Why moaning does you no good and how to stay cheerful in the face of adversity
We all complain at times, but if you do it too often, it can have adverse effects on your well-being and friendships. We talk to experts to find out why you should focus on the positive and keep smiling
Lydia Wan appears happy and positive now, but there was a time when she was anything but. “I complained a lot,” the 47-year-old says.
“Even the smallest problems bothered me and I never hesitated to make my dissatisfaction known. I also believed that life was unjust and felt like a victim most of the time. It got to the point where people didn’t want to interact with me.”
“I was labelled as antisocial, and that didn’t just push potential friends away, but also limited my career opportunities because, let’s face it, who wants to employ someone who’s constantly finding fault with everything and everyone?”
Most of us love a good whinge – it makes us feel better because we’re letting go of something that is causing us stress. Unfortunately, the stress relieving aspect of complaining doesn’t last long.
“You may feel better for a minute, but in the end, you still have the problem – complaining didn’t change the problem itself, after all,” says Dr Acacia Parks, associate professor of psychology at Hiram College in Hiram, Ohio.
“The more intense the distress, and the more you focus on that distress to the exclusion of all else, the greater your desire to get rid of that distress by any means necessary – and that, usually, is complaining.”
There are chronic complainers, and then there are those who simply like to vent about things they’re dissatisfied with to get attention and sympathy from others.
“Their complaints are often about themselves or their own experiences,” says Dr Florence Huang, a certified positive psychology wellness and well-being coach. “They’re not interested in getting others’ help to solve the issue; they just need the validation.”
While it makes you feel good, chronic complaining can have a detrimental effect on your emotional health. It causes you to fixate on what isn’t working, preventing you from enjoying the good things that are happening around you.
You may also find it hard to bounce back from negative experiences, and your productivity, creativity and ability to make decisions may suffer.
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If you are not a chronic complainer but just vent a lot, your habit may also affect your mood and cause you to feel dissatisfied with life.
“Complaining is like savouring or delighting in negative experiences – a strategy that helps us draw out the negative, experience it as fully as possible, and cement it in our memory,” says Parks. “Even without complaining, our memory of negative experiences is stronger than our memory of positive experiences because it’s human nature to remember negative experiences more than the positive ones.
“When we complain, then, we’re giving our negative experiences even more influence over our memories than they already have. If our goal is well-being, complaining does not get us there.”
According to Huang, the negative emotions that are commonly associated with complaining are anger, fear and sadness.
To understand why you complain, confront these emotions. What’s triggering your anger? Is it frustration, irritation, hurt or hate? What’s triggering your fear? Is it anxiety, confusion, helplessness, rejection or insecurity? And what’s triggering your sadness? Is it guilt, shame, depression, loneliness, boredom or tiredness?
Confronting negative emotions offers important emotional, mental and social learning opportunities, says Huang.
“It’s OK to feel down or to defend yourself when something isn’t right. But you should be aware of how complaining about the problem affects your well-being. Before you complain, ask yourself: ‘What are my negative emotions telling me and do I need to do something about them?’ If the problem you’re complaining about has a solution, then remember that you have control over it. Ultimately, we all have a choice with regard to our attitude and mindset. Once we change these, our behaviour will follow.”
It’s not hard to nip a bad habit of complaining in the bud. For starters, shift focus from the bad to the good. Had a lousy day and tempted to complain about everything that went wrong? Instead of giving in to that urge, think about the good things happened (no matter how bad your day was, chances are that good things happened, too). Now take the time to savour these events or experiences.
“When we have a realistic view of life – not just the bad parts but also the good parts – it’s harder to feel overwhelmed by stress,” says Parks. “The good aspects of our lives provide a balance that makes us feel less threatened by the bad.”
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Wan got a handle on her complaining when a crisis at her old job forced her to stop victimising herself and instead, be proactive and find solutions to the issues that were bothering her. This experience made her see that she alone was in control of her emotional well-being.
“I had to stand up for myself, step out of my comfort zone and do a bit of soul-searching,” she explains. “I got to the root of why I found it so hard to find the positive in anything and realised that it had a lot to do with how I viewed myself. I knew I had to get rid of my ‘victim mentality’,” she says.
“Now, when something bothers me, instead of complaining, I take a step back and acknowledge my negative emotions. Then I look at how I can manage them. And, no matter how bad something seems, I always try to focus on the positive aspects. This gives me a sense of control over the situation. It took courage and confidence to get to that stage, but the more I did it, the easier it got.”
Wan also keeps a ‘gratitude journal’. This, she says, “helps me focus on the good stuff so that I’m less inclined to complain. Life’s a lot better now, as a result. I’m happier and my personal and professional relationships are more fulfilling.”