Even if you are the happiest person in the world, you still complain sometimes.
So, why do we do it?
Most people don’t realize how often they complain because it has become a habit and, like all habits, it tends to be so familiar that it becomes invisible. There is a basic desire in human beings to connect with one another. People use complaining as a conversation starter because it’s an easy way to find common ground. We use complaints as icebreakers. We often (and without even thinking about it as complaining) start a conversation with a negative observation because we feel that will help us connect with strangers. For example, in a closed space like an elevator, we might say “It’s really hot out there today!” When strangers complain about the weather in order to initiate a conversation, or when airline passengers complain about their flight delay, it helps build solidarity.
Despite having definite negative connotations, complaining can also be a feel-good factor for the complainer. We sometimes complain to get acknowledgement and sympathy or to simply vent and get something ‘off our chest’.
Research shows that most people complain once a minute during a typical conversation. Complaining is tempting because it feels good, but like many other things that are enjoyable –complaining isn’t good for you.
When you repeat a behavior, such as complaining, your neurons branch out to each other to ease the flow of information. This makes it much easier to repeat that behavior in the future — so easy, in fact, that you might not even realize you’re doing it. You can’t blame your brain. Who’d want to build a temporary bridge every time you need to cross a river? It makes a lot more sense to construct a permanent bridge. So, your neurons grow closer together, and the connections between them become more permanent. Scientists like to describe this process as, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”
Repeated complaining rewires your brain to make future complaining more likely. Over time, you find it’s easier to be negative than to be positive, regardless of what’s happening around you. Complaining becomes your default behavior, which changes how people perceive you.
Another reason we tend to complain is that it’s easier to complain than it is to solve the problem.
Research has shown that complaining shrinks the hippocampus — an area of the brain that’s critical to problem solving and intelligent thought. Damage to the hippocampus is scary, especially when you consider that it’s one of the primary brain areas destroyed by Alzheimer’s.
Complaining is also bad for your health.
While it’s not an exaggeration to say that complaining leads to brain damage, it doesn’t stop there. When you complain, your body releases the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol shifts you into fight-or-flight mode, directing oxygen, blood and energy away from everything but the systems that are essential to immediate survival. One effect of cortisol, for example, is to raise your blood pressure and blood sugar so that you’ll be prepared to either escape or defend yourself.
All the extra cortisol released by frequent complaining impairs your immune system and makes you more susceptible to high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease and obesity. It even makes the brain more vulnerable to strokes.
It’s not just you…
Human beings are inherently social, our brains naturally and unconsciously mimic the moods of those around us, particularly people we spend a great deal of time with. This process is called neuronal mirroring, and it’s the basis for our ability to feel empathy.
The down-side is you don’t have to do it yourself to suffer the ill effects of complaining. Be cautious about spending time with people who complain about everything. Complainers want people to join their pity party so that they can feel better about themselves. Think of it this way: If a person were smoking, would you sit there all afternoon inhaling the second-hand smoke? You’d distance yourself, and you should do the same with complainers.
Tips to help you stop complaining:
Cultivate an attitude of gratitude. When you feel like complaining, shift your attention to something that you’re grateful for. This isn’t merely the right thing to do; it reduces the stress hormone cortisol by 23%. People who worked daily to cultivate an attitude of gratitude experienced improved mood and energy and substantially less anxiety due to lower cortisol levels. Any time you experience negative or pessimistic thoughts, use this as a cue to shift gears and to think about something positive. In time, a positive attitude will become a way of life.
When you have something that is truly worth complaining about, use solution-oriented complaining. Think of it as complaining with a purpose. Solution-oriented complaining should do the following:
- Have a clear purpose. Before complaining, know what outcome you’re looking for. If you can’t identify a purpose, there’s a good chance you just want to complain for its own sake, and that’s the kind of complaining you should nip in the bud.
- Start with something positive. This helps keep the other person from getting defensive. For example, before launching into a complaint about poor customer service, you could say something like, “I’ve been a customer for a very long time and have always been thrilled with your service…”
- Be specific. Address only the current situation and be specific. Instead of saying, “Your employee was rude to me,” describe specifically what the employee did that seemed rude.
- End on a positive. If you end your complaint with, “I’m never shopping here again,” the person who’s listening has no motivation to act on your complaint. In that case, you’re just venting, or complaining with no purpose other than to complain. Instead, restate your purpose, as well as your hope that the desired result can be achieved, for example, “I’d like to work this out so that we can keep our business relationship intact.”