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Anger can be a powerful motivator to achieve major life goals

A new study led by Texas A&M University has found that anger, typically regarded as a negative emotion, can actually serve as a powerful motivator for individuals striving to attain challenging goals.

Mix of emotions 

“People often believe that a state of happiness is ideal, and the majority of people consider the pursuit of happiness a major life goal,” said lead author Heather Lench, PhD, a professor in the department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Texas A&M. 

“The view that positive emotion is ideal for mental health and well-being has been prominent in lay and psychological accounts of emotion, but previous research suggests that a mix of emotions, including negative emotions like anger, result in the best outcomes.”

The role of anger

This viewpoint aligns with the functionalist theory of emotion, suggesting that all emotions, whether positive or negative, are responses to environmental stimuli, serving to alert individuals to significant situations that demand action.

In their quest to delve deeper into the role of anger in goal achievement, the researchers undertook a series of experiments with over 1,000 participants and analyzed survey responses from an additional 1,400 individuals. 

How the research was conducted 

Participants were subjected to conditions designed to invoke various emotional responses, including anger, and were subsequently presented with challenging objectives.

One of the experiments had participants view specific visuals intended to induce certain emotional or neutral states, followed by a task involving solving word puzzles. Another scenario involved completing a skiing video game with varying levels of difficulty.

What the researchers learned 

Across the various experimental setups, the experts consistently observed that anger enhanced the participants’ ability to meet their goals, especially in comparison to a neutral emotional state. This was evident through improved performance metrics such as higher scores or quicker response times. In certain instances, anger was even associated with an increased propensity to cheat in order to attain a more favorable outcome.

Anger increases effort

Additionally, the study took into account survey data from the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential elections. Prior to the elections, participants were asked to rate their potential level of anger should their preferred candidate lose. 

Post-election, they reported on their voting behavior. The data revealed that those who anticipated anger in the event of their candidate’s loss were more likely to participate in the voting process, although their choice of candidate was not influenced by their anger.

“These findings demonstrate that anger increases effort toward attaining a desired goal, frequently resulting in greater success,” Lench said, further highlighting that anger’s efficacy in achieving goals was particularly pronounced in situations where the goals posed a substantial challenge, and was less associated with success in simpler tasks.

A balanced emotional spectrum 

Lench also acknowledged that while anger was a common facilitator of success, other emotions such as amusement or desire were sometimes linked to goal attainment too.

Ultimately, these findings contribute to a growing body of evidence supporting the utility of a balanced emotional spectrum, including both positive and negative emotions, in promoting overall well-being. 

“People often prefer to use positive emotions as tools more than negative and tend to see negative emotions as undesirable and maladaptive. Our research adds to the growing evidence that a mix of positive and negative emotions promotes well-being, and that using negative emotions as tools can be particularly effective in some situations,” Lench concluded.

The study is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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