Philosophy Psychology Stoicism

The Futility Of Anger

Lately, I have had a lot of conversations with people about anger and frustration. It is always an interesting conversation to have with someone because I think anger is, on some level, the hardest emotion to let go of. We all would like to get away from anxiety, stress, sadness, jealousy, obsession, but anger seems to be the aberration. Whilst we may not like being angry (though some unfortunate souls do) we feel like we need it. Anger is justifiable. Anger proves our rightness and the offending parties wrongness. If you were to ask me what the biggest problem facing people in an attempt for better mental…wellbeing, I would say anger is the danger. We have, largely, legitimised anger. If you don’t agree with me, think about this: Amazon is having to patch Alexa to apologise to people if it detects frustration in their voices if this amazing piece of technology get a music request wrong. That can only happen in a world where people feel their anger is justified.

I believe it is time to redress this point.

Let’s have a look at what makes anger. Anger is a primary emotion that has, traditionally held use for triggering a fight or flight response. It allows us to use violence to improve our immediate situation. It can be beneficial to recognise we are angry as it is a clear indicator, like anxiety and sadness, that something is wrong. Anger almost always involves two parts, the intense emotional arousal, and the need to correct the problem. The need to strike back.

The need for vengeance.

Dramatic language, I know. I can almost hear you rolling your eyes. But stick with me and see where it goes. Maybe vengeance is too harsh a word, but the need and desire to correct is something you could almost certainly agree with. When someone or something makes us angry there is a need to show them that they were wrong to do that. If someone barges into you at the wrong moment how easy is it to turn and passively aggressively say ‘Excuse Me!’ whilst looking at them in disgust. What about if you are driving along and someone steps in front of your car whilst texting. You might swerve them, loudly beep your horn and start swearing profusely as you, in a half terrified, half outraged state try to let them know how stupid they have been. Or when someone says something to you that you find unpleasant or untrue and explode in a fit of rage to let them know just how wrong they are, because you are actually a very fun person and don’t have to get drunk in order to have a laugh unlike some people we know.

Nobody who has ever achieved vengeance is happy. People set off with the idea of ‘an eye for an eye’ in their head thinking it makes a lot of sense and sounds fair. However, how likely is it that the individual whom you subject to your righteous vengeance accepts it in good grace. I think of a time at school when, like many young boys do when playing there was an accidental coming together and one boy accidentally got hit. Naturally, Boy A was a bit upset and insisted it was only fair that he got to hit the person who harmed him, Boy B (these weren’t their actual names).

An eye for an eye.

Needless to say we all agreed, we were young, and so injured party became the injurer. The rest of us thought we could get on with the game, but Boy B decided that he had been hit harder than he had hit Boy A, and because that was an accident it wasn’t fair he had been hit this hard. He wanted a go back.

A tooth for a tooth.

You can imagine how this continued. This comes from the code of Hammurabi, one of the earliest example of codified laws, and whilst it appeals to our red hot, angry, righteous and vengeful selves, it will never end well. Setting out with the code of Hammurabi in ones minds, we should also pay attention to paragraph 21 of that same code:

If a man make a breach in a house, they shall put him to death in front of that breach and they shall thrust him therein

Eventually it stops and the vengeful force is spent leaving one feeling a little bit ashamed of how far removed they were willing to be from the image of who they would like to be. I assume most of us like to think of ourselves as kind and reasonable and fair, but how many kind people are vengeful?

Anger occurs because a belief or expectation we have about ourselves or the world has been violated. Our plans have been frustrated. To be angry is to forget a core truth, we only have control over ourselves and everything else is not up to us. So what can we do about it?

Remember that anger requires maintenance. Whilst we may not be able to control the initial flush of anger which arises due to an unconscious judgement about what something means about us or for us, we can decide what to do afterwards. If we find ourselves becoming angry we must resist the temptation to maintain the cycle.

When someone wrongs us, we add to the story. We say things like ‘they are always like thisand often keep adding and interpreting what they meant until we can’t stand it anymore. The problem with this comes when we inevitably strike back. We strike back too hard and then find ourselves with a vague sense of horror at just how unkind we are able to be.

Correction may be required, reasonable and justified. If someone has wronged us, we should tell them so. But in the appropriate manner, and anger does not have ‘appropriate’ in its dictionary. The best thing we can do is wait until we cool off before deciding what kind of correction is reasonable and, importantly, if we had committed such a violation (which we almost certainly will have done at some point in our lives), how would we like to be dealt with.

