We’ve Got It All Wrong about Fixing Americans’ Increasing Anger Levels

hitting a pillow or the gym may be making things worse

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A new poll says 84 percent of Americans are angrier today than a generation ago. The NPR-IBM Watson Health poll offers alarming statistics about the increasing levels of anger that American society believes it exhibits compared to years past. The solutions may run contrary to what we’ve always believed.

Fist breaking through wall
Using catharsis methods to release anger might actually allow feelings of anger to linger, rather than resolving anger. Photo by Smit / Shutterstock

According to the poll published by NPR, 42 percent of people also believed they were more angry in the last year than they had been previously. The same amount of people said the news sometimes made them angry, although there was no clear correlation between one question and the other. Anger affects people in many ways. Not only can anger lead to poor judgment, it can also be a detriment to our health—and we may be going about dealing with it all wrong.

When Catharsis Fails

Letting out our anger is an age-old idea. “You know what the idea of catharsis is,” Dr. Kimberlee Bethany Bonura, fitness and wellness consultant, said. “This is the idea that when anger stays inside, it bottles up and becomes bad for us, bad for the people around us. So, rather than bottling it up, we should get it out.” According to Dr. Bonura, studies dating back to 1959 have shown this approach to be ineffective—people who were allowed to pound nails to work out their anger and boys who were allowed to play aggressively with toys were both shown to perpetuate their anger, not diminish it.

“An opposing theory to catharsis theory is cognitive neoassociation theory,” Dr. Bonura said. “According to this theory, feeling angry and then expressing or acting out on the anger actually activates the neural pathway for anger, making us think of and potentially act on even more anger. Even if we’re venting against something safe, we’re still ruminating on the thing that made us mad.” In other words, rather than working out aggression, catharsis could be actively keeping the thing that angers us on our minds longer—and while we’re doing anger-induced things. Statistics even suggest that those with higher anger levels, including people who use catharsis, are more prone to cardiovascular disease than those with lower anger levels and who don’t use catharsis.

Better Living through Goal-Oriented Action

Since neither venting anger nor bottling it up seem to help us, what’s the solution? Ironically, finding solutions can be a solution. “In seeking solutions, let’s consider the difference between what Dr. Robin Kowalski calls instrumental complaints and expressive complaints,” Dr. Bonura said. “Instrumental complaints are goal-oriented. We are seeking change. We call our landlord to inform him there’s a leak in the roof; we ask our teenager to pick up the pile of shoes and backpacks by the front door.” Instrumental complaints inform someone in a non-aggressive manner that something must be done to fix a problem. Expressive complaints—that is, those expressed angrily in tone or verbiage—are generally harmful to their target and the person doing the complaining.

Dr. Bonura refers to this as a “solution-oriented approach to anger,” citing 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi’s formula for healthily processing anger. “The formula he uses is Anger, Idea, Action,” she said. “For his human rights efforts in India, he’s been cast out and imprisoned, and each time he was wronged or harmed he was angry at first, but then he used that anger to identify an idea to change the situation—and then he put his idea into action to help others.”

According to Dr. Bonura, Satyarthi says that when we use our anger in this way, through our inherent compassion, we can connect with others and change the world. Her analysis? “This is a concept of anger as a recognition that something is wrong, and that we are responsible for being part of the solution.”

Dr. Kimberlee Bethany Bonura contributed to this article.

Dr. Kimberlee Bethany Bonura contributed to this article. Dr. Bonura is a fitness and wellness consultant with decades of experience teaching the benefits of physical and mental health to elite athletes, higher education institutions, nonprofit community organizations, and corporations. She earned her Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from Florida State University.