Political Anger and The Health Care Reform Debate

By Gina Simmons, Ph.D.
My dear life-long friend emailed me recently about something that made me feel sad. My friend passionately supports Obama’s health care reform plan, her sister vehemently opposes it. This conflict led to the sisters not speaking to one another. I care deeply about these two women, so it saddened me to hear they were so divided over this political issue.

Watching the Virginia Town Hall meeting on health care reform yesterday, I was struck by the passion and fury of some who attended the meeting. A group of disruptive individuals shouting, “We won’t pay for murder,” were politely escorted out. One man, puffed up with rage, asked a question, then gleefully chatted into a cell phone through the answer.  They demonstrated how anger narrows the mind, making communication about complex issues virtually impossible.

Many sober minded individuals worry about the cost of health care reform during a time of economic crisis. Others see our current health care system as a major contributor to our economic problems. Researchers find evidence to support economic concerns on both sides of the health care debate.

It’s true that political anger has propelled important social changes throughout history including:  women’s suffrage, civil rights, child protection, and worker’s rights. Passionate individuals have organized to protect our civil liberties and right perceived wrongs. But political anger, like The Force, has a dark side. When we stop listening to different points of view we dumb down our discourse. If we only talk to those who agree with us, political anger grows with an us-against-them vigor. Facts become distorted, lies perpetuated, and anxiety grows.

Research shows that creative solutions to complex problems thrive in relaxed, flexible environments. Google encourages employees to spend 20% of their time working on whatever they want. This flexibility and freedom stimulated the development of half their products. Anger and hostility make us tense, narrow minded, and less able to solve difficult problems.

The next time your political anger gets ramped up try these suggestions:

  • Avoid negative, hostile, labels. They cause you to see others as less human.
  • Remain hopeful that a positive solution is possible. Hope is healthy.
  • Increase your positivity by amplifying your gratitude. Even mild positive emotions can counteract the stress of negative emotions. (I’m grateful we live in a country where we can challenge government policies without fear of imprisonment.)
  • Play. Research shows that when we have fun with others, we strengthen our relationships and improve our health.

Even if you believe that “Politics is show business for ugly people,” as Jay Leno quipped, take a deep breath. Remember the importance of your relationships with those at work, school and home. Listen to them. Try to understand. You’ll feel happier and healthier and maybe even better informed.