Remember Gordon Gecko’s monologue in the movie Wall Street?
“Greed is good… greed works.”
Apparently the same is true of another seemingly negative trait: Grumpiness.
Despite what your mother told you, those given to anger and dark moods often have an advantage over happy, shining people. It’s true. And there is science to prove it. Science, and the anecdotal evidence gleaned from the success of such noted hotheads as Steve Jobs, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Beethoven and actors Hugh Grant and Christian Bale.
It’s not a coincidence that creative geniuses are quick to anger. In fact, they may be creative geniuses because they are quick to anger. Anger is a part of our fight-or-flight response. When we get angry, our body floods with adrenaline in preparation for a physical confrontation. Our heart speeds up; blood starts flowing, et cetera. But that adrenaline also pumps up our motivation and gives our brain the freedom to take more mental chances, which can result in new ideas and creative visions. So, a creative person who is always on simmer may have an edge over a more even-keeled colleague.
Anger-prone people may also be better negotiators as that pump of adrenaline and the faces we make when angry can make the stewing negotiator seem more intimidating to his negotiation opponent.
And while this makes little intuitive sense, people who routinely blow their stacks are healthier, in some ways than those of us who control our emotions. A 2010 study of 644 people found that expressing anger had no impact on the chance of having a heart attack – but suppressing one’s fury resulted in a 300% increase in the chance of having a coronary.
Those with generally negative outlooks also benefit from their gloominess. Being in a dark mood prompts the same brain response as the perception of danger. The mind goes on high alert with more focus, increased watchfulness and sharper thinking. Those traits are every bit as useful in a cubicle as in the jungle, it seems.
Interestingly, grumps tend to treat people more fairly than happier folk. Researchers attribute this to the Gloomy Gus’ heightened awareness of social norms and a resulting feeling that everyone in the group should be treated the same way.
On the flipside, being happy can actually reduce our effectiveness and even put us in danger by making us feel complacent. When we feel good our body releases oxytocin – often called “the cuddle hormone.” This makes us all warm and gooey, thus lowering our ability to think critically. In one study, happy people were unable to think skeptically about conspiracy theories like the Kennedy assassination. In another, blissful participants showed a reliance on profiling and stereotyping rather than analytical thought when choosing “criminal” targets in a shooting video game.
Optimism has a similar effect. Holding a “no worries” positive view of the future can be unconsciously demotivating. Studies have shown that students who fantasize about huge success earn less, and medical patients who daydream about recovery heal more slowly. The same effect has been seen in those trying to lose weight or quit smoking.
You’re better off, it seems, having nightmares about the consequences of failure. Researchers say that “defensive pessimism,” mentally preparing for everything that could go wrong – at your kid’s birthday party or the biggest work meeting of your career – can be a useful strategy. By thinking through the worst scenarios, you’ll be ready to respond on the off chance one of them actually materializes.
I’m a happy, optimistic guy, and nothing here makes me want to change. In fact, it makes me even happier to know my grumpy friends actually have a lot going for them behind all those frowns and temper tantrums!