How to Break the Outrage Addiction Ephrat Livni, Quartz – 2018 and 2019 reprint
“Anger is a public epidemic in America; it contaminates everything from media controversy to road rage to wars to mass shootings,” according to Jean Kim, a psychiatrist for the US Department of Health and Human Services and assistant professor at George Washington University. Kim says that anger is addictive—it feels good and overrides moral and rational responses because it originates from our primordial, original limbic system—the lizard brain, if you will. This is the part of our brain that responds automatically and is directly connected to the fight-or-flight response system. It controls adrenaline rushes, including those fueled by anger. Outrage gives us an unhappy high we keep trying to replicate.
The dangers of getting hooked
We’re becoming controversy junkies, as the Washington Post (paywall) puts it. You might say that’s OK because outrage about injustices—like sexual harassment and abuse—fuels positive changes and causes us to become less tolerant of dangerous behaviors, as the #MeToo movement has shown.
Yet there’s a downside, too, which is that we become addicted to unhealthy emotions and perpetually chase the next angry high. This ultimately makes it impossible—in the political context, for example—to engage in reasoned debate.
The psychology of outrage is of increasing interest to academics because it seems to be fueling society and creating “a severity shift.” The more outraged we become and the more we see others upset, the more we feel justified in being angry ourselves, according to University of Chicago legal scholars who studied jury deliberation processes. One incensed individual can inflame a group and move their views, resulting in a much larger damage award for a plaintiff than the group initially contemplated. The opposite is also true. A “leniency shift” occurs when people aren’t incensed about an issue.
Just a cursory glance at the tenor of cultural discussion online and in the media reveals an outsized level of anger, hyperbole, incivility, and tribalism, according to political scientist Jeffrey Berry and sociologist Sarah Sobieraj of Tufts University, authors of The Outrage Industry. This trend reinforces divides and extremist views, making moderation seem bland and tasteless—and making it ever more difficult to reason about disagreements.
Because the media business relies on audience feelings for success—and anger, fear, and anxiety are all potent emotions—individual reporters and news outlets are then motivated to generate sensations. “America has developed a robust and successful Outrage Industry that makes money from calling political figures idiots, or even Nazis,” Berry and Sobieraj write.
Complex issues are simplified to fit in a tweet or headline and the messages make us feel good, even while they make us mad. The simplification creates an illusion that problems are easier to solve than they are, indeed that all problems would be solved if only they (whoever they are) thought like us.
The result of all this extreme expression, however, is that people feel increasingly safe in expressing views that might be considered taboo, like xenophobia. In a 2017 paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, entitled “From Extreme to Mainstream: How Social Norms Unravel,” economists discuss two experiments they conducted that show “the unraveling of social norms in communication” can happen very rapidly.
In the first experiment, participants were offered a bonus reward if they authorized researchers to make a donation to an anti-immigration organization on their behalf. Subjects who expected their decision to be observed by the surveyor were significantly less likely to accept the offer than those told the choice was anonymous. In other words, people were more likely to approve of the donation if they didn’t think the researchers would see them being xenophobic.
However, as participants’ perceptions of Donald Trump’s popularity changed with his victory in the presidential election campaign, “the wedge between private and public behavior” was eliminated. When the experiment was conducted again, subjects felt safer about revealing their xenophobia because the new US president was vocal about his feelings. Thus, what was once seen as an extremist view and kept relatively secret became a social norm, a feeling to be revealed without compunction.
In a second experiment, subjects playing “dictator games” revealed that they judged a person less negatively for publicly expressing a political view they disagree with if that’s the majority view in a person’s social environment. So, though the subjects themselves disagreed with the view, they were receptive to the notion that it was popular and thus acceptable.
The comfortable view through a polarized lens
What we may consider shameful personally becomes justified by the prevalence of a viewpoint. And the more we communicate extremes, the more normal they seem until no middle ground can be reached.
Most notably—as observed by a Harvard paper examining academic literature on anger’s effect on judgment (pdf)—”once activated, anger can color people’s perceptions, form their decisions, and guide their behavior while they remain angry, regardless of whether the decisions at hand are related to the source of their anger.” Scientific studies show that anger makes people indiscriminately punitive, careless thinkers, and eager to take action. It colors our perception of what’s happening and skews ideas about what right action might be.
