If you’ve ever been “so angry you could scream,” then you know the frustration that comes with anger. Unleashing anger does nothing to dissipate it—in fact, quite the contrary, unleashing it sometimes allows it to grow.
So what to do with the emotion when it arises? Well, some would have you pray. That’s right—pray. And don’t just recite any old prayer, but pray for someone else. If this sounds like some newfangled version of religious psychobabble, it’s not. There is actually sound research to back it up. In fact, one recent study involved three separate experiments in which participants were provoked to anger. Those who prayed for someone else after the anger-inducing incident reported feeling less anger and aggression than those who did not.
The power of prayer had nothing to do with religion. In fact, the effects of the prayer were the same regardless of religious affiliation, frequency of church attendance, or frequency of prayer in daily life. The researchers theorized that the prayer had nothing to do with any sort of divine intervention and everything to do with a change in perspective. The mere act of praying likely induced a calmer state of mind and helped change the way participants viewed a negative situation. They concluded that prayer can help people cope with anger by changing perception and calming aggression.
The method of prayer was unimportant, but the type of prayer was paramount—benevolent prayers for others help dissipate anger, while vengeful prayers serve to fuel it. Praying for others actually serves to help the person doing the praying.
So, it turns out there might be some truth to the old adage: “Pray for your enemies.” If you can’t muster the resolve to pray for the person who invoked your anger, just pray for anyone. The value lies not in the actual prayer, but in the act of turning your attention elsewhere.
Bremner RH, Koole SL, Bushman BJ. “Pray for those who mistreat you”: Effects of prayer on anger and aggression. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Published early online: March 18, 2011.