Nobody likes complaining, but is it really that bad? Complaining feels cathartic. Complaining gives us something to talk about. Ninety per cent of Seinfeld was just listening to four characters complain, and it was entertaining and relatable. Complaining can be harmful and obnoxious, but it can also serve a purpose. It just takes approaching it the right way. Illustration by Jim Cooke.
Venting Feels Good, But Your Method Matters
The euphemism for complaining is "venting", and venting feels good. When I worked full-time in an office, one of my favourite daily rituals was joining my neighbour for a beer after work and complaining about our day to day bullshit. Both of us felt so much better afterward. It was a huge stress reliever.
Of course, venting isn't always a good thing. My neighbour and I may have found catharsis with our venting, but too much complaining can actually hurt your relationships. For example, I often vent about mundane details to a good friend of mine. But unlike my neighbour, she's not entertained and empathetic about those complaints. Instead, my complaining stresses her out, and in turn, that stresses me out, so I learn to curb my venting around her.
A 2002 study (PDF) from Iowa State University looked at venting and how it affects our anger. In the study, researcher Brad J. Bushman had students write an essay that they believed was to be graded by a fellow student. When they got their essays back, half the students received a nasty note: "This is one of the worst essays I have read!" Some of those students chose to take their anger out on a punching bag, and in a follow-up experiment, Bushman found that the punching bag group held on to their anger and were more likely to seek revenge:
People who walloped the punching bag while thinking about the person who had provoked them were the most angry and the most aggressive in the present experiment. Venting did not lead to a more positive mood either.
This study is often cited as evidence that venting is harmful. Not to complain, but this is a very specific method for venting; there's a big difference between punching something and having a light-hearted conversation with a neighbour. I'm no psychologist, but perhaps it was the punching that made subjects angrier and more aggressive, not the act of venting itself.
That said, even though this study was meant to debunk the "punching bag" approach to venting, some people will still swear it works for them. For example, in high school, I played soccer, and kicking the crap out of that ball at the end of the day made me feel better. By the end of practice, I felt calmer, and physical exercise has that effect. Of course, this is anecdotal, but all of this goes to show that it's all about how you approach your venting, and there's other research that shows it's healthy.
When Complaining Actually Works
Punching something may not be a healthy way to let off steam, but that doesn't mean letting off steam is unhealthy.
A recent study published in the Journal of Social Psychology looked at the link between happiness, mindfulness and complaining. In the study, subjects listed their pet peeves, then filled out a survey measuring their happiness, satisfaction and mindfulness. The study found that complaining was negatively linked to well-being and mindfulness, but when subjects complained with a solution in mind, they were happier than those who complained for no reason.
If this study is any indication, mindless complaining doesn't do much for happiness, but complaining with a purpose might. The study's author, Robin Kowalski, told The Atlantic:
"That's part of the strategic nature of complaining," Kowalski says. "It's all about making the best choice, knowing when to complain and to whom." The most effective type of complaining, she says, takes place when the complainer uses facts and logic, knows what they want their desired outcome to be, and understands who has the authority to make it happen.
There's also evidence to show that venting for the sake of venting isn't all bad. For example, James Pennebaker, a social psychologist at the University of Texas, has conducted a number of studies that found venting through writing is a useful way to deal with a traumatic experience. Of course, traumatic experiences aren't the same as day-to-day annoyances, but this supports the idea that writing down your thoughts and anxieties can help relieve stress.
The point is, punching your way through your frustrations isn't a very good idea, but neither is keeping them bottled up. There's a middle ground between the two extremes, and it comes down to complaining mindfully.
Complain With a Plan, Not Just Out of Habit
Complaining is often associated with dwelling and inaction, but it doesn't have to be that way.
As Kowalski's study suggests, the happiest complainers are those who vent with a purpose, not just out of habit. Before you complain, it might help to state that purpose and consider your audience. For example, my neighbour and I had a purpose that was clear: we wanted to entertain each other and release our daily annoyances. And it helped — those complaints seemed so trivial after chatting and laughing about them. We weren't dwelling. We were complaining so we could avoid dwelling.