So, anger motivates us, which can be good. But perhaps not so much if all the feeling does is inspire more outraged tweets or compound feelings of division. Channeling anger into positive action requires careful thought, not just reaction, which means that our best responses arise when we’re not upset and are less intent.
Paradoxically perhaps, diplomacy and activism require great restraint—in addition to will and activity—the ability to see past the moment and emotions, examine the big picture, and think in terms of the greater good. No one who has sat at a negotiating table and been so angry they couldn’t concede some legitimacy in another person’s position has ever resolved a dispute—and famously “getting to yes” is the goal of negotiation.
On a personal level, the need to always be feeling something, anything, even anger, leaves us depleted. We rise and fall with the cultural or social tide, are tossed about by waves of someone else’s creation, when swimming steadily might serve us better, both mentally and physically.
Stepping back to move forward
The state of perpetual outrage is a health risk. Anger is associated with increased heart disease, eating disorders, car accidents, and mental health problems. Generating feeling all the time, as news outlets do for money, and individuals do to grow a following on social media, leads to a diseased society, literally and metaphorically.
To stay healthy then, it’s best to maintain a sense of perspective, to step back from—not into—the fray, especially when you’re most offended and you have nothing useful to express besides outrage. That doesn’t mean you become indifferent to injustices or passive to the point of inaction. On the contrary, keeping a cool distance from the daily events that fuel your social group’s outrage makes you more capable of contending with reality and making decisions that might improve the direction or rhetorical tenor of events in the grand scheme.
The more important the issue, the more you hold what’s at stake in a debate dear, the more critical it is to keep your wits about you rather than react wildly. Outrage won’t serve you or society unless it’s fueled wisely. In the words of the ancient Japanese guide for samurais (pdf), the Hagakure, ”Matters of great concern should be treated lightly. Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.”
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This article was originally published on July 21, 2018, by Quartz
eating too much refined sugar–which is found in most sweets, sodas, white breads, and pastas, virtually all “fat free” and “low fat” snacks, fruit juices, yogurts, energy drinks, most Starbucks drinks (including many coffees), sauces (ketchup, BBQ sauces, mayo, pasta sauces), and countless other packaged foods–has now been shown to make us cranky, make us make rash decisions, and make us stupid. My friend’s point was clear: Just because I’m thin and my blood tests show no sign of diabetes, it doesn’t meant the amount of refined sugar I’m eating isn’t negatively effecting my health.
How Much Sugar Should You Eat in a Day?
The American Heart Association says men should eat no more than 37.5 grams of sugar a day and women should eat no more than 25 grams. But the World Health Organization now says even those allowances are too high, suggesting both men and women should eat 25 grams or fewer each day. The average American currently eats 126 grams of sugar a day–though most don’t realize it. Much of that amount comes from the refined sugars added to our foods during manufacturing.
Photo from Flickr user Manav Sharma.
Still, I found it hard to believe the refined sugar I was eating at every meal could really effect my cognitive abilities so much, so my friend said there was only one way to find out for sure: give up all refined sugar for two weeks to see if I noticed any changes.
And that’s exactly what I did. The day I began my two-week refined-sugar-free diet, I thought it was mostly a pointless exercise, and that I would notice little, if any, differences. How wrong I was. By the time I finished, it was nothing short of a revelation.
The Refined-Sugar-Free Diet
Giving up refined sugar isn’t easy from a practical standpoint. It’s found in virtually all packaged foods and drinks and most food at fast food restaurants (a large Big Mac meal deal has 85 grams of sugar–236% of your daily allowance). That means if I were to escape refined sugar, I was going to have to spend more time at home cooking fresh foods than I was used to. Further, not only would I have to cut out my once-a-day sweet treat, but also all canned drinks (soda, energy drinks, and fruit juices), white breads and pastas, and those deceptively “healthy” yogurts with fake fruity sauces added for taste. I also gave up sugar and milk in my coffee.
Photo from Flickr user herval.
Instead of all of the above, my refined-sugar-free diet for two weeks consisted of only fresh foods: fruits and vegetables, fish, chicken, and meat, and whole-grain pasta and rice. Most of these I already ate regularly–only side by side with foods containing refined sugar.
