Last week’s post reflected on the pitfalls of using anger as a kind of performance-enhancing drug, especially for those of us who don’t work as professional boxers*. (*Boxers often use anger to win their fights, which is part of the reason why their careers are so short.) So I decided to explore the positive side of the equation, the opposite of anger, which is… wait… what is the opposite of anger?
A simple question — what is the opposite of anger — yields so many different answers, depending on who you ask.
Dozens of links, articles, research papers and even (gasp!) even a book or two later, I’ve come for a better appreciation on the limits of our understanding of emotions, the affective domain and how the language we speak shapes (and limits) almost everything (we think) we know about our minds.
This is going to be a long-ish post, so I’ll put the bottom line on top:
My short answer is that Anger doesn’t have a simple “opposite.” Emotions don’t work that way.
If you think that’s a cop-out, if you say, “oh please… I’m just looking for a powerful performance-enhancing emotion like Anger but one that doesn’t carry the same nasty side effects,” well, then okay… just for you: The opposite of Anger is Gratitude and Eagerness.
Read on if you want to understand how this works.
EXPLORING THE SEMANTICS
Ask yourself — what is the opposite of this thing we call Anger? Ask a friend. Ask Jeeves, or Google, or Bing, or whoever else is serving as your extended central nervous system. See what words you come up with.
Some people say the opposite of Anger is Love… that’s the quick (and too-easy) answer. Others, perhaps those who have lived long enough to experience a love-hate relationship — or those who have read Aristotle (cf. praótēs) — describe the opposite of Anger as Apathy. As my teacher Canice McGarry likes to say, “Love me or hate me, but please don’t ignore me.”
Maybe the opposite Anger is not Love, but Contentment? Or Acceptance? Possibly, but hard to accept at face value… we writer-types are just never satisfied. Is it about Calmness? Patience? Cheerfulness? Inner Peace? Obi-Wan Kenobi’s Serenity vs. Darth Vader’s Fury ? Luke Skywalker trying to muster up his Determination borne from a Concern for his friends, but trying to do it without going down the Dark Path that threatens to forever Dominate his destiny?
Some people describe the opposite of Anger as the Acceptance of One’s Anger… but is this just Contented Apathy? Or Detachment? Oh, the semantics are so slippery… we’re just grasping for words that feel right.
According to my thesaurus, Joy is also a possible antonym for Anger. But if we’re looking through the lens of classic cinema and consider the archetype of an evil mastermind character, Joy actually seems quite compatible with Anger. “Before I kill you 007, let me show you my plan for world domination… muahahaaaaa…” In any case, yeah, let’s bookmark Joy… there definitely something going on there.
In some of the professional psych literature, the opposite of Anger is described as Fear. This seems to makes even less sense in terms of negative vs. positive polarity. However, it does connect to a more basic biological perspective of emotion and the idea of “Fight-or-Flight” and “Approach-Avoidance” impulses.
Anger gets its power because of what it does to our physiology — it is a particularly strong form of biological arousal. Aristotle was on to something when he talked about harnessing the power of Anger:
“..we sometimes praise those who are harsh-tempered as manly, and fitted to command. It is therefore not easy to pronounce on principle what degree and manner of error is blameworthy, since this is a matter of the particular circumstances, and judgement rests with the faculty of perception. But thus much at all events is clear, that the middle disposition is praiseworthy, which leads us to be angry with the right people for the right things in the right manner and so on… ”
– Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Book IV Chapter 5,
English Translation by H. Rackham (1926)
For Aristotle, the only way to positively harness the power of Anger was to tame it with Reason. The anger is there, but it’s under control. Tame it too much, and it gets snuffed out completely into Apathy or “Spiritlessness.” Most of popular psychology and therapy is built around this Aristotelian concept of balanced, virtuous Anger (he called it “Good Temper“) and the idea of having a healthy, under-control release valve of emotional tension. In other words, it’s okay to get Angry, but don’t get too aroused. Baby.
However, is the absence of aroused Anger (aka Controlled Anger) the same thing as the opposite of Anger?
I don’t think so… especially if we’re looking for a performance-enhancing emotion that matches the intensity and physiological arousal that one gets by unleashing one’s Anger.
Some psychologists see Fear as the true natural opposite of Anger. One well-known model comes from Robert Plutchik, who developed a highly influential psychoevolutionary theory of emotion. According to Plutchik, the thing we call “emotions” are actually a series of complex cognitive and behavioral feedback loops that are adaptations within the context of a very long, multi-species evolutionary history. In 1980, he tied a bow around his theory with this attractive 3-D circumplex/cone that he called the Wheel of Emotion:
This model describes the relations among emotion concepts by using the analogy of colors on a color wheel: Emotions can vary in their intensity and similarity to one another… and they can be mixed to form secondary and tertiary or even conflicting emotions.
