The Maltese and their anger

The news article reporting that the ‘Maltese are the angriest and most worried people in EU’, makes me angry. Without having participated in Gallup’s study of the world’s emotional temperature, I became part of the story, the one in which 24% of Maltese people stated they had experienced anger.

I am angered because I feel that the study and the reporting do not do justice to the issue, its complexity, and the narrative that can be woven around it.

Let’s start with the numbers. It is reported that “a quarter of Maltese … had experienced anger …and that “this rate, which Malta shares with Poland, was the third highest in Europe after Turkey and North Macedonia”. If you click on the interactive map for anger on the Gallup website, you will confirm that 24% of Maltese people had felt angry the day before being surveyed, and that we share the same cabin as the Polish on this. But if you move the mouse over to Turkey, you will notice that the percentage of angry people there stands at 48%, double ours, and definitely a huge leap up from third place.

There’s also the part where we are compared with the countries at the bottom of the list, our so-called fellow EU countries Finland, Estonia, Portugal and the Netherlands. I’m sure I’m not the only one asking what it is that we share in terms of position, quality, or condition, with either Portugal, where one can visit Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of continental Europe, or Finland, whose population density is 76 times less ours.

It doesn’t stop there. You look at spacious Spain and smaller Austria, and their rate stands at 22%, meaning the difference between the angriest people in Europe and another two EU Member States is extremely small. Not to mention Germany, where even the Bratwurst and the beer are not enough to calm people down, because 21% still manage to get angry and dutifully report it.

And yet, the part about numbers is only a very short chapter of the entire story. I am angered because we need to revisit the belief that emotions are simple programmes that come with an ‘On’ and an ‘Off’ button, that they are either wrong or right (and can be mapped as negative or positive experiences) and that anger is to found on the bad list. In his brilliant bestseller ‘How the Mind Works’, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker describes emotions as “mechanisms that set the brain’s highest-level goals” and demonstrates, with unusual examples such as the supposedly emotionless Mr Spock, that “each human emotion mobilises the mind and body to meet one of the challenges of living”. That includes anger, the emotion that protects us from being vulnerable to the exploitation of others. It follows then, that once an injustice is discovered, the aggrieved person feels furious and is motivated to respond with aggression. This is also why, according to many psychologists, anger is one of the moral emotions and is almost always righteous.

The idea that people who get angry easily do not think twice before they react also rests on shaky grounds. In his excellent book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom’, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains this perfectly when he says that “reason and emotion must both work together to create intelligent behaviour, but emotion does most of the work”.

In our case, could it be, for example, that with the increase in population, and the lack of space in which to roam, the Maltese are coming in contact with each other more frequently and more closely, and that this triggers our anger? Can we agree with Nigel Camilleri, president of the Maltese Association of Psychiatry, that the Maltese environment, with all its noise, traffic, and hectic lifestyle, is what triggers anger in people? Should we be mindful of cultural differences in the expression of anger, as psychologist Gail Debono points out?

The answer to these questions is probably yes, yes, and yes. But I’m more interested to move beyond the triggers outside our mind (and that is not the noise or the traffic themselves but the people causing these disturbances through their lack of respect and the desire to push their agenda at the expense of yours) and to explore whether and to what extent anger is a beneficial tool that drives us in the same direction as our purpose.

It would be interesting to know, for example, how many of those angry people learned to recognise situations in which they will be harmed by others unless they take their precautions. It would be useful to know how many disengaged, changed tactics, or even took corrective action based on this knowledge and awareness. It would be fascinating to know how many people extracted value from the unpleasant feeling of anger and stored this information in memory for future use, what we would call learning your lesson.

In reality what we are trying to investigate here is whether people are sufficiently sensitive to wrongdoing, whether they are mentally strong enough to process the circumstances and relate them to their values, whether they have the openness to change course, even if that means giving up on an aspiration or trying something completely new, and whether they will mature, emotionally and psychologically, as a result of this episode.

In short, whether people who experience anger are more likely to be psychologically resilient, emotionally robust, and morally empowered.

Now that would have been a more fitting title for our story: the Maltese are the most morally empowered people in the EU.

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