It’s also important to note that for these two weeks I did not give up sugar entirely, only refined sugar. I ate plenty of natural sugar–those found primarily in fruits, and the ones that the body turns into glucose from the meats, fats, and carbohydrates we eat, which are a very important source of fuel for the body and, more importantly, the brain. Without the consumption of natural sugars, the body would not have enough fuel to survive for long.
One last critical point: I didn’t change my daily calorie intake during my two-week journey. I stuck to eating between 1,900 and 2,100 calories a day, just as I do when I eat a diet with refined-sugar foods. I also kept to my normal exercise regimen. With everything set, I began a refined-sugar-free diet. Here’s what I experienced.
My Moods And Focus Went On A Roller Coaster Ride
The first day I eliminated refined sugars from my diet, I thought it was going to be a cakewalk. I ate plenty of fruits, had fish for lunch, and a steak with a side of vegetables for dinner. I missed the sugar and milk in my coffee and I did miss my daily sugary treat–but it wasn’t such a challenge giving them up.
Things changed radically on the second day. Even though I had had a filling breakfast and lunch (two oranges, eggs, and whole-grain rice with vegetables), around 2 p.m. I suddenly felt like I had been hit by a truck. I felt foggy and had a headache, which never happens on my normal diet. This fogginess and the headaches continued intermittently for the next two to three days. During that time, I had intense cravings for both soda and sugary treats. On the third day, I actually got the shakes for a period of time. It was very, very hard not to have something sweet.
“As you were not feeding your addiction, your brain was shouting out to have sugar to satisfy its cravings,” says Rebecca Boulton, a nutritional therapist who specializes in hormonal health and sugar cravings, whom I contacted to help me make sense of what was happening in my body. “This is a period of adjustment, and starts with the cravings being more intense before they start to get better.”
Intense? By the end of Day 4, I would have sold my dog for a brownie. The fogginess and lack of focus at one point got so bad, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on the stories I needed to file that week. I seriously considered having an energy drink “for the good of my health” (I resisted). Needless to say, the continuing brain fog and resulting lack of focus made me very irritable and even depressed. I became cranky and impatient, and was unable to concentrate on things for significant lengths of time.
Photo from Flickr user Marketa.
“Your body was still having a hard time adjusting to the new foods and reduction in sugar,” explains Boulton. “It is programmed to get energy from sugar, and it takes time to get used to getting it from a different source. It almost feels like a hangover as your body is getting used to the withdrawal of sugar.”
But then on Day 6, something happened. The fogginess began to disappear along with the lingering headaches. The fruits I were now eating on a daily basis began tasting sweeter. By Day 8 or 9, I felt more focused and clear-headed than I had at any time in recent memory. This translated into greater productivity–for example, I was more engaged when interviewing sources for stories. I was better able to focus on what they were saying and could rapidly respond to their answers with new queries and reformulated ideas with a speed and clarity I’ve never possessed before. While reading a book or article, I felt like I absorbed more detail and information. In short, I felt smarter.
Boulton says that the increased sweetness I began to taste in fruits was a sign my body was adjusting to being freed from nonstop refined-sugar intake. My tastebuds were adjusting to the newly recognizable natural sweetness of fruits. In turn, my headaches stopped because my body was no longer fighting the sugar cravings. “Your blood sugars are balanced without the constant roller coaster of sugar highs and lows,” says Boulton, “which reduces your brain fog and increases mental clarity.”
And talk about clarity: By the final days of my diet journey, I felt so focused, it was as if I were a different person. This translated to a change in mood that not only I noticed, but my friends as well. As dumb as this sounds, I just felt happier than I had been two weeks earlier.
But mood and mental clarity weren’t the only benefits I noticed by the final days of my refined-sugar-free diet. Sleep is a critical part of mental health. Not only does it give the conscious mind respite from the day’s activities, it helps flush out toxins from the brain. A good night’s sleep also helps make us smarter.
“Your insulin levels are regulated when your blood sugars are balanced,” explains Boulton. “[This] promotes good sleep patterns and gives you consistent energy, which also reduces fatigue and means you can focus more. This has a knock-on effect on the rest of your hormones as they work synergistically, which also improves energy, sleep, and brain function.”
