Happiness Myth No. 3 — Venting Anger Relieves It.

For the first time since I started this blog three years ago, I’m skipping the Wednesday Tips in order to bring you this series on the happiness myths. Each day for two weeks, I’m debunking one “happiness myth” that I believed before I started my happiness project. Yesterday I wrote about Myth No. 2: Nothing Changes a Person’s Happiness Level Much.

Happiness Myth No. 3: Venting anger relieves it.

Wrong. Contrary to popular notion, aggressive “venting” doesn’t relieve bad feelings, but fuels them. Studies show that blowing up, punching a pillow, yelling, or slamming doors makes you feel worse, not better.

Although we think we act because of the way we feel, in fact, we often feel because of the way we act. For example, studies show that even an artificially induced smile brings about happier emotions, and a recent experiment suggested that people who use Botox are less prone to anger, because they can’t make angry faces. Philosopher and psychologist William James explained: “Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.”

Although this “fake it ‘till you feel it” strategy might seem fake or inauthentic, I’ve found it to be almost creepily effective. You really CAN change your emotions. It takes great presence of mind, and a lot of self-discipline, but whenever I can manage to act light-hearted, or friendly, or receptive to criticism, or whatever is the opposite of my grouchy, gruff, defensive instinct in the moment, I really transform my mood.

Bottom line: If you’re feeling angry or sad, instead of expressing negative emotions in a dramatic way, try to act the way you wish you felt by finding a calm way to express your feelings – or take steps to distract yourself.

For a discussion of the catharsis hypothesis, check out “The Uses of Adversity” chapter in Jonathan Haidt’s terrific book, The Happiness Hypothesis.

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  • Steven S

    I agree that venting rage will not work to “relieve” anger. I also agree that sometimes acting a certain way can actually make us feel that way (C. S. Lewis proposed an incredible theory on love: act as if you love someone else, and in time you will find that you are beginning to feel love for that person as well). However, I think it’s important not to deny or demonize emotions: anger and sadness are meaningful and necessary emotions that we will all experience, and to completely deny them will kill us inside.

  • hohaha

    this is some piece of shit. lol you gotta vent your anger, fake.

  • Zander

    I definitely agree with you and Steven S. Both comments go together well. I would also like to add that it is important to not confuse the difference between faking it with the intention of feeling better, and faking it while holding onto the emotions. When someone fakes it to feel better, there is a semi-conscious uplifting reaction. When someone fakes it to just keep people from knowing what’s wrong, they sometimes feel worse and a smile in that situation isn’t really a smile. It’s just changing the face shape to hide it.

  • Eve Johnston

    I have found that venting anger by hitting a pillow or some such is an effective way of coping with the physical urge to hurt someone or destroy property, allowing you to calm down enough to start faking it. Maybe other people don’t experience this intense, overwhelming feeling of rage, but I have, and my son does regularly. Learning to manage anger in a nondestructive way by hitting his pillow instead of his sister, yelling at or talking to his teddy bear, and writing it out then throwing it away all seem to help him calm down so we can have a productive conversation about ways to solve whatever set him off in the first place.