Crucially, angry volunteers were better at moments of haphazard innovation, or so-called “unstructured” thinking. Let’s say you’re challenged to think about possible uses for a brick. While a systematic thinker might suggest ten different kinds of building, it takes a less structured approach to invent a new use altogether, such as turning it into a weapon. In essence, creativity is down to how easily your mind is diverted from one thought path and onto another. In a situation requiring fight or flight, it’s easy to see how turning into a literal “mad genius” could be life-saving. “Anger really prepares the body to mobilise resources – it tells you that the situation you’re in is bad and gives you an energetic boost to get you out of it,” says Baas. To understand how this works, first we need to get to grips with what’s going on in the brain. Like most emotions, anger begins in the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure responsible for detecting threats to our well-being. It’s extremely efficient – raising the alarm long before the peril enters your conscious awareness. Then it’s up to chemical signals in the brain to get you riled up. As the brain is flooded with adrenaline it initiates a burst of impassioned, energetic fury which lasts for several minutes. Breathing and heart rate accelerate and blood pressure skyrockets. Blood rushes into the extremities, leading to the distinctive red face and throbbing forehead veins people get when they’re annoyed. Though it’s thought to have evolved primarily to prepare the body for physical aggression, this physiological response is known to have other benefits, boosting motivation and giving people the gall to take mental risks. [caption id="attachment_9474" align="aligncenter" width="613"] Beethoven was easily frustrated and would throw objects at his servants[/caption] All these physiological changes are extremely helpful – as long as you get a chance to vent your anger by wrestling a lion or screaming at co-workers. Sure, you might alienate a few people, but afterwards your blood pressure should go back to normal. Avoiding grumpiness has more serious consequences. The notion that repressed feelings can be bad for your health is ancient. The Greek philosopher Aristotle was a firm believer in catharsis (he invented the modern meaning of the word); viewing tragic plays, he conjectured, allowed punters to experience anger, sadness and guilt in a controlled environment. By getting it all out in the open, they could purge themselves of these feelings all in one go. His philosophy was later adopted by Sigmund Freud, who instead championed the cathartic benefits of the therapist’s couch. Then in 2010 a team of scientists decided to take a look. They surveyed a group of 644 patients with coronary artery disease to determine their levels of anger, suppressed anger and tendency to experience distress, and followed them for between five and ten years to see what happened next. Over the course of the study, 20% experienced a major cardiac event and 9% percent died. Initially it looked like both anger and suppressed anger increased the likelihood of having a heart attack. But after controlling for other factors, the researchers realised anger had no impact – while suppressing it increased the chances of having a heart attack by nearly three-fold. It’s still not known exactly why this occurs, but other studies have shown that suppressing anger can lead to chronic high blood pressure. And not all benefits are physical: anger can help with negotiating, too. A major flashpoint for aggression is the discovery that someone does not value your interests highly enough. It involves inflicting costs – the threat of physical violence – and withdrawing benefits – loyalty, friendship, or money – to help them see their mistake. Support for this theory comes from the faces we pull when angry. Research suggests they aren’t arbitrary movements at all, but specifically aimed at increasing our physical strength in the eyes of our opponent. Get it right and aggression can help you advance your interests and increase your status – it’s just an ancient way of bargaining. In fact, scientists are increasingly recognising that grumpiness may be beneficial to the full range of social skills – improving language skills, memory and making us more persuasive. “Negative moods indicate we’re in a new and challenging situation and call for a more attentive, detailed and observant thinking style,” says Joseph Forgas, who has been studying how emotions affect our behaviour for nearly four decades. In line with this, research has also found that feeling slightly down enhances our awareness of social cues. Intriguingly, it also encourages people to act in a more – not less – fair way towards others.
Anger really prepares the body to mobilise resources
Happier participants keep more of the prize for themselves, while those in a sad mood are significantly less selfishThe ultimatum game is often used as a test of our sense of fairness by showing whether you expect to get a 50-50 share or whether you are happy for each person to be in it for themselves. Interestingly, all negative emotions led to more rejections by the second player, which might suggest that these feelings enhance our sense of fairness and the need for everyone to be treated equally. Reversing the set-up reveals this is not just a case of sour grapes, either. The “dictator game” has exactly the same rules except this time the second player has no say whatsoever – they simply receive whatever the first player decides not to keep. It turns out that happier participants keep more of the prize for themselves, while those in a sad mood are significantly less selfish. “People who are feeling slightly down pay better attention to external social norms and expectations, and so they act in a fairer and just way towards others,” says Forgas. [caption id="attachment_9475" align="aligncenter" width="620"] Optimistic newspaper articles have been linked to poor economic performance in subsequent weeks Photo: Getty Images[/caption] In some situations, happiness carries far more serious risks. It’s associated with the cuddle hormone, oxytocin, which a handful of studies have shown reduces our ability to identify threats. In prehistoric times, happiness would have left our ancestors vulnerable to predators. In modern life, it prevents us paying due attention to dangers such as binge drinking, overeating and unsafe sex. “Happiness functions like a shorthand signal that we’re safe and it’s not necessary to pay too much attention to the environment,” he says. Those in a continuous happy haze may miss important cues. Instead, they may be over-reliant on existing knowledge – leaving them prone to serious errors of judgement.
Those in a good mood were less able to think sceptically and were significantly more gullibleIn one study, Forgas and colleagues from the University of New South Wales, Australia, put volunteers in either a happy or sad mood by screening films in the laboratory. Then he asked them to judge the truth of urban myths, such as that power lines cause leukaemia or the CIA murdered President Kennedy. Those in a good mood were less able to think sceptically and were significantly more gullible. Next Forgas used a first-person shooter game to test if good moods might also lead people to rely on stereotyping. As he predicted, those in a good mood were more likely to aim at targets wearing turbans. Of all the positive emotions, optimism about the future may have the most ironic effects. Like happiness, positive fantasies about the future can be profoundly de-motivating. “People feel accomplished, they relax, and they do not invest the necessary effort to actually realise these positive fantasies and daydreams,” says Gabriele Oettingen from New York University. Graduates who fantasise about success at work end up earning less, for instance. Patients who daydream about getting better make a slower recovery. In numerous studies, Oettingen has shown that the more wishful your thinking, the less likely any of it is to come true. “People say ‘dream it and you will get it’ – but that’s problematic,” she says. Optimistic thoughts may also put the obese off losing weight and make smokers less likely to plan to quit.