Seneca has two fantastic little quotes on this. The first allows us to realise just how skewed our thinking can be, and help us redress our expectations:

“Do you ask, what is your greatest fault? It is, that you keep your accounts wrongly: you set a high value upon what you give, and a low one upon what you receive.”

Seneca, Of Anger (III)

The second is some sage wisdom on how and why to prevent anger:

The best plan is to reject straightway the first incentives to anger, to resist its very beginnings, and to take care not to be betrayed into it: for if once it begins to carry us away, it is hard to get back again into a healthy condition, because reason goes for nothing when once passion has been admitted to the mind, and has by our own free will been given a certain authority, it will for the future do as much as it chooses, not only as much as you will allow it. The enemy, I repeat, must be met and driven back at the outermost frontier-line: for when he has once entered the city and passed its gates, he will not allow his prisoners to set bounds to his victory. The mind does not stand apart and view its passions from without, so as not to permit them to advance further than they ought, but it is itself changed into a passion, and is therefore unable to check what once was useful and wholesome strength, now that it has become degenerate and misapplied

Seneca, Of Anger (I)

What Seneca has correctly written about here is that emotion and decision making occupy the same region in the brain and interfere with each other. It is hard to accurately make decisions and judgements when we are highly emotional. If we allow anger in, we do not think clearly and become quickly swept away with it, often until we have ‘vented’ and are left spent and ashamed.

The enemy must be resisted from the first. Not so we can forget the transgression, but so we can better judge what to do. If we can remove ourselves from the situation, ask ourselves what really got us so angry and what response is appropriate, we will be acting in a manner we can be proud of. We will learn something useful (such as what we actually think about ourselves) and act in a kinder manner.

Kindness is, to me, one of the most important and valuable traits an individual can have. Don’t expect to be perfect and never get angry, but when you do…

Try and be kind.

As always, please leave a comment and share this around!


Philosophy Stoicism Wellbeing

Wanting The iPhone 11

Apple has, at the time of writing, just announced its newest smartphone, the iPhone 11 and variants. This has, of course, proceeded with all the usual fanfare, and prompted my own yearly self-examination. Namely that examination into why I want a new one.

This may seem like an odd thing to write about, yet I think it is actually the right moment to write about this particular subject. Not the subject of the iPhone, but the subject of wanting one. Of wanting anything of the sort. Perhaps its best to begin from my current standpoint (and maybe yours as well) and then explore what could make us feel desire for a product that logically we know to be no better that our current magical piece of metal that connects us with the world

I currently own a phone that is two years old, the iPhone 8. I chose this phone instead of the more extravagant iPhone X at the time as a negotiation with myself. I read up on them carefully and though I desired the new appearance of the X I realised that, a camera aside, they were essentially the same phone, and not worth the price (then again, technology wise, I could make the same argument for my current phone). This was a decision I remember inwardly agonising over. I thought about how lovely it would be to have the new design, the extra camera to finally unleash the inner photographer I knew was there. 

I desired it. I will admit, I also desired the slight uptick in social standing that would accompany the phone for a time. It would be a talking point. I would imagine myself, with new phone and new glow. It had made me seem slimmer in my imagination, and more muscular too. When I walked with it, I had a swagger otherwise not present. I was undoubtedly a more attractive version of myself. My (then) girlfriend would have no doubt been instantly more attracted to me (even though she is the wonderful kind of person who never cared for that sort of thing).

This was a self image I had constructed based upon the artificial desire created by a company. It’s not just Apple, Samsung, or any of the other technology giants that do it to us. It is everywhere. The oldest, most common technique in sales is to identify a need and then show the client how you have the solution. I used to work in advertising sales many years ago. At the core of the whole conversation, would be an attempt to find out what hurts in their business and show them how advertising in our paper would take the hurt away.

The genius of Apple et al. is that the hurt, the pain, is a social one. We are social creatures, and live in societies of constantly comparing ourselves to others (thanks to Facebook, Instagram etc.). To not have the newest gadget is to be left behind and invite judgement akin to being back at school and not being a part of the latest fashion. I distinctly remember feeling left out at primary school when the whole school was mad on yoyo’s and I didn’t get the message. Managing to procure one a week later I couldn’t do anything remotely impressive with one and was still unpopular, before naturally, the whole fad ended a week after that. 

