Why Do We Complain So Much?

If we are in a public place and take time to observe what people around us are mostly talking about, we will notice that there is a lot of complaining going on. We will hear people complain about a plethora of things including bad weather, unfair bosses, nosy in-laws, uncomfortable seats, bad food, unruly traffic and the list can go on. The list will make us wonder if our world is such a bad place to live. To give us an idea, Scott Bea of Cleveland Clinic, says that the rate of complaints in American conversations ranges from 70 to 84 percent. 

Complaining is, of course, a pervasive form of social communication but its social communicative functions are still a subject of research. In one study college students kept diaries of the complaints they made to other people for three consecutive days, twice during the same semester. Students recorded their complaints and also the reasons for expressing them. The results indicated that over 75% of all their complaints had no intention of changing any existing state of affairs but were meant either to vent their frustration or to solicit sympathy from others. The most frequent complaints involved specific behaviours of other people they dealt with. 

In a survey conducted in the UK, it was revealed that people spend, on an average, ten thousand minutes a year, complaining about something or the other. The survey claimed that millennials complained the most. While weather and politics dominated the list of complaints others had to do with relationships, work colleagues and rude clients. 

Types of complaints.

Experts break up the complaining behaviour into three main categories viz. ruminating, venting and problem solving. While venting sometimes and problem solving most of the times can be constructive and useful, ruminating is always harmful.

The first type of complaint is by a chronic complainer who is never satisfied with anything. These people tend to ruminate on their problems and setbacks obsessively and hardly ever notice the positives and good things that happen to them. It should come as no surprise that rumination plays a major part in making people prone to Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). Rumination has also been shown to prolong episodes of depression.

Then, we have the second type of complaints by venters who are of two types. Some make it a point to vent their emotional dissatisfaction regularly. They tend to focus on themselves and are driven by their own negative experiences. By showing their anger, frustration, or disappointment, they are, in fact, soliciting attention. They want to be constantly validated by receiving attention and sympathy. 

Eric Berne, well known for his theory of transactional analysis, describes them as  “Yes, but” people. When the listener of the complaint responds by offering suggestions on how to solve the problem, the venter will come back with “Yes, but …” and proceed to shoot down any solutions offered. The Venter is a dissatisfied person who doesn’t want to hear solutions, however brilliant they may be. In psychology circles these people are called as ‘help-rejecting complainers’. 

The other type of venter just wants to let off pent up feelings. There is some justification for this type of venting as some people might lose their cool if they keep their feelings bottled up. It will also reduce their stress levels. Another case is when psychological therapists encourage their patients to talk about entrenched feelings of traumas and hurts. Expressing these suppressed feelings to a sympathetic listener brings some relief to the patients.  

Another set of people use complaining as a means of crafting or reinforcing their identities. They use their complaints to manipulate how others perceive them, a phenomenon psychologists call “impression management.” Commenting that the restaurant’s wine selection is below par is meant to let others know that the complainer has high standards.

Fortunately, we also have solution seeking complainers, who are genuinely interested in finding solutions to their problems. It could be a sensitive problem like ‘how to confront and control the spouse from overspending on the credit card, without damaging the relationship’. Unfortunately, these sorts of genuine complaints account for only 25 percent of all complaints.

Damaging effects of complaining.

Guy Winch, author of ‘The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way’ says that we have lost sense of what complaining is really meant to achieve and wrongly use it as an exercise for venting and that, we know, has many negative consequences. 

Travis Bradberry, author of bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, claims that repeated complaining rewires our brains to make future complaining more likely. Over time, we find it a lot easier to be negative than to be positive, regardless of what is happening around us. Thus complaining becomes our default behaviour and it is a matter of time before people start looking at us as perpetual complainers.

Steven Parton, researcher who is obsessed with exploring the neuroscientific and psychological impacts of technology, explains how complaining not only alters our brain for the worse but also has serious negative repercussions for our mental health. In fact, he goes so far as to say that complaining can literally kill us. His advice is to strengthen our capacity for positivity and weaken our reflex for gloom by surrounding ourselves with happy people who rewire our brain with love.

Our persistent complaining damages areas of our brain by shrinking our hippocampus, an area that is critical for problem solving and cognitive functions. It also impairs our ability to create new neurons. Damage to the hippocampus is scary, especially given that it is one of the primary brain areas that is destroyed by Alzheimer’s.

Apart from brain damage, chronic complaining has other serious consequences. When we complain, our body releases the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol shifts us into fight-or-flight mode, directing oxygen, blood and energy away from everything else by focusing on only systems that are essential for immediate survival. One effect of cortisol, for example, is to raise our blood pressure and blood sugar so that we are better prepared to either escape or defend ourselves. All the extra cortisol released by frequent complaining impairs our immune system and makes us more susceptible to high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease and obesity. It even makes our brains more vulnerable to strokes.

Damaging effects of complaints on listeners.

Complaints are like viruses and it is therefore good to stay away from chronic complainers.

