It is often said that loneliness and stress blight modern life. But so too does anger. Indeed, anger might almost be seen as an inevitable consequence of the other two – especially stress. Modern life can at times be overwhelming.
The Origins of Anger
Dangerous as anger can be, it is also natural, even necessary, and has been hard-wired into the brain by evolution. Most obviously, anger helped people survive. As soon as this survival was threatened, anger was triggered, along with violent defensive action. More surprisingly, perhaps, anger also helped early humans to live together in groups, acting as a kind of warning signal in the form of threatening facial expressions, clenched fists, reddening cheeks, and so on. This let others know that their behavior was unacceptable, that they were invading someone’s personal space and that they risked physical retaliation.
The Nature of Anger
At first glance, anger seems relatively simple. Ask the man in the street to define it and he will probably say ‘it’s what happens when people annoy you.’ But anger can take many forms and has numerous different triggers. And what infuriates one person may pass by another unnoticed. One individual can make her way through a bustling crowd, or sit next to a screaming child, and seem perfectly relaxed. But if someone questions her political beliefs, or disrupts her plans, she will fly into an uncontrollable rage.
For some, anger is triggered more by petty annoyances than by major catastrophes. They will be calm and methodical during a bereavement, for example, or when travelling to the hospital for an operation, but as a soon as the neighbor’s car alarm goes off, or the printer runs out of ink, they explode. For others, it is threats to their money, property, status or time that act as the major catalyst. They may let the petty irritations go, but if their car is scratched or their authority questioned, they become enraged. Finally, some will laugh off both petty irritations and threats to their money or status. For them, rule-breaking is the most infuriating thing. This is especially true of those with obsessive compulsive or autistic traits: people who like and need things to be regular and ordered. And such rules can be more like vague, unspoken agreements. For example, someone may be sensitive about their acne or low income. Friends understand this and so the subject is never raised. One evening, after a few drinks, someone makes a harmless remark and is shocked to see their friend explode with rage. But it wasn’t the fact that his low income or bad skin had been mentioned, nor even that he felt humiliated; his anger was sparked because someone had broken the rules.
Stress causes anger. And if there is one thing everyone can agree on, it’s how stressful modern life can be. For a start, people often live jammed into the corner of an overcrowded city or town. Even getting to work can trigger enormous amounts of stress and anger. You wouldn’t be the first person to arrive at the office fuming because you have sat in endless traffic or couldn’t get a seat on the train. And work itself is often stressful (a recent survey conducted in the UK found that over 50% of those questioned had physically attacked their computer!). Until very recently, most people worked on the land. Of course, such work was often hard, brutal, exhausting and degrading – but it was rarely stressful. And there was the added advantage that most people were on roughly similar incomes. If you were born into a mining or agricultural community, you ‘knew your place’ and accepted this. Today, society is vastly more complex, with numerous levels of wealth and status. Unfortunately, this has bred an enormous amount of resentment. People constantly feel their status, and thus value or self-worth, is threatened by the promotion or success of their neighbor. In a small, late 19th century town, where everyone worked in the local factory, this was not a problem. The British philosopher Alain de Botton has labeled this ‘status anxiety’ and describes it as a deeply corrosive feature of modern life.
Fear is another major cause of anger. Imagine an ordinary working man living in a small Canadian town in 1900. He would have owned neither a television nor a radio. If he could read, he might have taken a paper once a week, or perhaps borrowed a neighbor’s. He would have read about tragedies and disasters, of course, but they would have been reported in small print, without color photos, and in a matter of fact way. If that man lived in the same town today, he would be exposed to 24-hour-news pumping out gloom and fear about everything from overpopulation and famine in Africa to terrorist threats and economic recession at home. And different media outlets are in fierce competition. The only way to grab people’s attention is by triggering fear. Human beings have evolved to seek out danger. Bad or threatening news holds our attention. Any reporter will tell you that good news doesn’t sell.
In a sense, human beings are victims of their own success. As standards of living rise, so do expectations. People are hard-wired to feel anger when their survival is threatened. But now that famine, drought, animal attacks, and assaults from other tribes are no longer a danger, this anger has been transferred to the mundane. Most people expect a certain standard of living and level of success. When that is denied to them, their evolutionary anger kicks in.
Though many yearn to do so, no one can turn back the clock. Of course, some drop out of the so-called ‘rat race’ entirely, moving to the quietest, most isolated place they can find and accepting a lower standard of living. But for most, this is unrealistic. The only real solution is to raise self-awareness. Anger is a blind, instinctive thing, but it begins with your thoughts and habitual reactions. Buy a notepad and spend a few weeks noting down any moments of anger – especially note the trigger. Gradually, you will develop greater self-awareness, learning to identify the things that spark it. Next, you must try and understand why these things provoke such an extreme response. Finally, get into the habit of re-appraising situations. If a work colleague is snappy, for example, try and find out why. Maybe she is simply being rude, in which case your anger is justified. But you may also discover that her sister has just been diagnosed with cancer or that her partner has walked out on her and the children.
Of course, modern life brings great stresses and provocations. But it should never be forgotten that life is in many respects better than in the past. The average person is able to live out their life with far greater dignity, comfort and health than ever before. That thought alone should help reduce negativity, stress and anger!
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