I had no expectation that giving up refined sugar would help me sleep better, but it did. On average, by Day 6 or 7, I fell to sleep within 10 minutes of lying down. Before I cut refined sugars from my diet, it usually took me about 30 minutes to fall to sleep. I also discovered I began waking earlier and more naturally, and that it wasn’t as hard to get out of bed in the morning.
Unexpected Weight Loss
The final thing I want to mention about my refined-sugar-free diet was its effect on my weight. I did not undertake this experiment to shed pounds, and since this wasn’t a weight-loss diet, I kept to eating the same number of calories as before. I also ate plenty of fats (red meat, avocados) and plenty of carbs and natural sugars (from fruit, veg, and whole grains). The only thing that I changed about my diet is I eliminated any calories from refined sugars.
And I lost 12 pounds in two weeks.
The reason is though my calorie intake remained the same, my body was no longer fighting a constant deluge of refined-sugar intake it needed to process nonstop, says Boulton.
“Sugar spikes your blood sugar and insulin levels, as well as disrupting your neurotransmitters in the brain, which increases fat storage,” explains Boulton. “Eating more protein, fiber, fruit, and vegetables increases your metabolism, and your body burns it off more efficiently. It really isn’t just about the calories but about the quality of foods you eat and the way your body processes them.”
A Veil Has Been Lifted
After two weeks of eating a refined-sugar-free diet, I can say my simple assumptions about the effects of my previous diet on my body and cognitive function were wrong. After giving up refined sugars for only two weeks, I feel as if a veil has been lifted and I can see clearly for the first time.
Mentally, I feel better than I have in years. I’m happier, more aware, and more focused. I sleep better without any disruptions and wake more refreshed than ever–I haven’t felt this energetic since I was a teenager. My relationship with hunger has also changed. Sure, I still get hungry–just nowhere near as often. Eating a diet free from refined sugars fills me up and keeps me full for seven or eight hours. This has changed my concept of what my previous bouts of “hunger” actually were. I now realize that prior to this diet, most of the times I had felt “hungry”–every three hours or so–it was my body reaching out for another sugar hit. It wasn’t true hunger.
As for those previous daily sweet cravings I assumed were perfectly natural: sugar in my coffee? Don’t even miss it. Those shelves full of candy bars at the check out? When I now see those sticks of chocolate-coated refined sugar, they might as well be pulped cardboard–that’s how much I now desire to eat them. Weaning myself off refined sugars has also allowed my body to reset what it perceives as sweet. For the first time in my life, the richness and nuance of the flavors of fruits and vegetables pop when I eat them. Now I understand why a century ago, oranges were given to children on Christmas Day–they were an incredibly sweet treat. Who needed chocolates?
As positive as my experience has been–and as great as I feel–I’m worried that I won’t be able to keep saying no to refined sugar. The odds are stacked against me. Refined sugar is hidden in tens of thousands of foods and its addictive effect on the brain is more powerful than that of cocaine. Its presence and its marketing power are everywhere, which makes it nearly unavoidable unless you are willing to do what I did and prepare all of your meals using only fresh foods–something time and work commitments don’t always make possible.
Still, the benefits I’ve experienced from cutting refined sugar from my diet for only two weeks are too powerful to ignore. And that, I hope, will be enough.
Michael Grothaus is a novelist, journalist, and former screenwriter represented worldwide by Marjacq Scripts Ltd. His debut novel EPIPHANY JONES is out now from Orenda Books. Contact his agent at Marjacq Scripts Ltd.
Happiness requires struggle. The positive is the side effect of handling the negative. You can only avoid negative experiences for so long before they come roaring back to life.
At the core of all human behavior, our needs are more or less similar. Positive experience is easy to handle. It’s negative experience that we all, by definition, struggle with. Therefore, what we get out of life is not determined by the good feelings we desire but by what bad feelings we’re willing and able to sustain to get us to those good feelings.
People want an amazing physique. But you don’t end up with one unless you legitimately appreciate the pain and physical stress that comes with living inside a gym for hour upon hour, unless you love calculating and calibrating the food you eat, planning your life out in tiny plate-sized portions.
People want to start their own business or become financially independent. But you don’t end up a successful entrepreneur unless you find a way to appreciate the risk, the uncertainty, the repeated failures, and working insane hours on something you have no idea whether will be successful or not.
