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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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As I accustomed myself to feeling anger as it happens naturally and explore ways to channel it productively, I discovered that some people use anger to fuel their creativity. Rock musician and actor Anand Bhatt, the son of Hindu Indian parents, grew up in a predominantly white, Christian suburb outside Chicago, where he experienced intense racial abuse as a child. Other kids and their parents told him he was going to Hell because he was neither white nor Christian. His house was repeatedly egged. Nazi symbols were painted on the driveway. Kids stole his clothes and shoes during gym class and urinated on them. No adults in authority ever intervened.

By his twenties, Bhatt was numbing his rage by drinking heavily. Eventually he stopped drinking, dealt with his emotions and, he says, “Through a regular process of meditation, I began to realize that much of any character I had developed was from this social hardship. My rage transferred to a very productive passion to succeed and claim my right to be an important member of my own society.”

Now, whenever he experiences racism, he uses it to ignite his artistic impulses. For example, he recently heard that a Utah newscaster had talked about him on the air, commenting that “being not-white was a ‘social disorder’ that I had to deal with.” Bhatt channeled his anger into writing and recording a new song with Dallas Coyle, the former guitar player for the heavy metal band God Forbid. So fired up were they, Bhatt says, “We cranked out those vocals parts in one take!”

According to a study led by University of Amsterdam psychologist Gerben van Kleef, that’s not the only way creativity might be sparked by anger. In the study, some subjects were exposed to directions for creative tasks given by an angry man; others received directions from an emotionally neutral man. The researchers found that exposure to the angry man increased the creativity of some of the subjects as well as boosting their originality. Expressions of anger do not just lead individuals to generate more ideas but also to generate more original ideas, Van Kleef concluded.

The anger-creativity connection has not gone unnoticed outside the laboratory. Anger is “creative energy that is not being rightly used,” said the Indian guru Osho in the 1970s. Psychologist Stephen Diamond also sees anger as a form of creativity. In his book Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence, Evil, and Creativity, Diamond looked at the creative processes of such artists as Picasso and Beethoven, Richard Wright and Jackson Pollock, and discovered expressive impulses fed by anger. “During this alchemical activity,” he says, “we come to discover the surprising paradox that many artists perceive: that which we had previously run from and rejected turns out to be the redemptive source of vitality, creativity and authentic spirituality.”

So we can learn to distinguish between healthy anger and unhealthy rage, de-numb ourselves if necessary and channel our healthy anger into productive changes. Is there a next stage after that? Bhatt, the musician and actor, says that as he faced his anger in his meditations, “I began to realize that others weren’t to blame. I was responsible for my own reactions and emotions.” Might it be possible, then, not only to accept responsibility for one’s feelings but develop real compassion for one’s wounds?

This is precisely how the Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh advises us to deal with our anger: with the deepest of tenderness and care. “Anger is like a howling baby, suffering and crying,” he writes in Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames. “When the mother embraces her baby, her energy penetrates him and soothes him. This is exactly what you have to learn to do when anger begins to surface.” Nhat Hanh explains that the mother holds the baby not only to comfort him but to divine the source of his pain. That, too, is our job when we experience anger: to hold ourselves and know where we’re hurt.

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