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How Anger Can Improve Health, Enhance Intimacy, Spur Creativity, Even Inspire Social Change

In my small town, one of my friends was so angry about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that she created a community ride-share board to lessen our dependence on oil.

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Scott’s advice is timely. A public poll carried out for a 2008 British Mental Health Foundation report titled “Boiling Point: Problem Anger and What We Can Do About It” showed that “a majority of the [British] population believe that people in general are getting angrier.” More recently, in August of last year, CNN released a poll in which 70 percent of Americans described themselves as angry. That’s easy to believe when you see the footage of furious tea party throngs gathered for the “Restoring Honor” rally put on by the wildly popular right-wing TV commentator Glenn Beck on the Washington Mall around the same time.

Let’s face it: We have plenty to be angry about, from the ongoing economic crisis to massive job uncertainty to widespread political gridlock. And as people feel increasingly powerless over their circumstances, their anger levels go up. A 2009 study by University of Toronto sociology professor Scott Schieman found that individuals with less education, younger adults, financially strained people and parents with children in the house tend to experience higher ­levels of anger.

What should we do with all that fury? The truth is, many social and political justice movements have been fueled by the anger of the oppressed: women’s suffrage, the American civil-rights movement, Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, Tiananmen Square. The contemporary poet Joy Harjo, who is of Cherokee and Creek descent, has pointed out, “Native American experience has often been bitter. … I like to think that bitter experience can be used to move the world.” In her poem “For Anna Me Pictou Aquash,” about the U.S. cavalry’s murder of Lakota Sioux during the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre, she puts forth this beautiful image: “We have just begun to touch / the dazzling whirlwind of our anger.”

Personal anger at injustice was what impelled Mahatma Gandhi to lead India to liberation. As a young attorney, he was traveling on a train in South Africa. A European passenger complained about this non-white “coolie” being allowed into the first-class coach, even though Gandhi had a first-class ticket. Gandhi was thrown out of the compartment. After much soul searching, he decided to dedicate himself to changing the social conditions that had given rise to the incident. Gandhi’s steady channeling of raw anger into effective, nonviolent action was the dazzling whirlwind that eventually enabled the Indian people to end British colonial rule.

Sure, you might think, Gandhi led an entire subcontinent to liberation, but what can I do with all my social outrage? If we think of our anger as a signpost showing us where changes are needed, it’s possible to come up with positive actions, especially at the local level. In the small New Mexico town where I live, one of my friends was so angry about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that she created a community ride-share board on Facebook to lessen our dependence on oil. Another friend, concerned about rampant unemployment, is organizing a time bank so people can exchange skills rather than money. Turning your sociopolitical anger into positive action restores your sense of power -- and contributes to the well-being of the planet.

After a year of therapy, I finally gathered up the courage to leave my partner. I celebrated the start of my new life by treating myself to a double bill of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films at a classic movie theater. I was ecstatic watching the exquisitely equal, graceful partnership of my favorite on-screen dancers. I continued to see my therapist for another five years, gradually dismantling old relationship patterns and building healthy new ones -- patterns that embrace and honor all my feelings, including the long-forbidden anger.

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