When Angry Self-Talk Is Better Than Happy Self-Talk

5 min read

Part 1 of a two-part series.

A new multi-pronged study reaffirms what I’ve learned as an ultra-endurance athlete about the perks of getting angry when tackling a difficult challenge but shifting gears and cultivating a happy-go-lucky mindset when the task at hand feels relatively easy.

The findings of this study by researchers from Texas A&M University’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences were recently published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Channeling My Inner Anger Helps Me Finish Tough Races

As a teenage cross-country runner, I learned that anger can be like rocket fuel during uphill battles. When the going got tough during a brutal run, instead of practicing mindfulness or maintaining equanimity, purposely cultivating anger helped me get through strenuous workouts and push myself harder at the end of a grueling race. Back then, as a gay teen dealing with a few homophobic bullies, my go-to source of motivational anger was anyone who took pleasure in deridingly calling me a “sissy.”



When I started doing Ironman triathlons in my 20s, headwinds during long bicycle rides became my nemesis and something to get mad about when purposely fortifying a come-hell-or-high-water mindset. For example, if faced with a relentless headwind during a bleak stretch of the 112-mile bike ride through the lava fields back into Kona, I’d personify the gale force winds and start cursing at them.

When dropping the F-bomb and cussing at strong winds during an Ironman, my go-to line was, “Don’t *uck with me! This ain’t my first time at the rodeo,” said like Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. Using this campy line when I was mad at the wind elicited mixed emotions, including anger and amusement, which together inspired me to keep going and reach the finish line without delay.

Anger Benefits Goal Achievement in Some (Not All) Situations

Through lived experience as an ultra-endurance athlete, I’ve learned that in the face of any arduous challenge that pushes against my limits, angry self-talk and negative emotions are usually more beneficial than trying to maintain my eye-of-the-tiger motivation by giving myself happy, kumbaya-ish pep talks.

When struggling to achieve athletic goals that require lots of grit, aphorisms designed to elicit positive emotions and warm fuzzies that the Dalai Lama might say, like “Choose to be optimistic; it feels better,” don’t give me enough oomph or the adrenaline rush needed to get the job done.

That said, during slow and easy jogs at a conversational pace, laid-back bike rides, or lackadaisical swims, when the level of challenge is minimal, there’s no need to get angry to finish the workout and achieve daily exercise goals. During easier cardiorespiratory challenges, anger isn’t helpful; in fact, it usually feels counterproductive. In these situations, being a joy seeker and cultivating warmhearted, feel-good emotions works better.

Through trial and error, I’ve learned from decades of endurance sports experience that when trying to achieve sports-related goals within one’s comfort zone that feel relatively easy, focusing on positive emotions, such as happiness and exercise-induced blissfulness, is more beneficial than anger. Now, new evidence-based research from outside the world of sports corroborates many of my anecdotal observations.

New Study: Anger Has Benefits for Attaining Difficult Goals

For their latest (2023) research on the potential benefits of anger when pursuing a goal, Heather Lench and colleagues conducted seven unique experiments.

In one of the experiments (Study 1), participants were asked to solve puzzles of varying degrees of difficulty. When faced with complex, hard-to-solve puzzles, the researcher found that anger resulted in greater goal attainment. However, anger didn’t improve performance on easier puzzles.

In another experiment (Study 3), anger resulted in better scores when playing a relatively challenging video game, but getting angry didn’t help if the video game was less challenging.

In another task-based experiment (Study 4), participants were told they’d win a prize if they responded to a prompt with lightning-fast reaction times. Anger resulted in faster response times and a greater interest in trying the task again to improve scores than not getting angry during the game. Interestingly, a sense of amusement while playing the game also led to faster reaction times that closely matched anger-driven results.

Taken together, these findings suggest that anger can result in better goal attainment in situations that involve trying to accomplish something difficult, but getting angry doesn’t help if a so-called challenge feels like a breeze.

As the authors explain, “[Our] findings demonstrate that anger increases effort toward attaining a desired goal, frequently resulting in greater success. This effect was detected on tasks that involved greater challenge to goal attainment and was not evident on tasks that were relatively easy.”

Anger laced with light-hearted amusement may be a winning combo. Lench also noted that while anger was associated with increased success when trying to achieve challenging goals across the board, in some of her team’s experiments, a sense of amusement was also associated with increased goal attainment during hard-to-achieve challenges.

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