can, in small doses, heighten memory, increase your immune system and lower sensitivity to pain. Finally, the left hemisphere of the brain is known for performing tasks that have to do with logic, such as in science and mathematics.

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Perhaps, in some contexts, feeling angry is actually beneficial. This counter-intuitive idea was pursued by researchers Matthijs Baas, Carsten De Dreu, and Bernard Nijstad in a series of studies  recently published in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. They found that angry people were more likely to be creative – though this advantage didn’t last for long, as the taxing nature of anger eventually levelled out creativity.

In an initial study, the researchers found that feeling angry was indeed associated with brainstorming in a more unstructured manner, consistent with “creative” problem solving. In a second study, the researchers first elicited anger from the study participants (or sadness, or a non-emotional state) and then asked them to engage in a brainstorming session in which they generated ideas to preserve and improve the environment. In the beginning of this task, angry participants generated more ideas (by volume) and generated more original ideas (those thought of by less than 1 percent or less of the other participants), compared to the other sad or non-emotional participants. However, this benefit was only present in the beginning of the task, and eventually, the angry participants generated only as many ideas as the other participants.

Though anger may be unpleasant to feel, it is associated with a variety of attributes that may facilitate creativity. First, anger is an energizing feeling, important for the sustained attention needed to solve problems creatively. Secondly, anger leads to more flexible, unstructured thought processes. This flexibility involves the use of broad and inclusive categories and the increased ability to find new connections between categories.

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People who feel angry are less likely to think in systematic ways, and are more likely to rely on broad, global cues when judging information. This kind of global thinking tends to be associated with literally seeing the “bigger picture.”

Supporting the person-sensitive nature of the benefits of anger, another paper  recently published in Psychological Science reported that angry people were actually perceived as better leaders, but only when leading people who were less sensitive to conflict. This finding suggests that successful relationships may depend on the alignment between the emotional natures of the partners, even if this alignment involves the experience of anger. Overall, these lines of research demonstrate that anger isn’t all bad news. Rather, feeling angry may be downright beneficial, depending on what one is trying to achieve or whom one is trying to impress.

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It seems to me like anger is a powerful emotion that can be used to our benefit under certain circumstances but on the long run it’s probably best not to rely on using it  for everything.

I think it’s also important to ask ourselves: If I could manage to focus my “positive emotions” the same way I use my anger to solve things or be more productive wouldn’t that be better and more sustainable for my mental, emotional and physical health?

Lifestyle Lift has new posts every Monday.