On stage he’s a loveable, floppy-haired prince charming. Off camera – well let’s just say he needs a lot of personal space. He hates being a celebrity. He resents being an actor. To his ex-girlfriend Elizabeth Hurley’s friends he was apparently known as ‘Grumpelstiltskin’.
Hugh Grant may be famed for being moody and a little challenging to work with. But could a grumpy attitude be the secret to his success?
The pressure to be positive has never been greater. Cultural forces have whipped up a frenzied pursuit of happiness, spawning billion-dollar book sales, a cottage industry in self-help and plastering inspirational quotes all over the internet.
Now you can hire a happiness expert, undertake training in ‘mindfulness’, or seek inner satisfaction via an app. The US army currently trains its soldiers – over a million people – in positive psychology and optimism is taught in UK schools. Meanwhile the ‘happiness index’ has become an indicator of national wellbeing to rival GDP.
The truth is, pondering the worst has some clear advantages. Cranks may be superior negotiators, more discerning decision-makers and cut their risk of having a heart attack. Cynics can expect more stable marriages, higher earnings and longer lives – though, of course, they’ll anticipate the opposite.
Good moods on the other hand come with substantial risks – sapping your drive, dimming attention to detail and making you simultaneously gullible and selfish. Positivity is also known to encourage binge drinking, overeating and unsafe sex.
At the centre of it all is the notion our feelings are adaptive: anger, sadness and pessimism aren’t divine cruelty or sheer random bad luck – they evolved to serve useful functions and help us thrive.
Take anger. From Newton’s obsessive grudges to Beethoven’s tantrums – which sometimes came to blows – it seems as though visionary geniuses often come with extremely short tempers. There are plenty of examples to be found in Silicon Valley. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is famed for his angry outbursts and insults (such as “I’m sorry, did I take my stupid pills today?”) yet they haven’t stopped him building a $300 billion company.
For years, the link remained a mystery. Then in 2009 Matthijs Baas from the University of Amsterdam decided to investigate. He recruited a group of willing students and set to work making them angry in the name of science. Half the students were asked to recall something which had irritated them and write a short essay about it. “This made them a bit angrier, though they weren’t quite driven to full-blown fits of rage,” he says. The other half of the group were made to feel sad.
Next the two teams were pitched against each other in a game designed to test their creativity. They had 16 minutes to think of as many ways as possible to improve education at the psychology department. As Baas expected, the angry team produced more ideas – at least to begin with. Their contributions were also more original, repeated by less than 1% of the study’s participants.
Crucially, angry volunteers were better at moments of haphazard innovation, or so-called “unstructured” thinking. Let’s say you’re challenged to think about possible uses for a brick. While a systematic thinker might suggest ten different kinds of building, it takes a less structured approach to invent a new use altogether, such as turning it into a weapon.
In essence, creativity is down to how easily your mind is diverted from one thought path and onto another. In a situation requiring fight or flight, it’s easy to see how turning into a literal “mad genius” could be life-saving.
“Anger really prepares the body to mobilise resources – it tells you that the situation you’re in is bad and gives you an energetic boost to get you out of it,” says Baas.
To understand how this works, first we need to get to grips with what’s going on in the brain. Like most emotions, anger begins in the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure responsible for detecting threats to our well-being. It’s extremely efficient – raising the alarm long before the peril enters your conscious awareness.
Then it’s up to chemical signals in the brain to get you riled up. As the brain is flooded with adrenaline it initiates a burst of impassioned, energetic fury which lasts for several minutes. Breathing and heart rate accelerate and blood pressure skyrockets. Blood rushes into the extremities, leading to the distinctive red face and throbbing forehead veins people get when they’re annoyed.
Though it’s thought to have evolved primarily to prepare the body for physical aggression, this physiological response is known to have other benefits, boosting motivation and giving people the gall to take mental risks.