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What Is the Optimal Way to Be Angry? (NSQ Ep. 2)

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Also: why do we treat pets better than people?

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Question 1: Is Seneca’s advice on keeping your cool still valid?

Angela and Stephen have noticed that they’ve been getting annoyed by increasingly quotidian things. The challenges of going to the grocery store during the pandemic have been anger-inducing for Angela, and Stephen has been frustrated while cooped up at home. After reading an ancient guide to anger management by the Roman Stoic Seneca, Stephen wonders if the philosopher’s 2000-year-old advice can help people today keep their cool. Angela thinks that Stanford psychologist James Gross’s research on emotion regulation is the modern incarnation of Seneca’s work, and she shares some of his strategies for controlling and managing anger.

Angela DUCKWORTH: His advice when you’re angry is, first and foremost, to change your situation. Leave the room, change the actual circumstances that are making you angry. The second thing is draw your attention to something else. That’s why a lot of people read. I read before bed every night. And it’s specifically to take my mind off of everything that is bothering me. He calls that “selective attention.”

After discussing many bad ideas for how to deal with frustration (including a label gun that would allow pedestrians to brand the cars of jerky drivers, and seeking vengeance with Japanese throwing stars), Stephen and Angela talk through ways to effectively employ anger-management strategies from both Seneca and Gross in the future.

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Question 2: Why do so many people treat pets (dogs especially) better than they treat other humans?

Stephen loves dogs, especially his own dog Fifi. Angela is not a dog person, and she doesn’t understand the mentality. She wonders why so many people treat animals better than they treat other people. They discuss a 2017 study by Northeastern sociologists Arnold Arluke and Jack Levin which found that humans were more disturbed by the abuse of both puppies and adult dogs than the abuse of adult humans.

Stephen DUBNER: I do find it troubling. But I think the simplest explanation is that it’s easier to feel empathy, or to exhibit kindness, toward pets even strange pets than to strange people, or sometimes even people we know well.

If you’re interested in learning more about the difference in moral outrage over the mistreatment of humans versus animals, Stephen suggests checking out a 2014 episode of Freakonomics Radio, “Which Came First, the Chicken or the Avocado?