The pain is all the worse as we relate to the people who buy these things. We don’t begrudge a footballer or a movie star the expensive taste as they clearly have the financial might, but people we work with or are friends with? We invite jealousy into our lives with that nasty unconscious thought ‘why should they have it and not me? We are the same…aren’t we?’

This is precisely the same as our current obsession with technology. The new phone is fawned over for a few weeks before a new one is announced. We have got used to it in a few days, feeling much the same about it as we did about our phone before. Whilst there may be a small burst of pleasure every time someone asks “is that the new iPhone? Is it good?” there is nothing else. This is the same with clothing (I distinctly remember just a few months ago desperately wanting to buy a particular pair of shoes that I was certain would make me look handsome and elegant like Eddie Redmayne). Yet once the pleasure of acquiring goes away (usually after we have worn/used/presented whatever thing we have bought once), we are left feeling much the same as we did before. 

Had I bought the more expensive phone two years ago, I would have been the same weight, walked the same way, with just as wonderful a (then) girlfriend). We construct a story about why having the thing is so much better than not having it. But as we do not want to admit it is because of the social implications of a new phone, or desiring positive comments about the way we look, we invent reasons.

“It will be good for my business to take better pictures or videos”

“If I look smarter people will think I am more respectable’

“A new laptop will make me more productive”

I think you get the idea.

This cycle of wanting, fulfilling, and wanting again is often referred to as the hedonic treadmill. This is the notion that humans will always revert to a base state of happiness. Something good or bad happens, we feel good or bad, and then revert to normal. I believe there needs to be an addition to this. By staying within the cycle, we condition ourselves to associate feeling happy and positive with fulfilment of these shallower wants. But our standard level of happiness remains the same. We disconnect ourselves from paying attention to our deeper needs by focussing on what some companies cleverly tell us we want.

The promise of popularity. Of an easier, more attractive life.

To escape the cycle, to get off the treadmill, is to be willing to recognise this as the primary desire we are feeling. And to recognise that we can opt out of it. We can choose to not buy the phone/laptop/shoes. It is always within our power to decide how something affects us, emotionally. So we can decide to remain unaffected by the new phone being released. Especially when it costs around £1000. We can resist the shoe, the laptop, the fad. 

And we can feel proud of ourselves for mastering what we know to be a shallow desire. Two years ago I negotiated myself down to the least impressive new phone. This year I plan to negotiate with myself to be just as satisfied with what I have. Epicurus, though not a Stoic, puts it well, and I owe Derren Brown’s fantastic book Happy for bringing this quote to my attention: 

Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.

 – Epicurus

This is very true. I referred to a phone as a magical bit of metal earlier and it truly is. They are performing things that were only in the realm of science fiction when I was growing up. Whenever I see someone paying for something by using their phone at a shop, or stop and think about the fact I am accessing the entirety of the internet on my phone, I am once again filled with a bit of childlike joy at the thought. These things are already incredible and magical. I can be satisfied with that.

So, around this time of year when new phones are announced and we start feeling like we want one, it is a good thing to turn our attention inwards and examine why. There is no question anymore they are vastly overpriced, with ethical considerations about their manufacture, contribute to a habit of consumption and obsolescence that in the modern world we should be moving away from (my fathers disgruntled question of ‘why don’t they build things to last anymore’ I find myself identifying with). But finally, they condition us to seek happiness and worth through the acquisition of goods. 

They may make life a bit easier, but no happier. For that we need to look inwards. And true happiness is being satisfied with what we have. We often say, usually in reprimand to someone who is spoiled, that they ‘want for nothing’. But in that statement is a huge truth. If someone ‘wants for nothing’ then they are happy.

Learn to want for nothing. You, most likely, already have what you need. 

Please comment on this post, like it and share it around…and if you have something you’d like me to write about in particular let me know and I’ll make it happen!


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Philosophy Wellbeing

Docking Your Boat

Good morning, or at least it is morning here, now, when I am writing this. I want to write about having a tranquil moment as a practice of good mental wellbeing. 

That was a rather blunt opener wasn’t it?

