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  • Alright, so I want you to imagine that you get a text from a friend, and it reads ...

  • "You will NOT believe what just happened. I'm SO MAD right now!"

  • So you do the dutiful thing as a friend, and you ask for details.

  • And they tell you a story about what happened to them

  • at the gym or at work or on their date last night.

  • And you listen and you try to understand why they're so mad.

  • Maybe even secretly judge whether or not they should be so mad.

  • (Laughter)

  • And maybe you even offer some suggestions.

  • Now, in that moment, you are doing essentially what I get to do every day,

  • because I'm an anger researcher,

  • and as an anger researcher, I spend a good part of my professional life --

  • who am I kidding, also my personal life --

  • studying why people get mad.

  • I study the types of thoughts they have when they get mad,

  • and I even study what they do when they get mad,

  • whether it's getting into fights or breaking things,

  • or even yelling at people in all caps on the internet.

  • (Laughter)

  • And as you can imagine,

  • when people hear I'm an anger researcher,

  • they want to talk to me about their anger,

  • they want to share with me their anger stories.

  • And it's not because they need a therapist,

  • though that does sometimes happen,

  • it's really because anger is universal.

  • It's something we all feel and it's something they can relate to.

  • We've been feeling it since the first few months of life,

  • when we didn't get what we wanted in our cries of protests,

  • things like, "What do you mean you won't pick up the rattle, Dad,

  • I want it!"

  • (Laughter)

  • We feel it throughout our teenage years, as my mom can certainly attest to with me.

  • Sorry, Mom.

  • We feel it to the very end.

  • In fact, anger has been with us at some of the worst moments of our lives.

  • It's a natural and expected part of our grief.

  • But it's also been with us in some of the best moments of our lives,

  • with those special occasions like weddings and vacations

  • often marred by these everyday frustrations --

  • bad weather, travel delays --

  • that feel horrible in the moment,

  • but then are ultimately forgotten when things go OK.

  • I have a lot of conversations with people about their anger

  • and it's through those conversations that I've learned that many people,

  • and I bet many people in this room right now,

  • you see anger as a problem.

  • You see the way it interferes in your life,

  • the way it damages relationships, maybe even the ways it's scary.

  • And while I get all of that, I see anger a little differently,

  • and today, I want to tell you something really important

  • about your anger, and it's this:

  • anger is a powerful and healthy force in your life.

  • It's good that you feel it.

  • You need to feel it.

  • But to understand all that, we actually have to back up

  • and talk about why we get mad in the first place.

  • A lot of this goes back to the work of an anger researcher

  • named Dr. Jerry Deffenbacher, who wrote about this back in 1996

  • in a book chapter on how to deal with problematic anger.

  • Now, for most of us, and I bet most of you,

  • it feels as simple as this:

  • I get mad when I'm provoked.

  • You hear it in the language people use.

  • They say things like,

  • "It makes me so mad when people drive this slow,"

  • or, "I got mad because she left the milk out again."

  • Or my favorite,

  • "I don't have an anger problem -- people just need to stop messing with me."

  • (Laughter)

  • Now, in the spirit of better understanding those types of provocations,

  • I ask a lot of people, including my friends and colleagues and even family,

  • "What are the things that really get to you?

  • What makes you mad?"

  • By the way, now is a good time to point out one of the advantages

  • of being an anger researcher

  • is that I've spent more than a decade generating a comprehensive list

  • of all the things that really irritate my colleagues.

  • Just in case I need it.

  • (Laughter)

  • But their answers are fascinating,

  • because they say things like,

  • "when my sports team loses,"

  • "people who chew too loudly."

  • That is surprisingly common, by the way.

  • "People who walk too slowly," that one's mine.

  • And of course, "roundabouts."

  • Roundabouts --

  • (Laughter)

  • I can tell you honestly, there is no rage like roundabout rage.

  • (Laughter)

  • Sometimes their answers aren't minor at all.

  • Sometimes they talk about racism and sexism and bullying

  • and environmental destruction -- big, global problems we all face.

  • But sometimes,

  • their answers are very specific, maybe even oddly specific.

  • "That wet line you get across your shirt

  • when you accidentally lean against the counter of a public bathroom."

  • (Laughter)

  • Super gross, right?

  • (Laughter)

  • Or "Flash drives: there's only two ways to plug them in,

  • so why does it always take me three tries?"

  • (Laughter)

  • Now whether it's minor or major, whether it's general or specific,

  • we can look at these examples

  • and we can tease out some common themes.

  • We get angry in situations that are unpleasant,

  • that feel unfair, where our goals are blocked,

  • that could have been avoided, and that leave us feeling powerless.

  • This is a recipe for anger.

  • But you can also tell

  • that anger is probably not the only thing we're feeling in these situations.

  • Anger doesn't happen in a vacuum.

  • We can feel angry at the same time that we're scared or sad,

  • or feeling a host of other emotions.

  • But here's the thing:

  • these provocations -- they aren't making us mad.

  • At least not on their own,

  • and we know that, because if they were,

  • we'd all get angry over the same things, and we don't.

  • The reasons I get angry are different than the reasons you get angry,

  • so there's got to be something else going on.

  • What is that something else?

  • Well, we know what we're doing and feeling at the moment of that provocation matters.

