On Anger, Reason, and the Role of Luck in our Lives

Anger crushes the angry

“The way they are driving doesn't say that they are driving in England. They could be driving anywhere. They veer across lanes suddenly… they have no regard for anybody else,” says the driver of a delivery company to Alain the Botton.

A situation that sounds familiar to many. Our days sometimes seem to be filled by dozens of circumstances when frustration tests our patience. Mistakes do happen, ensuing frustration can make us more creative when we abandon our expectation of how things need to be to shift into problem solving mode.

A good night sleep helps us keep our cool. But it's a short distance between frustration and anger. One definition of frustration is “anger not directed at anything or anyone in particular.” When frustration becomes anger we suffer in multiple ways —physically, mentally, and socially.

When frustration is anger

“Be strong —every day think: what shortcoming I have repaired, faced today.”

The media reporting of public discourse often incentivized by pressure for click throughs provides plenty of excuses to get angry —the maneuvering of public persons delivers abundant material. But if we think things are bad now, all we need to do is take a look back in time to rethink our position.

Roman philosopher Seneca (4BCE-65CE) is a major philosophical figure of the Roman Imperial Period. As a Stoic philosopher writing in Latin, Seneca  was the most famous and popular philosopher of his day.

Because he was trained in politics, Seneca rose rapidly to prominence in Rome. The philosopher was sentenced to death by emperors Caligula and Claudius, spending several years in exile until he was recalled to the capital to serve as the tutor to the boy who was to became the emperor Nero.

Having witnessed the harsh treatment of slaves and the cruelties of the gladiatorial arena along with those of the political environment of his time, Seneca took the subject of anger seriously enough to dedicate a whole book to the subject.

Seneca refused to see anger as an irrational outburst over which we have no control. In his treatise On Anger, he says:

You’ve pressed me, Novatus, to prescribe a way of soothing anger: from this I infer that you’ve rightly come to fear this passion, especially and above all, as foul and frenzied. All other passions have something calm and quiet about them; this one consists entirely in aroused assault.

Raging with an inhuman desire to inflict pain in combat and shed blood in punishment, it cares nothing for itself provided it can harm the other: it throws itself upon the very weapons raised against it, hungry for a vengeance that will bring down
the avenger too.

Seeing the world through realistic glasses

Seneca saw anger as a philosophical problem and amenable to treatment by philosophical argument. Seneca thought anger arose from certain rationally held ideas about the world, and the problem with these ideas is that they are far too optimistic.

Seneca's first piece of advice is to be more pessimistic. Because certain things are a predictable feature of life, we should not get angry about them. When we do, we communicate that we have unrealistic expectations of the world and unexpected situations surprise us.

He also suggests that we should accept frustration as part of life. Seneca says that our anger is based on the supposition that things should always go our way. But we cannot make the world conform to our wishes.

As a solution, Seneca suggests we should think that we are more like dogs tied to the back of a moving chariot —we have some slack, but not free rein. It's much better to go where the chariot is going, than trying to go into a different direction and getting angry for something we cannot change.

We do have one advantage over animals —we have reason, they don't. Says Seneca:

But it must be said that wild animals—and all creatures save the human being—are without anger: though anger is reason’s enemy, it comes into being only where reason resides. Wild animals have impulses—frenzy, ferocity, aggression—but they no more have anger than they have luxury, even though they’re less self-controlled than humans when it comes to certain pleasures.


Animals incapable of speech lack human passions, though they have certain impulses that resemble passions. Were that not the case, if they knew love and hate, they would also know friendship and animosity, disagreement and harmony. And though some traces of these things exist even in animals, they’re the proper possession—for good and ill alike—of human hearts.

Using reason to our advantage

“Chance favors the prepared mind.”

