Really, it should’ve been a wonderful weekend. An old friend was in from out of town and a group of us got together to drink margaritas, eat burritos, and catch up. And then it started: I told a long, plotless “story” that was mostly just a character assassination of a mutual acquaintance of ours whom I’d never really liked. Someone else chimed in with a rant about his disorganized, clueless boss. This set another person off about the terrible new hours she’d just been given at work.
I should say at this point that I live what you might call a #blessed life; my problems are so dumb and minor that they barely count as “problems.” But sometimes you wouldn’t know that by listening to me. I think I like to pretend that venting makes me feel better about things that are bothering me, and sometimes that’s true. But lately, it hasn’t been. When I left the restaurant that day, it was like all the negativity had morphed from an emotional feeling to a physical one — a queasy, heavy kind of feeling that had settled in my gut. (Though at least 50 percent of that could’ve been the burrito.)
And so I may have overcorrected: I decided to, temporarily, quit complaining. No shit-talking for one whole week. I went home and excitedly told my plan to my boyfriend, who laughed at me — a reaction signaling that maybe this was a bigger problem than I’d realized.
My little experiment was inspired by my friend Meena Duerson, a senior editor at TODAY.com who recently did her own seven-day complaining cleanse. “I remember noticing that I was venting a lot both at work, in conversations with friends, and at home with my husband, and it wasn’t cheering me up — it was stressing me out more,” she told me. “So I thought, if I can just stop being negative for a week and be more conscious of what I say, then maybe I will feel more positive, and maybe I can change the tone of the conversations I’m having so that there’s less negativity and we don’t feed off each other.” She said she slipped up a few times, but overall, the week was valuable because it made her reevaluate what was and was not actually worth complaining about.
Meena’s experience seemed worth imitating, but I was also curious if there was hard evidence about the drawbacks of complaining. As it turns out, there’s a surprising paucity of research into this subject, given how universal an aspect of the human experience kvetching is.
But we do know some things from existing literature. As much as we like complaining — and one 1996 paper suggests that Americans complain at least four times a day — we don’t much like listening to other’s complaints: Research published in the late 1970s found that couples listed “complaining” as No. 3 on a list of their top 15 problems. And although some social psychologists believe in the cathartic component of complaining — that venting does provide an emotional relief — others argue that, in the end, complaining just bums us out. It seems like there’s a fine line to walk here, and I hoped that taking a break from venting would teach me how to maintain a better balance.
Despite the lack of solid evidence, it seemed like, between the research literature and Meena’s experience — not to mention that crappy post-dinner feeling — it was worth a shot: I decided to go a week without expressing any dissatisfaction, taking notes documenting when I wanted to complain and what I said instead.
It went … okay. I’ll jump around a bit here, just noting the highlights:
9:45 a.m.: Not even 10 a.m. on my first day and I already screwed up. I was back in the office after taking a few days off to be in a wedding, and when a co-worker who sits near me said “Hello,” I took that as an invitation to launch into a rant about how much work it is to be in a wedding. After the exchange, I wrote in my little notebook, “Did that count as complaining? It was good-natured … sorta.” But I felt gross about it, both to have messed up so early and to have represented what was actually a really fun weekend in such a negative light.
11 a.m.: Sent an email to my boyfriend complaining about how tired I was — but peppered it with exclamation points and smiley faces. Which … is totally cheating. I started to sense a pattern: Like the wedding-party rant, I think I was seeking validation, or at least a “Poor you!” (Ugh. I am the worst.) He ignored my sorta-whine and instead asked me what I wanted to do for dinner. Good call.
2 p.m.: Loophole discovered! At this point, I started getting others to do my complaining for me. I started DMing a friend on Twitter, never complaining myself but asking her leading questions that I knew would result in her complaining. But apparently, complaining by osmosis can feel just as toxic as actual complaining, so I soon changed the subject, asking her about the house she and her husband just bought. Much better.
