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Why complaining on the Internet makes us feel so good

You're the actual worst. (Reuters/Kacper Pempel)

Last night I did some really cathartic Twitter ranting. It was absolutely necessary.

But why did complaining about the "snowstorm" (ugh) that kept me from getting home make me feel so much better? Luckily, this week's episode of the NPR podcast "Invisibilia" has an answer for me.

"Invisibilia" focuses on the unseen forces that shape our lives, and this week's episode was all about the computers that are changing our brains. One guest hit pretty close to home for me as I trudged through the wintry sludge: the founder of a Twitter account dedicated to shaming bad behavior on the New York subway.

"It makes my blood pressure go right through the roof," the angry tweeter (who went by "Pete") told hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller of the frequent micro-aggressions he had witnessed. You know the kind: guys sitting with their legs spread too wide, people averting their eyes when a pregnant woman comes on and looks for a seat, people trimming their nails on a packed train, and so on.

But when Pete started taking pictures of the offenders and posting them to an anonymous account called N train gossip, he felt better.

"It was like he had discovered -- thanks to the tiny computer in his pocket -- a kind of release valve for his anger," Miller said.

According to University of Wisconsin psychologist Ryan Martin, the key to this therapeutic release is a sense of validation. In plain terms, we like feeling that the things that make us upset are considered upsetting by other people, as well. We like to feel supported, and it's in our nature to enjoy feeling like we belong to a unified group, even if anger is the only thing we have in common.

Unlike complaining one-on-one to a friend, a rant on Facebook or Twitter will result in an instant amassing of such sentiments -- if you've got enough followers, anyway.

"When we get angry, our hypothalamus kicks in. We start to sweat. Our heart rate increases," Martin told Miller and Spiegel. "People get, you know, literally red in the face."

Being angry makes us physically uncomfortable, so relieving that anger is physically palpable, too. And nothing does the trick quite like seeing that a dozen of your most distant friends think you're really, really right to be angry.

Unfortunately, Internet rants aren't just harmless therapy. This disconnected ranting can make you a little meaner than you would be in real life (something Pete found out the hard way as his Twitter following grew). And if you lean too hard into that online community you've found, you might end up ignoring evidence that your group's rants are factually unsound.

But when the weather screws with your commute? I say that's a great reason to hit that Twitter release valve and enjoy the sweet psychological relief.