In this model, Awe is described as a combination of Terror and Amazement, Contempt is described as a combination of Rage and Disgust, and so forth. The eight primary emotions — which Plutchik observed in humans and animals as primary evolutionary adaptations — are arranged as four pairs of opposites. Here is a neat little table he made which illustrates these emotions in their biologically adaptive context:
Note that Plutchik wasn’t trying to reduce emotions to their neurochemical roots… many of the emotions on his Wheel probably involve the same neurotransmitters… adrenaline, endorphins and so on. Rather, Plutchik’s model takes an integrative approach that includes cognition and behavior. What we think and what we feel and what do are all components of what is defined as “emotion.”
The Power of Not Thinking
One of the reasons that Anger (or more properly, Rage) is so powerful and addictive is because it causes us to stop thinking. Most self-help literature stops there with that idea and tell us not to let our Anger carry us away… but I’m looking for something else that can carry us in the same way that Anger does, without all the damage of Anger. As a bonus, I’d like to harness an emotion that is powerfully motivating and which gets us to use our mental faculties. Wouldn’t that be a trip?
In Plutchik’s model, Fear is another state of primal, biological arousal, but in the opposite direction of the basic Approach-Avoidance impulse of Anger. Both Anger and Fear are negative, but the directionality of the emotions are reversed. However, are really these diametrically opposed emotions? Can’t one co-exist with the other (Fear & Loathing, anyone?) or lead to the other? Fear is not terribly addictive, and maybe that’s why Yoda was right: “Fear leads to Anger, Anger leads to Hate, Hate leads to Suffering… I sense much Fear in you.” (yes… we’re ALWAYS talking about Star Wars… ) In any event, Fear has a lot of the same effects as Anger, and does not promote good thinking. Malcolm Gladwell covered this nicely in his book, Blink.
Now, Ecstasy is interesting…. it’s the more intense version of Joy… yes, Joy, which that my thesaurus suggested as an antonym to Anger. Just like extreme Rage, Ecstasy is an addictive and non-thinking state… so we’re not quite where we need to be, but we’re definitely in a more positive space. Let’s hold onto that Joy bookmark.
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER — AT LEAST FOR NOW
Emotions are not abstract ideas that can have “opposites.” In mathematics, philosophy and theology you can have opposites: positive and negative numbers, good vs. evil, and so on. In the real world, there is only reality: Darkness is not the opposite of light, it is the absence of light (that’s my favorite solution to the Problem of Evil, by the way… though Wikipedia tells me it’s only a partial solution… oh well, 80/20 rule, right?). So the only “true opposite” of any emotion is its absence… and that’s just not very interesting for our purposes here today.
Emotions are waves of impulses, washes of chemicals that slosh through our brains, sometimes briefly, sometimes in seemingly endless cycles, in various degrees and combinations, promoted or blocked by our unique neural circuitry (nature + nurture), our conscious thoughts (cognitions) and our actions (behaviors). In other words, I’m pretty much on board with Plutchik’s model, except I think it departs from its biological underpinnings and — in an effort to be an elegant model — becomes abstract and therefore hinged on semantics and the shades and nuances of an ever-changing language. If your language is not English or if your culture is not Western-influenced, there might be a different Wheel of Emotion circumplex model for you.
Having said that, Plutchik does have placeholders in his model where he admits there’s an emotion he can’t describe: Suprise + Disgust = ???(perhaps that unnamed emotion is the secret sauce of Reality TV?) Like an early version of the Periodic Table of the Elements, Plutchik’s model predicts the existence of something that hasn’t been adequately observed or described in his particular place and time. That’s exciting stuff.
Stuff I didn’t like: I couldn’t figure out where Gratitude fits into Plutchik’s model. Actually, I didn’t find it listed in many places at all. Gratitude, to me, is a key feeling to have… whether it is a “primary,” “secondary” or “tertiary” emotion I don’t care… in fact, Gratitude is less of an emotion, and more like a belief…. and a belief that can be chosen.
Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.
– Cicero, ‘Pro Plancio,’ 54 B.C.
The belief that says “I am grateful” is the opposite of the belief that says “I am a victim,” and it is that latter belief that leads to so much Anger and Violence.
On Plutchik’s Wheel, Gratitude probably falls somewhere between Love and Admiration. However, Gratitude alone can lead to complacence… we need action! So, using Joy as our center point, we can bring in the concept of Optimism and Anticipation… I’ll blend those together and call it Eagerness.
Start with an attitude of sincere Gratitude bolster it with real Eagerness, and you’ve got a powerful, positively motivating mindset that is rarin’ to go… and yet which is filled an appreciative mindfulness.
Put those things together and you’ve got something that is the complete opposite of Anger, but just as powerful… it’s about going to extra mile out of loyalty to the Cause, instead of simply hating the Enemy… and so yes, Love definitely has something to do with it, too.
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