7 p.m.: Halfway through my week, I was finally getting the hang of it. A deadline was moved up at work, meaning I had to stay later than usual to finish writing a story. My West Coast friends noticed that I was still online and started asking me what was up. I actually typed out a Gchat ranting about it, then stopped, took a breath, and hit the backspace key. “I mean, it’s a good thing,” I wrote back. “I guess they want to lead with my story tomorrow.” And that worked: reframing the way I talked about the situation made me excited and grateful about an unexpected opportunity.
9 p.m.: I was on the phone with my mom, who asked about how our move was going. We were supposed to move across the hall, to a better, brighter apartment, on August 1, but that apartment's current tenant asked us at the last moment if we could push the move back a month, and we agreed. Without thinking, I started to whine to my mom about how half of our lives are packed up in boxes and how irritating it is to never be able to find anything ever when I caught myself mid-sentence. I stopped for a minute and tried to find the silver lining. It was actually incredibly easy: As a thank-you for helping her out, the current tenant of our future apartment was leaving us her awesome couch, totally free. Yes, the wait was annoying, but changing the framing changed my attitude and reminded me why we’d agreed to these terms in the first place.
This was my biggest challenge: A drinks date with another old friend, someone who knows almost all of the same people I do and who feels exactly the same way as I do about all of those people. The temptation to shit-talk would be high. Over a couple glasses of wine, we did veer closely into complaining, but I course-corrected by asking her questions about her little family of four. How were her daughters? How was the older one’s first week at preschool? What was it like to go back to work with two little ones at home? We talked about everything we’d usually talk about, but without the negativity. It was just … nice.
Still, after my week was up, I didn’t feel exactly the way I thought I’d feel. To be honest, I missed complaining a little bit. In the end, my experience ultimately pushed me toward seeing the benefits of a little kvetching, something Robin Kowalski, a Clemson University psychology professor, has argued before. “There’s no doubt in my mind that complaining can serve some very beneficial functions,” she said. “For one, it’s a great icebreaker.” You’d never strike up a conversation with a stranger waiting next to you for a subway about how reliable the trains are running lately, after all. (And, as we’ve recently learned, small talk with people we don’t know is very good for us.) A little bit of negativity has some health benefits, too, as a study published last year found that pessimistic older adults were more likely to live longer, healthier lives.
And it’s not as if bottling up anger and annoyance is a better solution. In a 2002 paper, Kowalski wrote that people who don’t ever let their dissatisfaction out often end up brooding about an issue, which usually results in blowing whatever it is way out of proportion. She argues that the stress that comes from keeping those emotions inside can lead to mental health issues like depression, and even physical health woes like a weakened immune system or heart disease.
So, then, how do we strike a balance? There’s actually a way to become a “good complainer,” said Guy Winch, a clinical psychologist and author of The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem. There are two basic rules, both Winch and Kowalski agree: Don’t go on for too long; and never let your words devolve into whines.
In an email to Science of Us, Winch gave some more details on the ideal way to complain:
Choose your battles. During my week without complaining, it was incredible to notice how the urge to vent usually subsided if I just took a breath and maybe waited a moment before firing off a whiny Gchat (something Meena experienced during her weeklong experiment, too). Not every complaint needs to be voiced.
Figure out what you want to achieve before you complain. I noticed that when I had the urge to complain, most of the time I just wanted a little validation. I think complaining spirals happen when I get that validation, and it feels awesome, which means I start seeking more of it. Maybe realizing from the start why I’m complaining will help me stop at the first “that sucks” I get from the listener. “Figuring out the result you want first will help you determine to whom your complaint should be addressed and where to place the emphasis,” Winch said. “This in turn will give the other person a clear idea of what you’re asking for (as opposed to getting showered with your general feelings of frustration, outrage, anger, or hurt) which will make it easier for them to respond positively.”
Construct a “complaint sandwich.” If you’re complaining to someone about their behavior, Winch advises “sandwiching” the complaint between two positive statements. “The first positive statement will lower the other person’s defensiveness and make them more open to the complaint itself. The last will motivate them to resolve the issue,” he said.
In other words: Complain about the things that actually matter, and look for (and listen to) solutions to fix the thing that’s bothering you. The rest? Try to let it go.