What is the purpose of anger? I started thinking about this question because Merlin Mann talked about how pointless it is to be constantly angry on Back to Work episode #57. He talked about passive aggressiveness, dog poop, and Anakin Skywalker’s downfall. I think we can all agree that anger is a negative emotion. The prophet Yoda said it best, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” But I don’t think putting emotions in two buckets like “positive” and “negative” simplifies the problem. You’re never going to get rid of feeling angry, the same way that you will never get rid of felling happy.
Thinking about all this complex stuff we call emotions leads me to another question: Does anger have a purpose in a evolutionary context? This question was also sparked by listening to Radiolab’s episode on stress. We think of stress as being a negative emotion we must avoid. But stress in a evolutionary context helps us run away from the tiger that wants to eat us. It’s something actually good to have. The same can be said of fear. But can you say the same thing about anger?
Anger seems to be a byproduct of other feelings. I can see how stress can lead to anger. How fear can become anger. How envy, which is another bad feeling to have, can become anger. But still, this doesn’t really answer the question of the purpose of anger in a evolutionary context. Stress, again, is a good thing to have, but only when your being chased by a tiger. It’s a thing our primitive brains developed, a thing that all animals have, in order to survive. Fear is another clear one. Fear is a way that our bodies and mind warn us about danger. I would be scared and worried about humanity if they managed to become fearless.
I suppose anger’s purpose can be found in a “survival of the fittest” context. If you’re a Lion and you feel threatened by another Lion, the anger will empower you to attack that other Lion. In this case the anger has a purpose. I imagine that fear is not enough in order for you to eliminate the competition or have enough motivation to even defend yourself. Fear usually stops us. Anger makes us take action. The problem is that it always makes us take the wrong action.
It’s such a weird emotion. Such a childish emotion. And anger leads too so many other negative feelings like hate. When anger leads to hate it really has lost its purpose, whatever that purpose may be. The thing about having these feelings, these primitive feelings, is that they must make you take some action. They are causes that lead to effects and vice versa. If you just let the fear overtake you, the fear is not going to help you not fall in the hole. If you let anger overtake you, your not solving the cause of the anger. You’re not even noticing the cause of the anger. Emotional maturity is a tricky thing. The thing with emotions is that we either underestimate them or overestimate them. But emotions come an go like waves. We just have to be aware of them and not let them overpower us. And letting anger overpower you is the worst. See Anakin Skywalker.