I’ll give you some context. I’m sitting here, drinking my first mug of tea for the day, listening to my newest piano obsession, having just taken my bit of calm for the day. What I mean by that is a period of time, just five or ten minutes, to be able to sit in peace. At pretty much every other moment of our days, we are always doing something else, stimulated by something external. The only time this usually isn’t the case is when we go to sleep, but then again how often have you been watching a show on Netflix or listening to podcasts as you drift off. 

There isn’t much peace there. Not really. Distraction yes. Peace, not so much.

In many of my half-started scribblings (I frequently flesh an idea out in a journal before deciding to actually sit and write at a computer), I have praised these private moments of tranquility many a time. They are calm islands in which the ship can dock before once more heading out into the maelstrom. 

Dramatic imagery aside, what do I mean here, and how can it help you?

There are many metaphors used to describe our consciousness and our mental wellbeing. For me, and my understanding I tend to use two. The first I unashamedly admit is taken from Derren Brown and his fantastic book Happy: Why more or less everything is absolutely fine. This is one trotted out in my client sessions and talks a lot and points out that we tell ourselves stories. That much of how we think and feel about ourselves and the world is simply a story we have made up, with influences from certain areas. 

The second I use, I am not certain if it has a source or if it is an original creation, either way I give it much less ‘public air time’ but I shall do here. That our experiencing, conscious self is akin to a ship and crew sailing an ocean. This ocean is sometimes clear, kind and easy sailing, but on other occasions, it has been stirred by a tempest of emotion and misfortune. The wind turns against us, the ship is battered and the crew is strained. Now, a skilled crew and sturdy ship can weather such weather (forgive me); but the crew who is tired and the ship that is damaged? 

Hopefully you can see where I am going with this.

Many of us get out of bed in the morning, or perhaps halfheartedly crawl (I used to hear my alarm go off and, whilst lying face down, repeat to myself, in the style of Trinity from the Matrix: “Get up Alex. Get Up. Get Up. Get. UP.”) and immediately start my day. 

Breakfast, shower, teeth, dress, commute, work, sit in the toilet to avoid work, work, break, work, lunch, stare at a wall or my phone, work, make a tea, work, commute, kiss (then) girlfriend, Netflix, dinner, Poirot or Jonathan Creek to fall asleep.

I found myself feeling under strain and sad quite easily. Is it any wonder. Where in that routine was there somewhere my poor crew and ship could have a break? “Well, when you were sleeping!” I hear you cry. And yes, that would be a fair point to concede. I argue back that sleep is the rest but not the resuscitation. In the day I highlighted above, there was no space for one to be at peace, to reflect on oneself, and have a moment of conscious calm. We tend to restrict that to relaxation holidays, lying on a beach or by a pool. More and more, and of course you may do this already, meditation has become a popular practice. 

And I can see why, after all it is spoken of glowingly by attractive people (often physically, but socially too). Yet how often have I spoken with clients who say they meditate but don’t find the time to do it regularly, and even those who meditate twice or even three times a day sometimes are no better than the most overworked C-level executive. 

So what am I getting at here?

What is it that makes a successful meditation session, that also connects my little mental island of peace. Nothing. They provide one and the same. I do not connect well with meditation as it is promoted, guided or otherwise. For me, my island of tranquility is sitting in my pyjama’s and dressing gown, drinking a cup of tea or coffee and spending 10 minutes just sitting and listening to gentle, calming, soulful piano music. To experience a subtle shift of emotions that makes me feel delightfully human. And then, most importantly, to just write whatever is on my mind. To engage in a period of self-reflection and instruction.

This is the equivalent of ensuring the crew is ready and the ship is in good order before setting forth into the days ocean. If the night has been unkind to the ship (for instance because of poor sleep or an argument with your partner that has bled over until the morning) then it’s a sensible, as well as a kind and considerate, thing to do. It means lingering emotional stress can be dealt with and we can fortify ourselves for the day ahead.

By giving ourselves just 10 minutes, at some point during the day (though at the start I find to be most invigorating) means that we have had, no matter what, a moment that was purely for us. Enjoyable. Peaceful. Tranquil. Necessary.

Everyone has 10 minutes for themselves. Away from distractions and stresses. Where you can practice distancing yourself from an issue in order to achieve a calm, quiet mind. Thats a good practice to have. Meditate if you want to and enjoy it; but if you don’t, just a cup of tea and some quiet does the job just as well.

Stop off on an island every now and then. Your ship and crew will thank you for it.