People want a partner, a spouse. But you don’t end up attracting someone amazing without appreciating the emotional turbulence that comes with weathering rejections, building the sexual tension that never gets released, and staring blankly at a phone that never rings. It’s part of the game of love. You can’t win if you don’t play.
What determines your success isn’t “What do you want to enjoy?” The question is, “What pain do you want to sustain?” The quality of your life is not determined by the quality of your positive experiences but the quality of your negative experiences. And to get good at dealing with negative experiences is to get good at dealing with life.
There’s a lot of crappy advice out there that says, “You’ve just got to want it enough!”
Everybody wants something. And everybody wants something enough. They just aren’t aware of what it is they want, or rather, what they want “enough.”
Because if you want the benefits of something in life, you have to also want the costs. If you want the beach body, you have to want the sweat, the soreness, the early mornings, and the hunger pangs. If you want the yacht, you have to also want the late nights, the risky business moves, and the possibility of pissing off a person or ten thousand.
If you find yourself wanting something month after month, year after year, yet nothing happens and you never come any closer to it, then maybe what you actually want is a fantasy, an idealization, an image and a false promise. Maybe what you want isn’t what you want, you just enjoy wanting. Maybe you don’t actually want it at all.
Sometimes I ask people, “How do you choose to suffer?” These people tilt their heads and look at me like I have twelve noses. But I ask because that tells me far more about you than your desires and fantasies. Because you have to choose something. You can’t have a pain-free life. It can’t all be roses and unicorns. And ultimately that’s the hard question that matters. Pleasure is an easy question. And pretty much all of us have similar answers. The more interesting question is the pain. What is the pain that you want to sustain?
That answer will actually get you somewhere. It’s the question that can change your life. It’s what makes me me and you you. It’s what defines us and separates us and ultimately brings us together.
For most of my adolescence and young adulthood, I fantasized about being a musician — a rock star, in particular. Any badass guitar song I heard, I would always close my eyes and envision myself up on stage playing it to the screams of the crowd, people absolutely losing their minds to my sweet finger-noodling. This fantasy could keep me occupied for hours on end. The fantasizing continued up through college, even after I dropped out of music school and stopped playing seriously. But even then it was never a question of if I’d ever be up playing in front of screaming crowds, but when. I was biding my time before I could invest the proper amount of time and effort into getting out there and making it work. First, I needed to finish school. Then, I needed to make money. Then, I needed to find the time. Then … and then nothing.
Despite fantasizing about this for over half of my life, the reality never came. And it took me a long time and a lot of negative experiences to finally figure out why: I didn’t actually want it.
I was in love with the result—the image of me on stage, people cheering, me rocking out, pouring my heart into what I’m playing—but I wasn’t in love with the process. And because of that, I failed at it. Repeatedly. Hell, I didn’t even try hard enough to fail at it. I hardly tried at all.
The daily drudgery of practicing, the logistics of finding a group and rehearsing, the pain of finding gigs and actually getting people to show up and give a shit. The broken strings, the blown tube amp, hauling 40 pounds of gear to and from rehearsals with no car. It’s a mountain of a dream and a mile-high climb to the top. And what it took me a long time to discover is that I didn’t like to climb much. I just liked to imagine the top.
Our culture would tell me that I’ve somehow failed myself, that I’m a quitter or a loser. Self-help would say that I either wasn’t courageous enough, determined enough or I didn’t believe in myself enough. The entrepreneurial/start-up crowd would tell me that I chickened out on my dream and gave in to my conventional social conditioning. I’d be told to do affirmations or join a mastermind group or manifest or something.
But the truth is far less interesting than that: I thought I wanted something, but it turns out I didn’t. End of story.
I wanted the reward and not the struggle. I wanted the result and not the process. I was in love not with the fight but only the victory. And life doesn’t work that way.
Who you are is defined by the values you are willing to struggle for. People who enjoy the struggles of a gym are the ones who get in good shape. People who enjoy long workweeks and the politics of the corporate ladder are the ones who move up it. People who enjoy the stresses and uncertainty of the starving artist lifestyle are ultimately the ones who live it and make it.
This is not a call for willpower or “grit.” This is not another admonishment of “no pain, no gain.”
This is the most simple and basic component of life: our struggles determine our successes. So choose your struggles wisely, my friend.