The good kind of angry

by Kristin on September 8, 2011

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by ktylerconk

What are you like when you get worked up about something? I’m not talking about being angry at a specific person you’re having a conflict with, but angry at a situation or an injustice—something that just seems flat out wrong about the world.  What happens to your internal systems, your personality, your abilities?

Here’s what happens to me: I tend to talk (or write) fast, serving out words in large, colorful portions. I don’t like to sit still—I want to be on the move, and feel like I could stay up all night (who needs coffee?). I also want to interact with others, getting myself even more fired up by either their similar or differing viewpoints. Most of all, I want to do something to make a difference—I want to fix, create, problem-solve, and change.

Yes, anger is exhausting, but it’s also invigorating.

The link between anger and creativity

This article recently caught my eye: The Creativity of Anger. The first part of the article addresses Steve Jobs’ infamously angry management style, which I don’t feel like debating here (directing anger at people to get more creativity out of them seems like a really bad method). But the heart of the article focuses on studies that have been done around how moods influence cognition—specifically imagination.

“…anger was better at promoting ‘unstructured thinking’ on a creativity task,” one study shows. In another experiment, “people who felt angry generated more ideas.” And in another, “Subjects in the negative feedback condition created much prettier collages. Their angst led to better art.”

So should we all just get angry more often?

The article left me wondering in several directions all at once. While I have to admit, I sort of like the adrenaline rush that’s triggered by the periodic injustices and wrongs that cross my path, I’d prefer to be the sort of person who has fewer rough edges. I’d also much rather live in a world that’s creative and productive because it’s kind and just, not because it’s critical and unfair.

But a happy, kind, fair world isn’t the type we live in, and if we did, it wouldn’t need much problem-solving or change, would it? Sort of like a mind that can’t see the injustices in the world—that can’t care enough to get angry about them—won’t have the mental motivation, energy and stamina to persevere in making the world better. It’s the very need for change, and our ability to see that need, that allows us to push beyond the obvious to something more creative, daring and meaningful.

Where does that leave us? I don’t think we should go out of our way to be angry, but when it strikes us, I think we should learn to harness it for good. The trick is the harnessing part—controlling it enough to not let it harm others (or ourselves) along the way.

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  • Shawn Smucker

    I think you’re right on about the harnessing part. Mostly because I think a lot of the people in this world are already VERY angry, but we don’t know what to do with it besides stuff it back in the sock drawer and let it get really rank. Maybe it’s all this repressed anger that has stolen the imagination from our world.

  • molly

    This is an interesting topic — I’ve never liked feeling angry, but a couple of weeks ago at church one of our pastors gave this sermon that made me think a lot about it. She started with a verse from Ephesians “be angry, but do not sin.” Then she went on with a quote from Beverly Harrison (which I am copying here so I don’t botch): “Anger is not the opposite of love, it is better understood as a feeling-signal that all is not well in our relation to other persons or groups or the world around us. . . [This] is a critical first step in understanding the power of anger in the work of love. Where anger arises, the energy to act is present. . . We must never lose touch with the fact that all serious human moral activity, especially action for social change, takes its bearings from the rising power of human anger.” (The rest of the sermon is here:

    It made me think differently about being angry, seeing the benefits of anger, as you have here with the information about anger inspiring creativity. I’m going to have to give that article a read! Thanks for your thoughtful words.

  • Kristin T.

    Shawn, it does feel like there’s a lot of anger, doesn’t it? And that generally feels like a really bad thing. But we can’t just tell anger to go away, and expect it to dissolve into thin air—poof! (I love your stinky sock drawer analogy!) There’s much to ponder in this: “Maybe it’s all this repressed anger that has stolen the imagination from our world.”

    Molly, that quote you shared is amazing! As I was reading it, I was thinking “EXACTLY—that’s what I was struggling to say.” Especially this idea, “the power of anger in the work of love” and this, “Where anger arises, the energy to act is present…” Yes. Thanks for reading and adding your insight and resources.