“People won’t have time for you if you are always angry or complaining.” (Stephen Hawking)
Looking around at the world today, there’s plenty to complain about. Those triggers may be different for each of us, but unless you’ve somehow maneuvered your way into a bubble of bliss, there’s a lot of crap raining down on parades everywhere.
So, we complain. We complain about politics, we complain about our jobs, we complain about our relatives, we complain about the cost of turnips, and—of course—we complain about the weather. And we don’t just complain in solitude, or in silence. We also get together and vent—maybe over drinks after work, or around a dinner table, or when we chat with neighbors over the back fence. It seems to come effortlessly.
And there’s a reason for that: It appears that the more we complain, the easier complaining becomes, and then we complain more and more, becoming expert in this unproductive and dismal habit. To keep the scatological analogy going, our complaints construct mountains of crap, ultimately obscuring pleasant vistas and satisfying experiences.
Our brains are continually adjusting and rewiring their circuitry, closing the gap between synapses for the thoughts we repeatedly have. If we tend to dwell in negativity, fault-finding, and whining, we’ll become ever more expert in pessimism and grumbling. They eventually become our default setting. If you’re interested in the science behind this, Steven Parton explains it quite clearly in his article, “The Science of Happiness: Why Complaining is Literally Killing You.”
If our thoughts shape and reshape our brains, maybe we need to spend a bit more time thinking about how we want our brains to work.
Because there is symmetry in the world, this dynamic works both ways. If we focus our attention on what’s pleasing, what’s good, what fills us with wonder and gratitude, those synapses will start linking all over the place. Instead of training our brains to complain, we teach them to appreciate.
While our brains may still recognize imperfections and failings, we can train them to bypass complaining and look instead for something positive to take away from the awareness. Can we see how to avoid a similar experience, or how to overcome a disappointment? Or how to make a destructive situation constructive?
The term “Pollyanna” is sometimes derogatorily conferred on someone who is relentlessly cheerful and upbeat. It’s a reference that is probably only understood by people who read the early 20th century children’s book or who watched the 1960 Disney movie. In the novel, Pollyanna author Eleanor H. Porter depicts an orphan girl who continually plays the “glad game”—trying to find something to be happy about in every situation, no matter how gloomy or bleak. Her persistent cheer succeeds in transforming the negative dispositions of the rather dour citizenry of the small Vermont town where she is sent to live after her parents die.
Sure, it’s silly. It’s ceaselessly saccharin—even if Hayley Mills did win a special Oscar for her role as the ever-positive title character.
Today, we’re way too sophisticated for such hokum. And these aren’t simple times. We’re surrounded by threats that have brought our world to a precipice. Pretending everything’s hunky-dory isn’t going to solve complex problems. But maybe there’s a way to blend reality with optimism, positivity with activism. Maybe if enough of us change our outlook—while retaining our discernment and integrity—just maybe we can change the world.
The challenge is changing habits of a lifetime. If we’ve perfected the art of complaining over a few decades, and if we also regularly indulge in the practice of venting with colleagues and friends, how do we slow down those synapses and speed up the ones that spark appreciation and pleasure?
I think it’s a matter of practice, mindfulness, and reframing our behaviors. Psychologist Jeffrey Lohr describes chronic complaining in a somewhat crude—but certainly memorable—analogy: he likens complaining to “break[ing] wind in an elevator.” Unless we have no choice, it’s never a good idea.
According to Lohr, a person’s anger or grievance “would have dissipated had they not vented.” Indulging in what he terms “emotional farting” (I told you this would be crude) only extends and multiplies our irritation. So, unless we want to be the sort of people who make complaining an Olympic sport, resist the temptation to grumble, carp, or complain.
Undoubtedly, there are numerous strategies for breaking a longstanding habit of complaining. Meditation, biofeedback, the old rubber-band on the wrist trick…. But I think Dr. Lohr has given us a pretty powerful cue: Next time you’re about to indulge in complaining—whether solo or among friends—think of it as he describes it: breaking wind in an elevator. Then don’t.
“Tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are.” (Jose Ortega y Gasset)