Sunday, April 3, 2011

Informed heathens agree: prayer reduces anger

I'm not a particularly religious fellow. In fact, other than a few weddings and a rare funeral, I haven't set foot inside a church since I turned down Father Bob's offer to make me an altar boy back in the late 60s. Since then, I've gone spiritually askew. I do acknowledge, however, that there is power in what I think of as the positive side of some organized religions - the idea of compassion for one's enemies.

Once again, it seems that psychological science is on my side.A recent study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin looked at people's reactions when provoked. A set of these folks prayed for their enemies, rather than just thinking about what had been done to them. Another version had folks praying for a friend in need. A third had people praying for strangers.

Across the board, the results were the same. Prayer reduced anger.

We went through a period when it was thought that expressing one's anger, "letting it all out," was a great way to calm someone and make them a less angry person. Lately, though, opinion about this has shifted. Upon further review, it seems that letting it all out just tends to make you better at being angry. Practice makes perfect. The fact that prayer reduces anger makes sense to me. How we react, even though it feels sometimes as if we have minimal control, is really the result of a choice. And slowing ourselves down and putting ourselves in the other guy's shoes helps us make a more informed, less reactive choice.

I'm guessing that instead of praying, you can simply get in the habit of thinking compassionately about your enemies - take a 30-second pause when you can feel yourself getting ready to blow your top (or make a mean Facebook entry about someone) and see if that changes the outcome. Mindful compassion in the face of anger, prayer or not, is something worth considering.