Illustration by Sarameeya Aree
I was in a meeting recently and one of my co-workers, not a particularly cantankerous sort by any standards, said: “Everyone loves a moan, don’t they?”
It was a throwaway comment, but it immediately got me questioning. What is it about complaining that is so enjoyable?
My former boss used to call me “Pollyanna” for my (irritating?) sense of unerring positivity. Apparently, believing that most people aren’t just out to get each other behind the scenes with a copy of The Prince peeking out of their back pockets makes me naīve. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not exactly running around the countryside singing, “the hills are alive with the sound of music,” but I just don’t see the joy in endless moaning.
So I asked a few of my friends what their perceptions are of complaining and the enjoyment of a “good ol’ moan.” The responses were clearly divided. For my core group (consisting of husband and best friends), the concept of getting together to moan was an immediate face-scrunch in distaste. They’re more the get-it-off-your-chest-once-and-be-done-with kind of complainers.
However, for most of the people I asked, they held it almost as a badge of honor, like a chosen pastime. Even though I wouldn’t have labeled any of them Negative Nancies, many of them self-identify that way—just not in public. Thank goodness for self-awareness.
What do we get out of complaining?
Some level of complaining is actually good for your mental health. By venting, you release the frustration and pressure inside your head and it frees you of some negative energy. It’s also good for gaining a bit of perspective, as getting to hear the problem out loud can give you the distance to acknowledge that it really isn’t that bad in the grand scheme of things. But have you ever, in the process of telling the complaint, tried to justify your indignation by embellishing it just to gain greater validation from the listener?
Now that’s a slippery slope. That’s when complaining can turn into ego-boosting and attention-seeking, where the positive reinforcement you get makes the complaining far too delicious to stop, so it becomes an unconscious pattern of behavior. It’s easy to fall into the trap because we perceive negative events as far greater in importance and impact than positive ones. According to relationship researcher John Gottman, the magic ratio is five to one—we have to have five positive interactions to counterbalance any single negative one in order to maintain equilibrium.
It’s all part of our natural negativity bias. Our survival instinct has always been to place greater psychological value on loss aversion or things that remove pleasure and comfort, rather than on events that bring comfort in the first place. The ability to connect and commiserate with others over negative content is far easier than it is over personal triumphs and things we are grateful for, which can cause jealousy and give the impression you’re boastful or a narcissist.
Worst of all, negativity is contagious. Far more so than positivity. So it is incumbent on you to identify why you are complaining—is it for connection, validation, just a bit of a vent, a narcissistic attention-seeking ploy, a much-needed airing of your thoughts, or just part of your unconscious conditioning? As for your listener, are they prepared to take on your spiel, or are they some unsuspecting victim about to be sucked into your vicious circle of cynicism and gloom?
Worth thinking about, isn’t it?
How to stop complaining about the small stuff
As with any personal habit change, going cold turkey isn’t necessarily the best choice. Complaining a little is genuinely good for stress relief and some micro vents are useful and often justified. It’s the classic “everything in moderation,” which applies as much to food and exercise as it does to watching TV and—as it turns out—moaning. But make the moan a motivation to change the narrative rather than perpetuating it. Maybe use the listener as a sounding board for fixing the issue, rather than a black hole to pour the poison, because even listening to complaints releases stress hormones.
Aim for at least an 80/20 split of positive to negative interactions each day—overbalancing on the side of pessimism tends to fill you with cortisol, a stress hormone, which over time, can lead to anxiety. In contrast, gratitude activates the release of dopamine in the brain, stimulating motivation and creating feelings of satisfaction and pleasure.
This is why there have been so many studies comparing the effects of positivity and negativity on people over time. Processing and demonstrating gratitude consistently, planning and fully involving yourself in positive events and taking the time to savor and appreciate them inevitably breeds greater happiness levels.
Maybe try the Five Minute Journal. I recently dug mine out from the dusty recess where I left it two years ago, and now I do it each morning and evening. It really does bring you back to yourself and make you focus on what truly matters—and importantly, how to speak to yourself encouragingly. Too often, the negativity we bring upon ourselves is toxic and judgmental. No wonder it is then weaponized and projected onto others in a bid to feel better about ourselves. Try to start the morning positively and reinforce your own self-belief each day.
The last thing I find helps is to identify where and when you fall into the well of autopilot complaining. Living in a capital city, traffic is a constant exasperation—I try to reframe it. So now when I grind to a halt behind a crazy jam of vehicles, I have trained myself to breathe in deep and remember (almost like a mantra): “It might be an accident, I hope no one is hurt.”
This has two effects. It provides the conscious gratitude that I’m safe and well. It also prevents the negative loop from kicking in because complaining is futile. It won’t move the traffic and frustration will only increase my chances of a fender bender. This is where your circle of influence comes in. If you can’t affect it, there’s no point in worrying about it. Alternatively, you can get all hot and bothered, sweaty and irritable, be no fun to those around you and perpetuate the negativity.
In the end, we each get to pick our mindset. Which will you choose today?