Research shows that If we are surrounded by complainers, then we ourselves become prone to complaining. More importantly, listening to other people complaining can have the same negative impact on our brains, as it does to the complainer. Research conducted by Sapolsky at Stanford’s medical school found that exposure to just thirty minutes of complaining and negativity in a day can physically damage our brain. 

The culprit is our mirror neurons, which duplicate in our own brains the negative emotions of others with whom we spend time. Thus, when we are talking to someone who is depressed, it will make us feel depressed, whereas if we talk to someone who is feeling self-confident and buoyant, we are likely to feel good about ourselves. This phenomenon is known as emotional contagion and our brains are hardwired for emotional contagion.

Unfortunately, negative emotions in social situations impact us lot more severely than positive emotions, thanks to this phenomenon of emotional contagion.

One of the greatest buffers against picking up emotional stress from others is to bring some stability in our thinking and also strengthen our self-esteem. When we find ourselves being impacted by moods of others, we should take notice and remind ourselves to think about things that are going very well for us. Exercise is one of the best ways to build self-esteem, because our brains are positively impacted by endorphins every time we exercise.

Shawn Achor, author of ‘Before Happiness’, says that companies like the Ritz Carlton are aware of the impact of second hand stress and have therefore started instituting the concept of “no venting” zones for their employees when they are around customers. Ochsner Health Systems  has a similar scheme to prevent a patient from catching the negative contagion from seeing a nurse seething with stress or complaint.

Why do we complain a lot?

According to psychologist and New York Time best-selling author, Rick Hanson, a negativity bias has been built into our brains over millions of years of evolution. Our ancestors lived in difficult environments and they had to gather food while avoiding deadly obstacles. Negative factors like reacting to and remembering predators and natural hazards became more important than foraging for food. Those who avoided the negative situations and thus survived, passed on their genes with embedded negativity bias. Thus our brains are simply built with a greater sensitivity to unpleasant news. Scott Bea says that our negative bias makes us focus on things that we are not happy about, rather than appreciate all the wonderful things that should make us really happy. Also known as positive-negative asymmetry, this negativity bias predisposes us to feel the sting of a rebuke lot more powerfully than the feeling of the joy when we receive praise or appreciation.

Managing children who complain a lot.

Listening to constant complaints from our child definitely tests our patience when we hear them say “It’s too hot” or “I don’t want to go to Grandma’s house” or “These peas are gross” and so on. Complaining isn’t good for our child either. Too much focus on negativity exposes our child to mental health problems which can culminate in anxiety and depression. We need to remember that our child’s peers would not like to spend time with a chronically complaining kid. We should help our child to learn to be more positive and curb the negativity and unhealthy social habits while he is still young. We should encourage our complaining child to look for solutions to his complaints. If he complains that it is hot while he is playing outside in the sun, we can ask him “What do you think we should do about it?” We can make him think of options like playing in the shade or getting a cold drink. This way, we make the child think of possible solutions to problems rather than getting into the habit of just complaining. It is also important not to make it a practice of providing solutions to every frustration of our child. If we are not cautious, our child may develop a sense of ‘learned helplessness’ where he will assume that other people will solve all his problems on his behalf.

We need, however, to recognise that sometimes kids complain because they want us to know that they are dealing with some difficult feelings or some physical discomfort. Many a times, just validating our child’s discomfort may be enough to settle him down. If our child’s behaviour requires further intervention, we need to make sure that we discipline or correct their behaviour without stifling their emotion.  We may say something like, “It is OK for you to feel frustrated but it is not OK for you to throw things around.”

How do we reduce ill-effects of complaints?

Robin Kowalski, Professor at Clemson University, says. “It’s all about making the best choice, knowing when to complain and to whom.” The most effective type of complaining takes place when the complainer uses facts and logic, is clear about the desired outcome and knows the authority who can make it happen. She suggests that instead of dumping all our complaints on others, it is better to write them down, reflect on them and then decide on the appropriate course of action.

Positive psychology suggests five habits that can protect us from negative mindsets of others and improve our own positive outlook. 

1. Writing and sending a two minute email praising someone we know.

2. Writing down three things for which we are grateful for. 

3. Journaling some of our positive experiences for two minutes. 

4. Doing cardio exercise for thirty minutes a day.

5. Meditating for just two minutes in a day.

Research shows that cultivating an attitude of gratitude reduces the habit of complaining. The trick is to shift our attention to something that we are grateful for, whenever we feel like complaining. This habit of contemplating things that we are grateful for, reduces the stress hormone cortisol by 23% thus improving our health. 

Jovon Bernal, a meditation teacher and owner of Downey Yoga, suggests complaint cleanse, which is like meditation when we notice our thoughts without judgment, then using our breath, a mantra or another technique bring our mind back to the present. Thus complaint cleansing simply challenges us to acknowledge our negative thoughts and switch them around to something we feel good about in the present.

Bhagavad Gita teaches us to treat alike both pleasure & pain as well as success & failure. It encourages us to appreciate that failure is also a step in our progress. It asks us to cultivate the practice of focusing on our actions and not worry about the results, as we have no control on various other factors that affect the results. There are many such profound thoughts and words of wisdom in many of ancient Indian scriptures.

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