It seems to be axiomatic that going around harboring feelings of anger is hazardous to your well-being. See for example this extensive list of quotable quotations about the perils of anger and how to handle it.
Americans seem to be angrier and more pessimistic than they used to be. But according to a new NBC online poll poorer, non-Hispanic white people are the angriest. They are also the most pessimistic about the prospects for getting ahead in America. The report states:
“Very rich Americans earning household incomes above $150,000 were the least angry income bracket. The poorest Americans earning less than $15,000 were the most angry.”
Anger and death rates: a coincidence?
This set of survey data about anger crossed my radar at the same time as a recent study showing an increase in death rates among middle aged non-Hispanic whites in the U.S.
The study entitled “Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century” found that middle aged white people who are poor or have a high school diploma or less are dying at an increasing rate due to suicide, drug overdose and alcoholism. Those who are Hispanic, African American, better educated or more well-off, do not show this increasing trend in death rate.
The study found that these increases in drug, alcohol and suicide related deaths are specific to lower income white Americans who are ages 45 to 54. Also, these changes go against the pattern of declining death rates in European countries.
So the connection seems to be that the demographic group showing the sharpest increase in anger is also the group that is dying at an alarming rate due, evidently, to substance abuse, overdose and suicide.
Does anger cause drug use?
Most likely, the data on people’s anger is actually measuring something else. Psychologists will tell you that anger is never the primary emotion. Anger is always a surface reaction to some other, underlying emotion. The information gathered in these studies suggests that the underlying emotions that are involved in the rates of drug use and death derive from the real life stresses facing the middle aged white demographic, but with one added element.
My best guess is that the feelings underneath the reported feelings of anger are most likely feelings of anxiety and fear about economic insecurity, stress about current or impending life crises, and a profound sense of injustice. In Fareed Zakaria’s Washington Post article on this topic he argues that although the white middle class in America are no worse off than any other disadvantaged group, their expectations have been dashed. Other marginalized groups may not have shared the same American dream of getting ahead, and may feel less of a sense of betrayal. He concludes:
“…other groups might not expect that their income, standard of living and social status are destined to steadily improve. They don’t have the same confidence that if they work hard, they will surely get ahead.”
White outrage seems to rest on a sense of being victimized, of being betrayed by a system that is now rigged against them.
The failure of empowerment
The quotable quotes suggest that the way out of anger and resentment is empowerment and action. This has surely been the mechanism by which working people and minorities have been galvanized into effective action in the past; action which improved their prospects and leveled the playing field a little or a lot.
Now the feeling seems to be that there is no empowerment in the offing, that no one is looking out for the middle class and action is futile. Surely the pervasive feelings of betrayal, victimization and broken dreams is a set up for drinking, drugs, and other self-destructive behaviors. Throw in unrelenting stress and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness and you have a situation in which anyone in their right mind will reach for some form of escape.
Sadly the rates of drug addiction and death that are now so striking in the white middle aged, middle class of America make sense when we realize that the measurable outpouring of anger is the symptom of a profoundly disordered emotional state. It is a state of mind that fuels the drug epidemic. It means that the death of the middle class is not a mere metaphor.