Solving anger and frustration

Anger is like those ruins which smash themselves on what they fall. – Lucius Annaeus Seneca


Anger refers especially to that faculty of the mind which subsists between reason and desire and which seeks to direct the latter in accord with the former – a faculty which seeks to ordinate the self and its environment. It is part of the brain response to a perceived threat of pain – mental of physical.

Anger may be expressed actively or passively. When expressed actively, an angry person “lashes out” verbally or physically at a target. When expressed passively, it is often characterized by silent sulking, passive-aggressive behavior, hostility and tension.

Anger is usually magnified and lasts longer when a rational decision is made about the intent of the source of the disturbance. In other words, if one decides the pain infliction was intentional or deliberate, the emotion of anger that results is usually more intense. This also happens when one thinks he can do something to change an unchangeable painful situation.

Getting angry is not a hard thing to achieve. Is is sufficient for one to drive through a city, especially if it is a crowded one, to get very frustrated because of the careless drivers that seem to be everywhere.

The world we live in is a very frustrating one and most of us seem unable to respond very philosophically to it. Anger seems as much a part of our lives today as bad driving and traffic jams.

An interesting thing to know is that anger was even a greater problem in the ancient times than it is now.

Ancient thinking & solutions for anger | Seneca

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (often referred to simply as Seneca, or Seneca the Younger) was a Roman philosopher, statesman and dramatist. Born in Corduba, Hispania (today’s Spain), about 3 B.C., Seneca was the second son of Helvia and Marcus Annaeus Seneca, a wealthy rhetorician known as Seneca the Elder.

In AD 49, Claudius’ wife Agrippina had Seneca called to Rome to tutor her son, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, the future emperor Nero. In AD 65, Seneca was charged with being a co-conspirator in the Pisonian conspiracy (a conspiration in which he probably wasn’t involved), a plot to kill the emperor Nero. Rather than face execution, Seneca chose to slit his wrists.

During his time as advisor of the emperor Nero, Seneca saw very much anger first hand. He even dedicated a whole book, titled “On Anger”, to the subject. “The most hideous and frenzy of all emotions” he called it. But, crucially, he refused to see it as an irrational outburst, something over which we have no control.

Seneca thought anger was a philosophical problem and that it should be treated with philosophical arguments.

Anger arises from certain rationally held ideas about the world. And the problem with these ideas is that they are far too optimistic.

In Seneca’s analysis, people get angry because they’re too hopeful, too optimistic.

Optimism is an outlook on life such that one maintains a view of the world as a positive place. An optimistic view of life is the overarching mental state wherein people believe that things will more likely go well for them than go badly.

Whenever we get angry there’s an element of surprise of self pity and injustice. When we expect things to go our way and they don’t, we tend to get angry. What Seneca would say is that “bad” things (in the optimistic perception) are neither unfair or surprising. They are predictable features of life. The person who gets angry about them simply has the wrong expectations of the world.

Seneca’s first piece of advice: be more pessimistic, adjust your view of the world so is to be less surprised when reversals occur.

He urges us to bear something else in mind too: if we can accept there’s often nothing we can do about our frustrations, we will be less likely to lose our peace of mind when we encounter them.

Seneca believed that one of the reasons we get so angry is because we imagine that things should basically always go our way. This is more of a problem these days as there is an explosion of “advice” sources that urge people to be overoptimistic and believe that things can always go their way, that they should be able to make the world conform to their wishes.

The reality is that we can’t do that. There are many things that we just have to accept. To make us understand this, Seneca came up with an unusual idea. He said that all of us are esentially rather like dogs, tied to the back of a moving chariot, and the leash is just about long enough to give us some freedom, but not long enough to allow us to move wherever we want. The best way for the dog to have a good life with this constraint is to follow in the direction where he doesn’t want to go than to kick against something that he can’t change. That is because if he kicks against it, he will end up not only going where he doesn’t want to go, but he will also get strangled.

However, we have one advantage over animals: we have reason. And it is reason that gives us the advantage to see what we can change and what we can’t. We may be unable to alter certain events but we’re always able to change our attitude towards them. And its this ability that Seneca believed gave us this distinctive form of freedom.

Seneca’s philosophy isn’t just useful for times when we’re feeling furious, it offers us a way to stay calm and collected whatever life may throw at us.

Being a wealthy person, Seneca noticed a surprising thing in the world around him: being rich tends to make people angrier, not calmer.

Seneca believed that the problem with rich people, was that their expectations were absurdly high. If this seems absurd to you, go to an airport and look at the 1st class and the economic class counter; what you will notice is that people tend to shout more at the 1st class counter.

The reason is that the rich believe that money will insulate them from setbacks and frustrations; and that is one of the absurdest expectations of us all.

Seneca’s second piece of advice: lower your expectations.

Another interesting piece of advice coming from Seneca is to meditate. The meditation that he refers to isn’t for relaxation, but for preparation.

We usually tend to reassure people by saying: “don’t worry, it will be fine.” Seneca believed that this cozy advice can potentially be very cruel, because it leaves the target person unprepared if things won’t be fine. So he suggested an opposite strategy.

Seneca’s third piece of advice: every morning, make time for a calm meditation on all the things that might go wrong that day.

Be careful not to start believing that you shouldn’t ever expect things to go to plan. You can expect them to go to plan, but at the same time you must be prepared for the day they don’t.

Balancing the optimistic and the pessimistic sides of our moral, as well as meditating to be prepared for when things don’t go our way, are key elements to living a peaceful life, a life free of frustration and anger.


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