3 Ways to Channel Your Raging Emotions Into Action

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Photo: Ringo Chiu/AFP/Getty Images

In an op-ed published in the New York Times on January 20, 2005 — the day of President George W. Bush’s second inauguration — the Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert argued that most people have a habit of “reasoning [their] way to happiness.” Darker emotions are uncomfortable, and so we are highly motivated to get rid of them as quickly as we can. In his piece, Gilbert posed a challenge for those upset over Bush’s reelection: Resist that urge.

“Outrage, anger, fear and frustration are unpleasant emotions that most of us vanquish through artful reasoning; but unpleasant emotions can also be spurs to action — clamorous urges that we may silence at our peril,” he wrote. “Perhaps over the next four years we would all be wise to suppress our natural talent for happiness and strive instead to be truly, deeply distressed.”

In the ensuing decade or so since Gilbert wrote that column for the Times, a wave of research concerning unpleasant emotions has confirmed their usefulness. Anger in particular has been shown to be a powerful feeling; exposure to it can help clarify your mission and calcify your motivation, argue the authors of one 2010 study in Psychological Science. It’s a small but important gift this week has provided: For once, your life and your work seem outlined in stark black-and-white. You see what you can do — what you need to do — to align your actions with your beliefs. “You can think of these emotions as signposts,” Todd Kashdan, a Georgetown psychologist and co-author of the 2014 book The Upside of Your Dark Side, told Science of Us. “They’re telling you what you should be doing right now.”

The election of Donald Trump has been so out of the ordinary in so many ways that it doesn’t always feel quite right to rely on the existing evidence to predict what might come next. But the research we do have suggests that you can’t hang on to a feeling like happiness — so why should we assume you can hang on to a feeling like distress? I woke up today feeling a tiny bit better, and that terrified me all over again. I don’t want to get used to this: I don’t want to continue on as if nothing’s changed. (And I know I’m incredibly lucky to potentially have the luxury of continuing on as if nothing’s changed; so many others do not.)

It may well prove entirely possible these next four years to keep hold of your outrage; as psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky pointed out in an interview, it will likely be as easy as keeping up with the headlines. But it’s also worth remembering that you don’t need to “feel like it” before taking action. Either way, Kashdan offered some practical, evidence-backed advice for some ways to pin down your fury and your fear and convert those feelings into action:

Write down your intentions. It’s such a simple thing, but you have to do it. Capture your newfound clarity concerning the specific cause, or causes, you want to commit to, before the clearheadedness becomes muddled again. Here’s just one example: Women’s health care.

Make a plan. Just how are you going to carry this out? Figure out exactly how you’re going to act on your intentions. “This is the only way you’re going to make those plans come into fruition,” Kashdan said. “Otherwise, they’re going to be inspiring but inert.” If your cause, for instance, is women’s health care, what does that mean? Are you going to make regular donations to Planned Parenthood? Are you going to become an abortion clinic escort? Figure out the details, and write those down, too.

Go public. Social media can be annoying; Facebook may well have helped swing this election toward Trump. This is one way to put it to good use. “If you make it a public proclamation of what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it, you’re more likely to follow through,” Kashdan said. “This is where social media can become very valuable.”