Colin: Constructive Complaining

Can we turn complaining into a good thing?

by Sarah Colin | 1/28/20 12:10am

It is so easy to complain. When something is annoying, all we need to do is voice our complaints to the world, and instantly our feelings are validated and consoled — so the line goes. If we get really lucky, someone might even share our grievances. Then we get to relish in the back and forth of complaining with someone else as we unite in self-pity and relieve the burdens of our inner demons. And sure, complaining is cathartic. But while complaining provides short-term satisfaction, constant complaining and catastrophizing fosters a culture of unhappiness as we drag each other deeper into the hole of negativity.

Studies have shown the average person complains about once every minute in a conversation. It’s no wonder why humans naturally slip into these habits — every time we complain, we become scientifically more likely to complain again in the future. Every time we complain, the connection between neurons causing us to complain becomes stronger and easier to activate in the future. Over time, this can lead to us developing a default negative disposition in which positive thinking becomes much more difficult. 

Research shows that complaining may have even graver consequences for our health. A 1996 study by Stanford University researchers found that consistent complaining and over-exposure to stress hormones can lead to shrinking of the hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for memory, learning and emotions. Complaining also releases cortisol, a hormone that sends the body into a “fight or flight” response, which raises blood pressure and blood sugar. An excess of cortisol from a life of complaining can lead to repercussions like diabetes, heart disease and high cholesterol.

Complaining might be terrible, but that’s not to say we should completely reject it. Most psychologists agree that people who express their worries tend to end up happier compared to those who suppress their emotions in an attempt to stay positive. 

So what are we supposed to do if we need to express our worries but can’t complain? Keeping our worries in perspective is useful, but it does little to ameliorate them. When my friend complains to me about how she has to write a 3,000-word essay by midnight — but she also has a cardio conditioning session for club soccer in three minutes but needs to do an entire Webwork math assignment before that starts and by the way she broke up with her boyfriend 30 seconds ago — I doubt it would not go over well if I told her to shut up and be thankful for her Dartmouth education. We are all immeasurably fortunate just by virtue of being literate enough to read this article — there are countries in which fewer than a third of the population know how to read — but that doesn’t make us conceited for feeling normal emotions of worry and resentment. 

Perhaps the answer is a middle path of cutting back on the frequency of our complaints. There are some things about which there is no point in complaining. Yes, it is negative five degrees outside, but why do we all feel the need to complain about this at least twice a day? The cold is just part of winter in Hanover, and there is nothing we can do about it, so why bother complaining? Before voicing a complaint, we should consider whether it will add anything to our conversation besides a shadow of negativity.

Sometimes we complain about things that are in our control. And done correctly, those kinds of complaints can prove beneficial. Every time we complain, we should take a moment to consider possible solutions to our current affliction, or at least how we can prevent it from happening again in the future. Complaining about how you need to read an entire book the night before an exam is valid. However, take a moment to register your complaint and consider how maybe next term you should do the reading as assigned each night. 

Complaining is undoubtedly bad for our health, but it is a necessary evil. If we lived lives of perpetual positivity, there would be no opportunity for self-improvement or social reform. Constructive complaining helps us target sources of unhappiness in our lives so we can try to fix them.