Love and Anger in Traffic

Recently I started pretending that everyone else in the rush hour is a living creature like me. What if they were all as complex and sensitive as I 1? What was I doing up before that?: Looking at the hard edges of cars, the hard surface ahead, and the fastest route.

I was aggressively defending my way. The defensive attitude has consequences. If anger can be seen as self-assertion and boundary protection 2, then self-assertion and boundary protection may induce anger. This has been my experience. When I saw a video online of a woman ranting in road rage, I was surprised that the comments said how crazy she must be. I saw myself in her.

My moment of self-identification.

Being wrapped up in the road ahead, in MY WAY, and the obstructions to MY WAY had a glorious narcotic glow. Owning the road enlarged my self of myself. My haste made the present moment urgent and hot. My compulsion for punctuality made my greed virtuous: “I have an appointment. I don’t want MY FRIEND to have to wait”. The appointments or friends of others were only cameos in my story. Like henchmen in a martial arts movie, they only existed to be dismissed serially and en masse. While anger can be an uncomfortable emotion, the sense of justified rage is intoxicating.

I could argue that one justification for aggression is the physical danger of cycling amongst hazards. And from an evolutionary perspective it is true that an outburst of anger may provide an energy spike or a social warning to avert collision. But it seems equally true that an unrecognised wave of inner rigorousness SEEKS the obstacle to release the rage. In other words, the event isn’t releasing the my anger; I am loaded with anger in search of an event to justify it’s release, and a person to punish. Given the chaotic ballet of the roads, a target can soon be found.

The impetus to change wasn’t my anger, but its after story. A pleasurable explosion of rage was left behind by the time and energy spent checking and rechecking my justifications. In my insecurity I would drag other people into the story, “So, I was coming up to the junction and… “. Was it all worth it? So began my experiment with kindness. I was tired of carrying the trivial injustices of imperfect beings 3.

The results have surprised me. I leave the house looking for people, not hard objects. I assume that they are like me; those people in the cars, those people walking. I assume that their business is as important to them as mine is to me. Suddenly, it’s not MY way. It’s OUR way, and WE are all sharing it, as WE all have somewhere to go. These people, they share the street with me. How kind of them 4.

There are still dangers. But as I am not not so busy owning the street, I am not so aggressively seeking them out. And as I recognise other people, I recognise their journey, and make way for them. And when rage rises in me, I am more aware of MY rage, and the benefit for me in letting it pass. Thank you for sharing the road with me. I hope you get there safe.

Consuming Happiness

Not this supermarket, not my dog.

When I started going to my local supermarket (this was a few years ago), I had only the vaguest sensation that along with the bread and milk I brought home a mood. As the supermarket geography became more familiar (“Wo findet man Essig und Zucker bitte?”), interactions with staff became clearer. Some interactions were sweet, and some were sour. The sourness was acceptable. Working there can’t be easy. The shelf stackers hurry and the checkouts are designed for discomfort.

Over time I recognised that the interactions were consistent. And the consistency wasn’t related to where I met the member of staff, or what time of day it was. Nope: each member of staff had a consistent mood. This surprised me. They were doing the same job, but some were always be happy and some were always not. There was The Sour One with the rasped voice, who never seems to entirely present. The Beleaguered One, eternally set upon and in complaint. And there is The Happy One, who sometimes literally wears flowers in her hair. It feels very reductive to name them so, but so they have been.

I imagine that The Happy One ‘sees’ me more than the others. And that she likes me more than they do. This is on no evidence. Maybe she does, as her happiness makes her more open to seeing and liking everyone. Maybe it’s just a reflection of my attraction to her mood.

Once I had recognised these traits, it affected my behaviour. When more than one till is open, I don’t look for the shortest line. I check instead for the happiest check out person. I feel much better waiting an extra two minutes to pick up a smile on the way out. In fact, that waiting becomes pleasurable, as it ends in a reward.

The persistence of mood is an odd feature in a society convinced that we can make ourselves happier. Doing more, buying more, and having more are equated with life satisfaction. By contrast, the ‘set-point theory of happiness’ suggests that our sense of well-being is determined early by heredity and personality traits, and remains fairly constant afterwards 1.  This theory is supported by a classic study by Brickman et al. (1978) which suggests that participants who either won the lottery or ended up in a wheel chair returned fairly closely to a baseline level of happiness 2. The set-point theory of happiness can be interpreted positively (as resilience) or negatively (“… trying to become happier may be as futile as trying to become taller…” 3). Either way, it contradicts the idea that my mood is a response to external events.

Or to be more specific, it contradicts the idea that over the long term my mood is a response to financial or physical health. My short term mood may still be influenced by how other people are feeling. Recognising this ‘contagion’, while shopping I wish to consort with the happiest. But what ‘infection’ do I provide for others 4? Do I share happiness, or only take it from those who already have it? In the setting of the supermarket, do I see myself as only a consumer of mood? The question gives me a shudder. Do I really want to know?