With other complaints, your purpose might be a solution. I've always loved complaining to my parents about work stuff, for example. I once had a coworker who consistently threw me under the bus, and my parents would tell me their own similar stories, which made me feel better, and offer their advice for managing it, which was useful. Or, you might complain to your boss about this situation in the hope that something gets done. Either way, complaining doesn't have to be useless. It can serve a purpose.
It also helps to remember that complaining is an action and a habit, not a personality trait. You might be used to complaining, but that doesn't mean you have to do it. My fiance, for example, consistently complains every time we're stopped at a red light for no reason. It's funny in a Larry David sort of way, but it also gets old. "That's just who I am," he told me. "I'm a complainer." That's not exactly true, though. He might be someone who likes to complain, but he didn't come out of the womb complaining about traffic lights. Author Steve Pavlina puts it this way:
Perhaps the most important step in quitting the habit of complaining is to disconnect the undesirable behaviour from your identity. A common mistake chronic complainers make is to self-identify with the negative thoughts running through their minds. Such a person might admit, "I know I'm responsible for my thoughts, but I don't know how to stop myself from thinking negatively so often." That seems like a step in the right direction, and to a certain degree it is, but it's also a trap. It's good to take responsibility for your thoughts, but you don't want to identify with those thoughts to the point you end up blaming yourself and feeling even worse.
Complaining and negativity can definitely serve a purpose, but in order for that to happen, it helps to make sure you're in control of those behaviours, not the other way around.
How to Break the Complaining Habit
It's easy for purposeful venting to turn into an unproductive, unhealthy habit, though. Over at Becoming Minimalist, writer Joshua Becker offers a few useful tips for breaking the habit. One of my favourites is to avoid starting a conversation with a complaint:
Take notice of how often we initiate conversations with a complaint. Often times, even subconsciously, this tactic is used because it garners a heightened response. Remove it from your arsenal. And try spreading some cheer with your opening line instead.
Like a lot of bad habits, it also helps to notice your triggers. Maybe it's red lights. Maybe it's when your partner gets home at the end of the day. Either way, recognising the trigger that leads to your complaining can help you notice the habit and avoid it.
It also helps to understand why you're complaining. For example, Becker warns against complaining for the sake of validation, also known as humble bragging:
Sometimes our complaints are used to validate our worth to others. "I'm so busy," is a good example. We often say it as a means to subtly communicate our importance. Don't seek to impress others with your complaints.
Oddly enough, a friend and I once realised we both incessantly complained about our lives because we felt guilty. "I'm actually pretty happy," he told me. "I just didn't want to shove it in your face." And I was doing the same thing! He complained all the time, so I assumed he was miserable, and I complained to make him feel better, so he assumed I was miserable. The point is, understanding the root of your complaining can go a long way toward helping you break the habit. Chances are, there's a silly reason behind it.
It also helps to focus on stuff that makes you happy. Researcher Joyce Bono explains how this can work with workplace complaints:
It is unlikely that people will stop talking about negative experiences at work. It is natural. But intentionally focusing on positive events can provide balance. We don't advocate putting up happy posters, but companies can take steps to intelligently help people notice and share positive experiences. For example, how about starting a meeting with a review of what has gone well recently, rather than immediately jumping to what needs to be improved?...Before turning on the radio or getting on a call during your homeward commute, take a moment to reflect on the good things that happened at work. Doing so can help you capitalise on the small, naturally occurring flow of daily positive events — a ubiquitous but too-often-ignored source of strength and well-being.
You don't have to be bubbly and peppy all the time; it's about balance. Try this journaling technique, suggested by productivity writer Eric Barker:
Write down what you're looking forward to
People who devote time to anticipating fun experiences are happier.
So at least once a week, make plans, write them down and when you need a boost, look at the great things you have coming up...
Write down your progress
Want to know your strengths and weaknesses? Make predictions, write them down and compare against results. This is an excellent way to see where your natural abilities are and if you're improving.
Write down your anxieties
Research shows writing about your worries can calm you and even increase performance...
With this method, you're airing your grievances but you're also balancing them out with the things you're optimistic about, which gives you a more realistic, complete picture of your day. In short, focusing a little on gratitude helps shift some of the attention away from mindless complaining.
Complaining isn't all bad. Mindless complaining, on the other hand, can be a real bummer. Plus, it annoys the people around you. That said, being aware of how, why and to whom you complain can help you make the most of your venting without letting it drag you down.