How to Conquer Anger in one (not so) simple step

Seneca

There are many ways to control anger. Count to ten. Think happy thoughts. Breathe deeply. Take a break. But this post is about how we can conquer anger. Not what to do when we’re angry, but how to prevent ourselves from getting angry in the first place. Surely prevention is better than cure (though it’s never easier)?

To be able to do this, we must first understand where anger comes from. If we leave aside some exceptions, anger is always caused by unmet expectations of the world around us. Is the car in front of you taking an age to reverse? Time to wind down your window and yell some abuses. Is the food at the restaurant too spicy? Is the meat rubbery? Call the waiter over and give him a piece of your mind. Overlooked for promotion yet again? Hang a picture of your boss off the wall and throw darts at it. Has your son once again forgotten to switch off the fan before leaving the room? Call him and blow your top.

So the solution is simple. Expect less. Become more pessimistic.

This is not as bad as it sounds. Pessimism is written into the very contract of life. Regardless of what optimists would like us to believe, we’re all going to die, most of our achievements will be washed away by the passage of time, and we will be remembered by a tiny clutch of people, for perhaps at most a few years after we pass away. The human race itself will go extinct at some time or the other, and the universe will move on, not even missing us for a moment. That is reality.

In our own lives, too, failure is more prevalent than success. More people fail than succeed at any given task or goal. If we take a sum total of all the things that we do as human beings in our different roles, the number of things that we’re bad is far, far, higher than the number of things we excel at. Failure is the norm. Success is the exception. That, too, is reality.

Those who say that you will succeed if only you work hard underestimate the role of fortune in our lives. Working hard only gives you the best chance of success, which is only marginally better than no chance. Whether we like to admit it or not, a large part of who we are is a result of serendipity. Decisions taken by other people shaping events outside our control influence our lives much more than we acknowledge.

If we accept these twin statements, that failure is more common than success, and that we’re largely in the hands of ‘others’ on whom we have no control, it is not hard any more to temper our optimism for life in general. When you accept that the majority of drivers (perhaps even you) take an age to reverse, you will feel less like peeping out of your car’s window and hurling abuses at one of them. In a world where rubbery meat isn’t an exception but the norm, you no longer feel angry for finding it on your plate. If you walk into your promotion meeting expecting to be overlooked (for that is morel likely to happen, after all), then where is the question of anger, indignation or disappointment?

Seen this way, pessimists are more peaceful than optimists. But don’t bother telling them about it. I’ve found from experience that it makes them angry. (Well, obviously.)

As it turns out, the Roman Stoic, Seneca, said about the same thing two thousand years ago. Here’s a little video to prove it.

Comments

  1. Everyone gets angry. How one reacts to anger matters. One can shout at everyone, increase their own BP, smoke, drink alcohol, etc, etc. Or one can channel their anger in a different (but beneficial) direction – write, read, listen to music, do exercise, etc. etc.

    Destination Infinity

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    • Hi Rajesh,

      Exactly the point Seneca is making. Controlling anger – or what you will do when you’re angry – is different from ‘conquering’ it, or preventing it from happening in the first place. The technique of expecting and accepting failure as the ‘norm’ and becoming more pessimistic in general is geared towards conquering anger in the first place.

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  2. What you refer to as ‘pessimism’ I refer to as ‘being prepared for the worst case scenario’ in almost everything I do. I know it is the same thing, but society has this ‘negative view’ of pessimists doesn’t it.

    And it’s such a lovely thought isn’t it, conquering anger instead of controlling it. After all, it is medically proven that controlling any of your emotions too much can lead to health issues in the long run, we therefore are better off conquering negative emotions such as anger rather than even try to control it.

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    • Hi Jairam,

      Yes, definitely. In fact, it has been ‘proven’ in studies that pessimists often have more peaceful and more contented lives than optimists. I’ve been reading up on Stoicism recently and ran into Seneca. Enjoyed myself reading some of his writings and watching the video I attached above.

      If you have time, read ‘Letters from a Stoic’ and ‘Meditations’. Both speak of the ability to distance yourself from external things, and handling both success and failure with cheer.

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Trackbacks

  1. […] Youtube called ‘Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness’. I’ve already posted pieces on Seneca and Epicurus based on these videos, dealing with anger and happiness respectively. Today […]

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