  • We call this the pre-anger state -- are you hungry, are you tired,

  • are you anxious about something else, are you running late for something?

  • When you're feeling those things,

  • those provocations feel that much worse.

  • But what matters most is not the provocation,

  • it's not the pre-anger state, it's this:

  • it's how we interpret that provocation,

  • it's how we make sense of it in our lives.

  • When something happens to us,

  • we first decide, is this good or bad?

  • Is it fair or unfair, is it blameworthy, is it punishable?

  • That's primary appraisal, it's when you evaluate the event itself.

  • We decide what it means in the context of our lives

  • and once we've done that, we decide how bad it is.

  • That's secondary appraisal.

  • We say, "Is this the worst thing that's ever happened,

  • or can I cope with this?

  • Now, to illustrate that, I want you to imagine you are driving somewhere.

  • And before I go any further, I should tell you,

  • if I were an evil genius

  • and I wanted to create a situation that was going to make you mad,

  • that situation would look a lot like driving.

  • (Laughter)

  • It's true.

  • You are, by definition, on your way somewhere,

  • so everything that happens -- traffic, other drivers, road construction --

  • it feels like it's blocking your goals.

  • There are all these written and unwritten rules of the road,

  • and those rules are routinely violated right in front of you,

  • usually without consequence.

  • And who's violating those rules?

  • Anonymous others, people you will never see again,

  • making them a very easy target for your wrath.

  • (Laughter)

  • So you're driving somewhere, thus teed up to be angry,

  • and the person in front of you is driving well below the speed limit.

  • And it's frustrating

  • because you can't really see why they're driving so slow.

  • That's primary appraisal.

  • You've looked at this and you've said it's bad and it's blameworthy.

  • But maybe you also decide it's not that big a deal.

  • You're not in a hurry, doesn't matter.

  • That's secondary appraisal -- you don't get angry.

  • But now imagine you're on your way to a job interview.

  • What that person is doing, it hasn't changed, right?

  • So primary appraisal doesn't change; still bad, still blameworthy.

  • But your ability to cope with it sure does.

  • Because all of a sudden,

  • you're going to be late to that job interview.

  • All of a sudden,

  • you are not going to get your dream job,

  • the one that was going to give you piles and piles of money.

  • (Laughter)

  • Somebody else is going to get your dream job

  • and you're going to be broke.

  • You're going to be destitute.

  • Might as well stop now, turn around, move in with your parents.

  • (Laughter)

  • Why?

  • "Because of this person in front of me.

  • This is not a person, this is a monster."

  • (Laughter)

  • And this monster is here just to ruin your life.

  • (Laughter)

  • Now that thought process,

  • it's called catastrophizing, the one where we make the worst of things.

  • And it's one of the primary types of thoughts that we know

  • is associated with chronic anger.

  • But there's a couple of others.

  • Misattributing causation.

  • Angry people tend to put blame where it doesn't belong.

  • Not just on people,

  • but actually inanimate objects as well.

  • And if you think that sound ridiculous,

  • think about the last time you lost your car keys and you said,

  • "Where did those car keys go?"

  • Because you know they ran off on their own.

  • (Laughter)

  • They tend to overgeneralize, they use words like "always,"

  • "never," "every," "this always happens to me,"

  • "I never get what I want"

  • or "I hit every stoplight on the way here today."

  • Demandingness: they put their own needs ahead of the needs of others:

  • "I don't care why this person is driving so slow,

  • they need to speed up or move over so I can get to this job interview."

  • And finally, inflammatory labeling.

  • They call people fools, idiots, monsters,

  • or a whole bunch of things I've been told I'm not allowed to say

  • during this TED Talk.

  • (Laughter)

  • So for a long time,

  • psychologists have referred to these as cognitive distortions

  • or even irrational beliefs.

  • And yeah, sometimes they are irrational.

  • Maybe even most of the time.

  • But sometimes, these thoughts are totally rational.

  • There is unfairness in the world.

  • There are cruel, selfish people,

  • and it's not only OK to be angry when we're treated poorly,

  • it's right to be angry when we're treated poorly.

  • If there's one thing I want you to remember from my talk today, it's this:

  • your anger exists in you as an emotion

  • because it offered your ancestors, both human and nonhuman,

  • with an evolutionary advantage.

  • Just as your fear alerts you to danger,

  • your anger alerts you to injustice.

  • It's one of the ways your brain communicates to you

  • that you have had enough.

  • What's more, it energizes you to confront that injustice.

  • Think for a second about the last time you got mad.

  • Your heart rate increased.

  • Your breathing increased, you started to sweat.

  • That's your sympathetic nervous system,

  • otherwise known as your fight-or-flight system,

  • kicking in to offer you the energy you need to respond.

  • And that's just the stuff you noticed.

  • At the same time, your digestive system slowed down so you could conserve energy.

  • That's why your mouth went dry.

  • And your blood vessels dilated to get blood to your extremities.

  • That's why your face went red.

  • It's all part of this complex pattern of physiological experiences

  • that exist today

  • because they helped your ancestors

  • deal with cruel and unforgiving forces of nature.

  • And the problem is that the thing your ancestors did

  • to deal with their anger,

  • to physically fight,

  • they are no longer reasonable or appropriate.