According to an international study carried out in more than 120 countries, the Maltese rank as the angriest people in the EU while a large part of the population is also worried, stressed and in pain.
Anger is actually not all that bad. Its benefits have made it an indispensable tool for the survival of our species.
It makes us aware of injustices, enhances emotional intelligence, motivates us to solve problems, drives us towards goals, protects values and beliefs, improves negotiation, and allows us to overcome threats.
Our ancestors used it, quite literally, to stay alive.
Why anger is triggered
People get angry for different reasons, and people experience anger with diverging intensities.
Some have a higher genetic predisposition to it. Others feel angrier as a result of their upbringing or their experience in the educational system. People who experienced childhood trauma are more likely to get angry often.
In some cases, anger is exacerbated by the intake of alcohol and drugs. Heat is probably a major culprit, and in all cases, the environment plays a crucial role in anger triggers.
Nigel Camilleri, president of the Maltese Association of Psychiatry, said the Maltese environment could be triggering people the most. This includes excessive noise, overpopulation, construction, traffic, lack of space on the beach, and accumulation of rubbish. It is also the lifestyles we choose to lead.
“When we’re young, our mental stability depends on our home’s and parents’ stability. When we grow up, that mental stability starts to depend on the environmental stability,” Camilleri explained.
If a person feels society is lacking structure and order and starts to lose faith in authority, they will be less resilient and able to deal with stress. They are also more prone to becoming angry and cynical.
“Add the environment to the other factors we just mentioned, like genetic predisposition and childhood experiences, and it can quickly become more than we can handle.”
Fight or flight
The experts say the problem is, therefore, not that people are sometimes triggered and get angry, but that people are constantly being triggered because of all these factors.
The limbic system, the amygdala and the fight or flight responses work brilliantly when we need to avert great, life-threatening danger. But they are among the most primitive parts of the brain.
They are irrational, unconscious and instinctive, and are responsible for some of our worst life choices. They are what make you honk the horn mercilessly and shout obscenities at someone who just cut you off in traffic.
The human brain has another section, called the frontal lobe. It processes and controls emotions, makes plans, solves problems, and sees the world in a rational way. It is what makes you bite your tongue, take a deep breath and keep going about your business when someone cuts you off in traffic.
The frontal lobe controls anger but only if we give it the chance to do it.
For your ancestors, facing the hungry lions was a one-off incident. They had time to calm their mind and body after the threat was averted. Their brain could cope with the emotional trigger, because the human part was able to rationalise and deal with it.
The problem, according to the experts, is that we are constantly living as though the lions are behind us.
“If your brain is being constantly triggered with sensory impulses of stress, even non-life-threatening ones, like traffic, noise and work deadlines, the frontal lobe stops working and you’re constantly reacting with the amygdala – you’re always in fight or flight. And that’s why you erupt in traffic,” Camilleri said.
Getting away from it all
He said this is why for decades, Maltese people have bought and built holiday homes near the sea a moved there in summer.
“Someone living in London or Malta is constantly triggered with more stresses than people living in the countryside and is therefore more likely to become angry. This is why the Maltese bought holiday homes, so they would be able to move to somewhere with less stimuli, less car noise, less people and less demands, and unwind,” he said.
“This is why big European cities keep their parks. London could take up more land for construction if it wanted to, but it keeps large stretches of untouched greenery and trees in the centre of the city, to allow people to get away from the hustle and bustle and reset their emotions,” Camilleri explained.
“In Vietnam, the city of Hanoi is maybe one of the most hectic you will ever experience. But they completely close off the city from 7am till 9am and from 7pm till 9pm every day so people may exercise, meditate, jog or practise thai chi in a quiet and calm environment.
“In Malta, we are losing all of that.”
Camilleri said the situation in Malta may also affect people who are doing their best to unwind, by, for instance, practising sports.
“If you want to go out for a walk or with the bike, you must wake up early. Otherwise, the roads will be far too dangerous and stressful to calm you down. But that means you get less sleep, which increases stress,” he said.
“And if you have children, they will probably be still sleeping at that time of day, so they will rarely see you set an example for them.”
Researcher and economist Marie Briguglio said local studies show people in Gozo feel less nervous and anxious. One reason could be that the island is more quiet and offers more opportunities to engage with nature.
The other lions
The experts believe the ‘lions’ are not simply buildings, cars and overpopulation. It is also the lifestyle we designed for ourselves. It comes from the negative news we consume, social media and our outlook on life, which is mostly based on constant thirst for success and achievement.
We feel we must constantly look good on social media, get promotions at work, make more money from our career, win races, do well in exams, and outperform as many people as possible in competitions.
As a result, someone driving slowly in front of you as you are trying to make it on time for a new career interview is not simply a slow driver in your eyes.
They become a person who is in the way of your new job, your career advancement, your opportunity to make more money. Ultimately, it feels like they are in the way of your happiness. It makes them look like a monster in your eyes, and it infuriates you.
“We don’t do stuff for the fun of it anymore. Everything is tied to a race, competition, exam or certificate,” Camilleri said, adding that being constantly on edge increases damage of blood vessels and increases chances of high blood pressure and heart disease.
“It starts in school and takes different forms as we grow older.”
