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Anger is alluring in the short-run, but happiness-eroding in the long-run

Imagine that you have just broken up with your boyfriend because he cheated on you. How would you feel?

Now imagine, instead, that you broke up with your boyfriend because you cheated on him. How would you feel now?

If you are like most people, you are likely to feel angry in the first instance, and guilty in the second. So, in both instances, you are likely to feel negative. But, which of these emotions-anger or guilt-is easier to deal with?

Most people find it easier to be angry than to be guilty. For that matter, anger is easier to deal with than any other negative emotion, such as sadness, shame, or anxiety. Why? The answer lies in understanding the set of thoughts (or "appraisal tendencies" as they are called in emotion-research) that accompany these emotions.

Anger is triggered by thoughts related to fairness: we feel angry when we think that others have treated us unfairly. Put differently, anger results from blaming others for our negative outcomes. As a result, when we feel angry, we feel like taking revenge-to set the score straight. Anger, in other words, is an empowering emotion: we don't feel weak or low when we are angry; rather we feel strong and dominant.

Contrast that with guilt. Guilt is evoked when we feel that we have wronged someone. So, although guilt is also triggered by thoughts relating to fairness, unlike anger, it is when we think that we have treated others unfairly that we feel guilt. Thus, when we feel guilty, we feel indebted and subservient to others. Guilt, in other words, is a belittling emotion: we feel weak and humbled when experiencing guilt.

Sadness, like guilt, makes us feel small and weak. This is because sadness is triggered by thoughts relating to a significant loss, such as, loss of a partner or of wealth. So, when we feel sad, we feel powerless and impotent. Anxiety also makes us feel powerless. Anxiety is triggered by thoughts relating to uncertainty about a future event and till that uncertainty is resolved, we continue to feel powerless.

So, of all the negative emotions, anger is different. As some researchers have noted, anger is, in some ways, more like a positive emotion than a negative one because anger can make us feel bigger, stronger, and more capable. Thus, it is not surprising that people find it easier to deal with anger than to deal with sadness, guilt, anxiety and other negative emotions.

What this translates into is: when a negative outcome occurs (e.g., failing an exam, a financial loss, break-up with a significant other), we find it easier to blame others than to take the blame because it is easier to deal with anger. Over time, the habit of blaming others leads to what may be called the "entitlement mindset."

At first, it can feel good to adopt the entitlement mindset. It can lead you to feel powerful and strong. Further, those with an entitlement mindset may find it easier to get their tasks accomplished. As the saying goes, "the squeaky wheel gets the grease." So, if you have an entitlement mindset and you express anger and frustration and complain a lot, others will cooperate-but only for a while. Sooner or later, the entitlement mindset becomes your trap.

People will discover that you are difficult to deal with. So, they won't cooperate with you. But because they are afraid of invoking your anger, they won't tell you to your face that you are difficult to deal with; they will just talk behind your back. So, on the face of it, nothing will have changed. People still listen to you politely when you get angry and worked up. But, you will find it increasingly difficult to get things done; obstacles to your progress will seem to appear from nowhere and from unforeseen quarters.

There is another-more important-reason why the entitlement mindset is a trap: by blaming others for your outcomes, you have abdicated personal responsibility for controlling your emotional state. The truth, as I discussed in an earlier post (The Four Attitudes of Happiness), is that your emotional state is largely within your control. Therefore, if you wish to maximize your happiness, the first step is to recognize that you need to retain the key to your happiness, and not hand it over to others. But that is precisely what those with an entitlement mindset cannot do: because they are addicted to blaming others for their outcomes, they don't know how to begin taking personal responsibility for their happiness. Sadly, therefore, they never learn the single most important tool for maximizing happiness: managing one's attitudes.

Many of us aren't even aware that we are trapped by the entitlement mindset. So, how will you know if you have an entitlement mindset?

There are several symptoms. First, ask yourself: do people think of you as an angry person?

Perhaps you don't know the answer to this question, and you don't have friends who feel comfortable enough to be honest with you; if so, keep track of how frequently you feel irritated, frustrated, and angry. If you feel these emotions on a regular basis (say, more than once a day on average), it is quite likely that you have an entitlement mindset.

Second, do you feel that others are pleasant to you on your face, but that you can't count on them when you are not around? In other words, do you feel that you don't have friends that you can really trust? That could be another indication that you are caught in the entitlement mindset trap.

Finally, do you find that you are attracted to people (e.g., colleagues) or news articles that make you feel that you (or your community) have been wronged? Do you walk away from interpersonal interactions or from the TV or Internet feeling outraged and vengeful? If so, you could be exposing yourself to stimuli that are making your increasingly entitlement-oriented.

It is, of course, important to be assertive and to claim your rightful share. But for many of us, the pendulum has swung too much in the other direction: we are aggressive, rather than assertive, and self-serving, rather than fair.

But, ironically, as is the case with many other self-serving traits, the entitlement-mindset is not really self-serving, but rather, is subversive. We may make others miserable in the short-run by blaming them for our negative outcomes, but the others can (and will) run away from us in the long turn. And then, the entitlement mindset will turn on us.

The others have to put up with us only for short amounts of time; we have to live with ourselves forever.


Interested in these topics? Go to Sapient Nature

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