Whine Not

“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.

Please don’t.

“Tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are.” (Jose Ortega y Gasset)

25 thoughts on “Whine Not

  1. This is such a great post!! I’ve been trying to not whine, to be more positive but it’s not easy. I have been sitting at night trying to balance out my negative and positives. I think dwelling on the bad soul crushing. Love your thoughts!!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Complaining and doing nothing accomplishes nothing. We can all DO something — channel the anger, frustration, disagreement into action.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This is a great article. I just recently started riding the bus to work and was noticing the bazaar behaviour around me. This refocused me to look for the good around me and make a mental note of that instead. Thanks, Donna.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Kathleen, how cool that you’re taking the bus in now. That must give you about two extra hours for reading, listening to books or podcasts, or just chilling and knowing you don’t have to contend with traffic. Plus, all that great people-watching! Hope you’re finding lots to appreciate. Thanks!

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  4. I enjoyed this Donna. If we focus on it, we can find a million things to complain about everyday. I started to be more aware before I open my mouth to speak. If a complain is going to come out, I immediately retract and re-think. It works well.
    Thanks for sharing this.

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  5. Wonderful insight into whining and complaining, Donna. I find I am often considered a Pollyanna by some folks, and still others think I am simple-minded, just because I work on flipping my focus from dark to light. But I find those are the folks who do so much complaining that I don’t want to be around them anyway. lol. Great post–

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  6. I like comparing complaining to “emotional farting!” Because it is true, if we just complain all the time, all we are doing is making things unpleasant for everyone around us. Facing difficult realities is not the same as complaining about them, in fact, I think complaining sometimes gets in the way of actually addressing problems.

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  7. Hmm, food for thought. Complaining tends to be my default setting—along with self-deprecating humor. I’m not sure I could give either up cold turkey. But I’m sure I could benefit from a little less emotional farting from time to time!

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    • You’re right! I hadn’t really thought about it that way, but a lot of people do believe that in venting, whining, and complaining, they’re just “telling it like it is.” And to their eyes–trained on negativity–they are. Thanks for this comment.

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  8. Fantastic message in this post Donna and I love the way you ended it. Brought a smile to my face. Thanks for another inspiring post. It’s been a while since I’ve been here but your posts always resonate so deeply with me. Thank you xo

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