The power of grump

Has your job put you in a bad mood?

That’s good.

That’s right!

When it comes to success in business, and maybe in life, bad is good.

Ask Hugh Grant. The “loveable, floppy-haired prince charming” on screen is so crabby and gloomy off screen that ex-girlfriend Elizabeth Hurley calls him “Grumpelstiltskin.” Did Hugh’s bad mood keep him from a successful career? Hardly.

What can you learn from this fascinating Hugh Grant anecdote?

Almost nothing, except that if you are not achieving the kind of career success you want, it may not be because you are aimless, lazy and incompetent. Your problem may be that you’re too darn happy.

I discovered this interesting theory in “Why It Pays to Be Grumpy and Bad-Tempered,” a Zaria Gorvett post on BBC Future.

“The pressure to be positive has never been greater,” Gorvett asserts, and I’m positive she’s right. There are endless books, classes, coaches and PBS fundraising specials about how to be happy. What no one tells you, except Gorvett and me, is that too much happiness can sink your career.

Good moods “come with substantial risks,” Gorvett explains, “sapping your drive, dimming attention to detail and making you simultaneously gullible and selfish.”

Positivity is also known to encourage binge drinking and overeating. So put down that growler and that gobbler, and let’s get miserable.

In order to implement the full power of grump, you have to understand the evolutionary purpose of your negativity. Being miserable at work is required to set off the genetic alarm bells that warn us to life’s dangers.

It’s like the old joke:

“What do you call a happy Neanderthal?”


Well, it was funnier 150,000 years ago.

For modern sapiens like thee and me, the saber-toothed tigers that stalked the Neanderthals have been replaced by saber-toothed supervisors, ready to make a tasty meal of your career. Happy idiots don’t see the predators stalking them. They’re toast. The deeply depressed do see the risks, accelerating their decision to stand and fight or run and hide.

If happiness is a negative in this topsy-turvy world, anger is a positive.

“Anger really prepares the body to mobilise resources,” says University of Amsterdam researcher Matthijs Baas. “It tells you that the situation you’re in is bad and gives you an energetic boost to get you out of it.”

Of course, it is important to know where to direct your anger. You could blow up on the supervisor who provoked you, but that could incite their anger, and then you’d really be in a pickle. The best place to target your rage is at someone who has nothing to do with the anger-evoking situation. They’ll be so surprised you’re furious with them for something they had nothing to do with they’re likely to apologize immediately and leave you alone — forever.

If you believe that everyone in the company is responsible, direct your anger at an inanimate object. The snack machine is the perfect target for your rage. It’s satisfying to kick and pound the evil machine, and you may get a free package of Sun Chips for your trouble.

Optimism is another negative positive. In addition to blinding you to the risks that are about to crush you like a bug, a positive outlook is “associated with the cuddle hormone, oxytocin, which a handful of studies have shown reduces our ability to identify threats.”

This is truly scary. If there’s one thing worse than fighting with a predatory supervisor, it’s deciding that you should cuddle them. If your oxytocin spikes and you find yourself wanting to spoon with your manager, be sure to first ask permission. And pray that their oxytocin levels are through the roof.

You won’t be surprised to learn that if optimism is bad, pessimism is good.

You’ll want to step on those rose-colored glasses and empty out that half-full glass. The attitude you want is “defensive pessimism,” a state-of-mind that accepts “the cosmic inevitability that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.”

“By anticipating the worse,” Gorvett concludes, “you can be prepared when it actually happens.”

Will embracing your full grump make you unhappy? Most def, but when it comes to survival, bad is good. And that’s why you need your intolerable boss, your annoying co-workers and the generally miserable state of affairs you find yourself in at work.

But don’t be happy.

Remember — behind every cubical, a saber-toothed tiger awaits.


Bob Goldman offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at bob@bgplanning.com.


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