Long-time family therapist and Gozo bishop Anton Teuma said a controlled degree of anger improves our lives, but he fears we are setting unrealistic standards of success for ourselves, and the struggle to reach them is increasingly driving us to frustration and anger.
“Let’s be realistic – life is short and it ends. Our attempts to grasp control over it and our efforts to try to achieve everything will only frustrate us more,” he said.
“The way I see it is – life is a gift we are given. If we look at it as a gift, then we can sit back, relax and enjoy the gift while we have it. And that’s it. The more we obsess over how to make it bigger, the more frustrated we become. This is not to say we should be passive, but if we feel too responsible for our success and happiness, we will feel constantly frustrated because the standards we set are often impossible to reach.”
Often, he said, this makes us frustrated with our own insufficiency and that could also be another source of anger – the anger with ourselves.
Teuma said this should sound natural for people of faith to understand. The gift of life is given to us by God and all we need to do is be ourselves and give life to more people until we move on to another life.
“We’re after success because we’re insecure. Joy will never come from what you achieve, but from what you are.”
Social media making things worse
Psychologist Gail Debono said while technology has emotional, psychological and physical health benefits, social media has “morphed our lives into an online showcase.
“We are increasingly externalising our locus of control, which in simpler terms means we are increasingly looking for happiness outside of ourselves,” she said.
“Furthermore, through social media, one easily absorbs others’ gripes. It is very easy for one to get caught up in their own bubble and adopt the thoughts and feelings of that bubble, and to assume their bubble is a reflection of society at large when reality would often be quite different.
“Online, one is a member of several groups with varying member demographics, so in a group set up by the residents of a locality, for example, it is far more likely that members will be exposed to people’s complaints. Social media is thereby also a conduit for the absorption of others’ negative experiences.”
She said the positive experiences shared by others could also have a detrimental psychological effect on those following them. It is human nature to compare one’s accomplishments or lack of them thereof to others, and it is a given that most people are only going to share their best moments and embellish them further at that.
Religion and culture
Camilleri said western culture also tends to forge a sense of entitlement into our personalities, and that increases our chances of getting angry when things do not go as we would like them to.
There is a lot of traffic in Delhi, India, but people there tend to be calmer in traffic, because the Hinduism practice of mindfulness helps them deal with stress in a more efficient way.
However, he discarded the idea that our noisy, Mediterranean culture has anything to do with anger.
“That’s a fallacy. Noisier does not mean angrier,” he said.
Debono noted, however, how there are many influences on how one responds to the anger question, and culture could have played a part.
“There are cultures in which it is taboo or considered weak to express anger. Somebody from Northern Europe may be less likely to admit to having felt angry than someone from the southern Mediterranean,” she said.
‘Level of pain more worrying’
Briguglio said similar studies conducted locally confirm that the Maltese people are more nervous and anxious, even more than foreigners living in Malta.
She said the factors known to enhance positive feelings include engagement with nature, art, family and community.
She said Malta lacks calming factors like contact with nature. It also has more exposure to pollution, lack of contact with the arts, lack of a strong community and lack of faith in the institutions.
“You can’t measure this in the GDP index,” she explained.
“So, a country could be doing very well economically, but its people could be very well growing more anxious and nervous.”
That is why the Malta Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society, and the University of Malta launched the Wellbeing Index Project, which aims at measuring well-being of people living in Malta.
Briguglio said, however, that she is perplexed about how high the Maltese scored on the pain. She said Malta is only above the EU average in anger, but people report being in pain a lot more.
“We’re among the best countries in the world for our health services, and yet, we report we feel pain levels that are significantly higher than those of the EU,” she said.
“One explanation could be because we have a high life expectancy.”
The international survey also noted a trend of steadily increasing worldwide unhappiness, resulting from poverty, bad communities, hunger, loneliness, and the scarcity of good work.
Debono said this is not necessarily unexpected, because “in countries like ours where there is relatively less poverty and less hunger, and the availability of good work, we live faster lifestyles, with less time for connection, relaxation and contact with nature. We are also having fewer children as lives are focused more on careers and financial affluence, resulting in smaller families, and less time to spend with them, fostering more loneliness in the long run”.
She said although widely ignored, sound and light pollution are also major contributors to negative emotions. People’s feelings of helplessness in the face of injustices, adversities, illegalities and lack of enforcement from the authorities, increases the negative emotions.
“The dust, ecosystem disturbance, road closures, parking space occupation, sound and light pollution caused by the construction industry; lack of adherence to traffic rules; electric scooter drivers obstructing pavements; drivers stopping their car in the middle of the road ‘to grab something quick’; sunbed vendors taking over the little beach space we have; unregulated parking attendants; entertainment establishments playing music at loud volumes while others try to rest; and so on.
“Ultimately, the fact that these abuses and more have been ongoing for years – and for some of us, our entire lives – with impunity, is the most taxing factor of all.
“Injustices and inequalities are everywhere, but it is not everywhere that they go on and sometimes increase in strength and power once they are reported. This fosters feelings of helplessness in those seeking rectification and not finding support from the very people supposedly ensuring fairness.”
Still, the study is also not all negative. A total of 59 per cent said they had experienced enjoyment, 78 per cent felt well- rested, 75 per cent smiled or laughed, and 92 per cent felt treated with respect all day during the day before.
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