Rethinking bad behaviour
When used in the right context and manner, some behaviours deemed taboo by society can actually be good for you. Here’s why you should unleash your inner rebel more often.
Nice people don’t swear, break wind, get angry or display selfishness. Sound familiar? In all societies we grow up learning how to behave — acquiring such moral maxims from our parents, teachers and others, then internalising them and passing them onto the next generation.
While few would want a world without a moral value system, according to science some socially unacceptable behaviours can have surprising benefits. It all depends on context.
The power of swearing
Cussing, for instance, might be viewed negatively, but it can help you tolerate pain and increase your strength — pretty handy if you’re trying to lift heavy furniture or deal with particularly bad news.
A 2017 study, for example, found letting out a whopper gave participants undertaking an isometric handgrip test (a test of strength) an 8 per cent increase in manpower. Though small, it’s significant enough to make all the difference between whether you open the jar of pickles or not, the study authors say. Speculating on the possible mechanism of action, researcher Professor David Spierer hypothesised that cursing might function like a mindfulness mantra, reducing our perception of pain.
Timothy Jay, one of the world’s leading academic experts on swearing and a retired emeritus professor of psychology of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, says swearing is misunderstood. Its chief function is to express our emotional feelings and convey them to others, he explains. “All cultures have taboo words and swearing/cursing language.”
In fact, cussing has many benefits. It helps us cope, vent and reduce stress and pain. It also aids humour, social bonding and sexuality and provides a symbolic outlet for aggression and retaliation without us resorting to the physical kind, Jay, the author of Why We Curse, explains.
… think of swearing as a style of clothes we wear to fit the occasion or as a social/psychological tool to be used for a variety of purposes.
On the negative, offensive words are also used in hate speech, discrimination, name-calling, anger, frustration, aggression and self-deprecation, he adds. It’s this myriad of functions (for good or not) that explains its preponderance across all cultures and endurance throughout time. “Swearing is normal and all native speakers who are competent know how to swear,” he says. “Whether they do or not depends on personality factors. Children learn swear words as soon as they learn to talk, and their taboo speech becomes more adult-like as they age. People who are good language speakers are also good at knowing how and when to use taboo words.” In fact, several studies have found links between a potty mouth and higher literacy, intelligence and honesty.
Jay blames our moral condemnation of profanity on ancient religious leaders. “Over centuries of trying to eliminate taboo words from our vocabularies have universally failed,” he says. “Contemporary swear words (like f*ck) are hundreds of years old.”
The key is to curse in context. “There is nothing ‘wrong with’ swearing as there is nothing wrong with sexual intercourse — both restricted to proper time, place and partner,” Jay says. “A taboo word’s meaning depends entirely on the context in which it is used. So from a scientific point of view it does no good to think of it as wrong.” He says to think of swearing as a style of clothes we wear to fit the occasion or as a social/psychological tool to be used for a variety of purposes.
The benefits of slacking off
Thanks to social conditioning, we tend to frown upon those we deem lazy and uphold and reward those who work hard. Sydney-based organisational psychologist, author and communications trainer Clare Mann says it’s a moral paradigm largely based on the Protestant work ethic (“the devil makes work of idle hands”), the corporation model and learned from our families. “The corporation was built on a military model of working hard and obeying rules,” she says. “Instead of people learning to be creative and solve some of the problems they face, they learned to make a living and be part of the economic machinery. Most people believe that’s a good thing and their identity gets attached to it.”
Our need to fit in and be part of social groups means most of us toe the line, Mann says. But, as most of us innately know, taking time out for ourselves and doing nothing can have benefits. Working too much causes enormous physical and emotional stress, Mann says. “Our immune system is affected, we release more cortisol and adrenaline, we’re reacting to things from a fight/flight mode. So we can’t access creativity, relax properly or rejuvenate ourselves. It affects our sleep.”
Mann believes the increase in average working hours, coupled with fear of losing our jobs and being unable to pay the bills, is helping fuel the increase in depression and anxiety being seen in most Western countries. It’s the whole fear-based mentality of needing to get on the ladder and invest in the future combined with the feeling we’re not getting anywhere and are trapped in the system. “It’s crushing the human spirit,” she says.
If we cut back and gain more balance in life, we start to rejuvenate, Mann says. “We actually realise that there can be some joy and fun in life. What about going for a walk, painting or enjoying the sunset?”
Those who need convincing might want to refer to a study by John Pencavel of Stanford University. He found productivity and output tend to decrease after 50 hours, so much so that 70 hours of work give about as much output as 56 hours. Don’t feel guilty about slacking off on the job.
Be a rebel with a cause
Working less is one form of social rebellion, but we fear rebellion generally. Whether it’s going out in public without a mask on or standing up to the boss, what’s controlling our behaviour is fear of social shame and ostracism, Mann says.
Because we value the idea of having freedom, most of us compensate by rebelling in socially allowable, private ways, Mann says. “We might have a chocolate cake or smoke when our partner is not looking. We might go on a splurge and spend money. We’re not allowing ourselves really to rebel.”
