Have you seen it happening around you recently?
You misjudge a right turn into traffic and force the person behind you to slow down. In the rear view mirror you see him screaming and aggressively showing you his favorite finger. It was your fault, but did it need to cause the person to melt down?
You attend your kid's soccer game. One of the kids isn't starting the game. The parent loses her mind at the coach.
You open up your email or Facebook and you simply can't believe the things people are writing.
People are getting angrier.
Why? Why are strangers treating each other like arch enemies? Why is politics feeling more like trash talk before a professional wrestling smack down? Why at home are we yelling at each other?
It would be nice to have a scapegoat. When we face uncomfortable emotion, our first reaction is to disassociate from it. We don't want its heat to touch us. We don't want to be the cause. The challenge, unfortunately, is that our tendency towards quick and more vigorous anger is the result of three cultural realities that aren't going to change unless we change.
The three realities that are making us so angry are smartphones, the pace of life, and evolution.
Your smart phone is the greatest and most dangerous tool you will ever use. It gives you access to the entire universe through the internet. It connects you to everyone you have ever known through social media. And every time you connect, you get a dopamine hit. Caffeine gives you a dopamine hit. Cocaine does too. Ever seen someone after a cocaine binge? Not pretty and that's most of us these days almost all the time. We want more connection, immediate gratification, and validation. When we don't get it, the alarm in our brain fires. It wants the good feeling back. It thinks something is wrong. It then short circuits the thinking part of your brain and you get angry.
Problem is, we've been running around all day, working longer hours than ever before, carting our kids to three soccer games and a birthday party each weekend day while trying to keep up the house, stay close to our family and friends, fulfill our volunteer commitments, and occasionally, we try to do something for ourselves. All that busyness means less sleep, less exercise, less slow, leisurely meals, and more stress. Doing too much causes stress because it forces the alarm in our brain to stay on all the time. The alarm looks out for danger. It can't calm down unless it knows you are safe. Running around all the time, you are not safe. It constantly has to pay attention to the consistently changing people, places, and commitments. It doesn't want you to miss anything important, and as a result you are tired from paying attention all the time, you miss something little, and you pop.
The angry pop is your brain equating forgetting to pick up basil on the way home for that perfect pasta sauce with being chased by a wild animal. You know the moment. You realize you forgot something, and even though it isn't a big deal, you feel like your life is about to end and you explode at your children for not making their beds. Your brain thinks you are in danger for forgetting the basil because we haven't let it take a break since they invented YouTube. It equates the forgotten basil with a wild animal trying to eat you. It can't tell the difference between what really should stress us out and little things that really shouldn't because we haven't evolved to keep up with the modern world. If our ancestors from 2,500 years ago saw you freak about the basil they would laugh. But then again, they didn't have to deal with Marcy from next door bullying your child on snapchat, the kids crap all over the minivan, and a boss who texts at all hours of the night.
So what's the solution? If we are all angry because of a tool that isn't going away, a busy life that we actually enjoy most of the time, and a body that can't evolve quick enough, what do we do?
1. Make down time as important as breathing. Down time means doing exactly what you want to do, with whom you want to do it, and at a pace that refreshes you. For some people, down time is exercise. For others, it is taking a nap on the couch. Ironically, you have to be selfish if you want to be generous with other people when they trigger you.
2. Treat technology like food. Unless you want to get huge, you don't eat all the time. You plan meals. The text that throws you over the edge or the tweet that makes you want to move to another country are not content you have to consume when it arrives. Even at work, where we are expected to respond quickly, to some degree we have more control over when we expose ourselves to technology. Make sure your smartphone usage is more like three healthy meals than an all-you-can-eat-24-hour-buffet.
3. Turn on the right genes with new habits. Whether you meditate, do mindfulness exercises, go to a spiritual community, or read meaningful content on your time at your leisure, you can change your brain and your genes by being more intentional about how we live. A little more intention to be present, calm, and feel free each day can make each day less angry.
Recently, I was the guy who accidentally cut off another driver. He drove a fancy car, wore a nice suit, and from what I could read of his lips he was quite angry. And as he drove past me gesturing, I simply smiled. I could have gotten angry back. I could have taken it out on my wife when I got home. I could have let my mistake and his anger made me angry too. Instead, I forgave myself, and meditated a little longer that day. Hopefully, I will drive a little more carefully and the next time someone gets angry at me, I can help them be less angry too. Anger has its place, and we don't have to keep getting angrier if we are a little more intentional with our time, technology, and our bodies.