[Louis Pasteur]

Seneca's observation of contemporaries (he was himself a rich man), led him to see that being rich tended to make people angrier, not calmer. The problem with rich people is that their expectations were absurdly high. Fury breaks out when expectations are dashed. But believing that money will insulate us from frustrations is the most absurd expectation of all. Of the presence of vice within virtue he says:

May virtue be far removed from this evil, that reason should ever take refuge in vice! A mind in this state—protected by its own failings, unable to be brave except when angry, or energetic except when desirous, or quiet except when afraid—can find no reliable
tranquility but is necessarily shaken and tossed about: a mind that becomes a slave to some passion must exist as though in a tyrant’s realm. Isn’t it shameful to make virtues depend upon the patronage of vices?

We can all benefit from lowered expectations, and there are things we can do to minimize frustration —for example, getting up earlier to account for traffic, being prepared to address likely questions in a conversation, reassessing the number and quality of the meetings we have, and adjusting our idea that just because we sent the email message just now, the other person has nothing else on their plate that instant or day and thus will read it and respond promptly.

De Botton says Seneca has a solution for these challenges of coping with modern life as well. What makes us the most angry is when we're taken by surprise —as we say in organizations, being blind-sided. Seneca's advice is to be prepared to have setbacks; things like slow systems, no connection, longer meetings, and so on.

We should not imagine the worst, just not expect that everything will go smoothly, but account for what we can anticipate may need addressing. In other words, internalize why asking “Can I fix it?” is better than stating “I will Fix it!” We should be prepared to address the situation when things don't work out, and our method of approaching the problem can help us not get unnecessarily stressed or emotional.

Seneca's advice of engaging in daily meditation of all things that could go wrong is a bit extreme. But using curiosity to investigate potential problems with a learning mindset, to be prepared for the day when things don't go to plan, may help us stay calm instead of panicking.

Sudden flashes of genius don't just happen. They are the product of preparation.

The role of luck in our lives

“The quality of a decision cannot be based solely on its outcome.”

[Nassim Taleb]

Preparation may also help us discover new opportunities. To remind us that so many things are outside our control, Seneca invoked the Goddess Fortune. She was depicted on the back of many Roman coins holding a cornucopia in one hand, and a rudder in the other. The first is a symbol of our power to bestow favors, the other meant she could shift our destiny for the worst, destroying our jobs and our lives.

Luck has a role in our lives, but says Max Gunther in How to Get Lucky: 13 techniques for discovering and taking advantage of life's good breaks our culture is dominated by the Work Ethic that says “we're supposed to make our way in life by hard work, perseverance, fortitude,” and so on. So we dismiss it out of hand because it diminishes our role. We prefer to think we are in control of our plans and actions.

And to a certain extent, we are. There are things we can do to prepare to get lucky. The macro cultural aspect for not believing in the role of luck is that we yearn for meaning in life, and luck isn't “meaningful,” per se. But is there anything we can do to sort luck from our skill?

We can learn to sort luck from skill and avoid mistakes in determining outcomes. Like the thinking of Seneca's prosperous contemporaries, our thinking is prejudiced by financial performance. In good times, we praise companies and their success is attributed to a variety of internal factors, including people.

But in bad times, we criticize companies and these same factors may be attributed for the failures —the people and leaders running them, for example. The reality is more complicated and dependent upon factors that are uncertain and unpredictable. In Think Twice, Michael J. Mauboussin says:

the media often perpetuates the halo effect. Successful individuals and companies adorn magazine covers, along with glowing stories explaining the secrets to their success. The halo effect also works in reverse, as the press points out the shortcomings in poor-performing companies. The press's tendency to focus on extreme performance is so predictable that it has become a reliable counter-indicator.

Along with criticism not rooted into reality and data, anger and frustration are irrational responses to setbacks. Our only rational strategy is to stay calm in the knowledge that things may and do go wrong and focus on preparing for our response to the challenges life throws at us.

“Anger is the strong desire to return pain for pain,” says Seneca. The only logical response to overcome this strong emotion is to use reason.

Watch the full video exploration of the topic with Alain de Botton below.


Seneca's On Anger, Mercy, and Revenge is a wonderful read. His dissection of the issues associated with each help us understand ourselves better, and can help us live happier lives.