A good example is our use of social media, Mann says. “People put information online that makes them socially acceptable, rather than what they think or feel,” she says. “You’ve got this true and false self-operating. People fear rebelling, because they’ll be ridiculed.”
However, it’s rebels and rule-breakers who create positive change in the world, drive innovation and forge new paths for humanity.
Unfortunately, the identity myth that we have to be like others to be happy means many of us are not being ourselves, Mann says. However, living behind a mask also makes us feel lonely and represses what we need and want.
The benefit of rebellion is being authentic and true to oneself, Mann says. Seek out like-minded souls or supporters who believe in the real you. “Unless we have others who believe in us it’s hard for us,” Mann says. “We all need social support.”
Harness your anger
One of the Buddhist “Three Poisons of the Mind” and the Biblical “Seven Deadly Sins”, wrath is associated with foolishness, strife, social division and violence. It’s also linked to a greater risk of heart attack, stroke, hypertension, diabetes, depression, anxiety, reduced lung and immune function and more.
… productivity and output tend to decrease after 50 hours, so much so that 70 hours of work give about as much output as 56 hours.
However, rage has a useful side. “Anger is a reaction to something we value being violated — like a massive injustice in society or animal cruelty,” Mann explains. As such, it can be harnessed as fuel to help us defend our rights and address injustice.
When negotiating, a moderate intensity of anger gained bigger concessions than being passive in a 2018 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Anger boosted the performance of athletes in an experiment by the German Sport University, a finding replicated in other studies.
Hardwired into us, anger sparks first in the amygdala in our primitive limbic brain, triggering the fight or flight response, but can be controlled by the more rational prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain responsible for decision-making and reasoning.
Importantly, when anger is pushed down it’s bad for us and others. “It spits out into sarcasm, undermining people or passive aggression, because we’re told it’s not good or nice,” Mann says. “When people push it down, this is when it turns into depression and learned helplessness. Depression is not this flattened state of being. It’s usually fuelled by anger where we’ve given up at some point; we don’t feel we can say or do anything or get an outcome that we want or be judged for it.”
It takes a lot of energy to suppress anger, Mann says, and gender, personality and other factors shape how we express it. The taboo around anger is particularly strong for females — one of the reasons the “kinder sex” is more likely to experience depression.
“The real problem is that anger is often channelled out at people in a destructive way,” Mann says. “When we’re able to manage our internal state and communicate the significance of violating something that’s really important, we’re in a better space. That can be very productive. When we learn to constructively use anger, it can be a tool for change.”
Mann views the word “selfish” as a label others apply as a form of social control: “Rather than actually saying ‘I’m disappointed, but that’s up to you,’ the person saying it usually wants to make you feel guilty so they will have their own way.”
Defining selfish behaviour is also not as clear-cut as we like to think, Mann says. We call others selfish if they put their needs before ours, yet by expecting them to conform to what we want, we’re not much different. When we give in to others’ demands it’s often to avoid the greater discomfort of social censure — so, ultimately, driven by our needs.
The more important issue is how to balance our own needs with those of others. “Is it beneficial to run roughshod over others? No, it’s not a nice thing and you’re not going to have any friends,” Mann says. On the other hand, we have to take responsibility for our own needs. “People distort themselves in all sorts of ways,” she says. “They go year after year to family gatherings they don’t want to go to or stay in relationships or jobs they shouldn’t due to unquestioned assumptions and social or cultural norms that say this is how we should do things.”
But giving out or sacrificing because we feel we “should” can create resentment towards others. “The fact is you do have choice,” Mann says. “Also give permission to other people to put a value on themselves. If we want good relationships, we might say, ‘Hey, I know Christmas is important to you; however, on this occasion I’m going on holiday. Why don’t we get together the weekend before?’ You’re putting some credit back in the bank.” Supportive relationships aren’t based on shaming or guilt, she says.
While the Bible admonishes us to love our neighbour, it also calls us to love ourselves.
The life-changing beauty of sadness
There’s also a lot of social control around our feelings of sadness and depression, tellingly labelled “negative emotions” and demonised by the positive thinking movement.
Mann says it’s normal to have such emotions when we experience loss, whether it’s the loss of financial security, our future life plans, meaningful connections or something else significant to us. “Feelings are not to be resolved, they’re there to be experienced,” she says. “They tell us what is significant to us.”
Seek out like-minded souls or supporters who believe in the real you.
It can be hard to see many kickbacks in depression — it’s related to cognitive decline, a reduced life expectancy and more. However, it’s bottling things up (so often encouraged by our society) that harms us the most. In a Harvard School of Public Health study, those who suppressed their emotions had a 70 per cent higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer.
Mann says, “We’re not taught to manage our own emotional states, to honour our feelings; therefore we push them away.” Cry if you want to and find supportive avenues to vent your feelings whether it’s within counselling, a self-help group, creative expression or something else. Expressing our sadness also gives others sanction to open up about their stuff.
When we embrace and accept deep despair and unhappiness, there’s often a healthy inward-looking re-evaluation of life that opens the door to positive change in our lives, Mann says. It’s quite common, for example, for survivors of tragedy to express gratitude for lessons gained from their experience and to feel empathy for others in a similar situation.