So “The Scream” has arrived in NYC. The 1895 pastel version of Edvard Munch’s iconic image that sold at auction for a record $119.9 million this past May got its New York museum debut at MOMA today. Perfect time to wonder whether screaming or other kinds of venting — pillow punching, ranting, telling a chair to shut up — actually helps us deal with anger.
The social psychologist Brad Bushman did what may well be the most famous study of this question at Iowa State, published in 2001 in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. He asked one group of undergrads to hit a punching bag and think about a person who had angered them. He asked a second group to hit a punching bag and think about getting fit. A third group didn’t do any hitting. Guess what? The first group — the ones encouraged to vent — were measurably angrier afterward than the other two. Doing nothing helped anger fade better than did punching an inanimate object.
Does that mean doing nothing when you’re angry is the best policy in a relationship? Definitely not. The key is to harness anger for peaceful purposes. First calm down enough so you can think straight. Distraction helps some people — count to ten, go for a run, wash the dishes. Then soothe yourself: listen to music, do yoga breathing, take a fragrant bath. With your heart rate down and your thoughts straight, now you are well-equipped to receive your anger, to welcome it, listen to it, understand it. After these three steps, it’s time to talk with your partner or loved one constructively about what’s upsetting you. As Beverly W. Harrison pointed out in her wonderful essay “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love,” anger appropriately shared in a relationship is an expression of caring.
Next step for the screamer in Munch’s painting? Calm down. Sort it out. Then turn around to face those two people leaning on the fence, talk about what’s so upsetting, and work to create change.