We complain about everything and nothing, sometimes without even realizing it. But it’s a less harmless habit than it seems. Ready to take on the challenge of seeing the cup half full rather than half empty? We give you tips on how to get there.
“I love my cousin Catherine, says Nathalie, 44, but over the years our relationship has deteriorated because of her propensity to complain. The early childhood illnesses of her children, the weather, her relationship with her spouse, her work that is always more demanding than that of others… in short, all the reasons are good to be reluctant, to pour out on
They are commonplace, these more or less aggressive complaints about the weather, the traffic, the obsessions of a colleague, or the umpteenth increase in our property taxes. We hear them everywhere: in the line at the grocery store, around the coffee machine at work, on the bus, and even around the table with the family. Is it a healthy attitude that helps to pour out the overflow or a harmful habit that can destroy relationships? In short, should we try to stop complaining? “Yes, but we must first make a distinction between complaining unnecessarily and expressing dissatisfaction, specifies Leo Bormans, author of the book Optimist. Complaining is a sterile and repetitive action that brings no solution. While expressing dissatisfaction or emotion can, on the contrary, be very constructive. In fact, it’s been scientifically proven that people who express their emotions are more successful and happier than those who don’t.”
Expressing negative emotions to free yourself and avoid the accumulation of harmful feelings is fine, provided that the complaints do not become chronic, warns Lucie Mandeville, psychologist, and author of Be happy, without effort, without pain, without you break your head. “American psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky’s 3-to-1 ratio is to get three positive comments for one complaint. This ratio makes the difference between distress and well-being. Below, we would be unhappy and we would make others unhappy. Another psychologist, John Gottman, goes further. He states that, in a couple, each of the spouses must maintain a ratio of five kind words for a complaint.
Why do we complain?
In general, repetitive complaints hide a difficulty in acting. They can hide a dissatisfaction that does not necessarily concern the subject of the complaint. A woman dissatisfied with her ability to assert herself in her relationship may complain about macho men, for example. “It’s rare that a person who is committed to action and trying to find a solution has time to cry,” notes Lucie Mandeville. Often, complaints are about things that remain superficial and rarely touch on substantive issues. People in trouble are usually too busy surviving to complain. “Whispering is, up to a certain point, the luxury of those who are bored in their lives and who have everything to be happy,” she believes.
Some people who often complain have a pessimistic attitude that is part of their personality. They see things negatively and analyze each situation in detail so as to present the worst side of it. They especially remember unpleasant events and can be resentful. Others complain because they have developed the habit of it being around negative people. “We have to go to optimistic people at work, at home, and in our friendships, recommends Leo Bormans. Optimists, like pessimists, are contagious. Some kill enthusiasm and passion, others inspire us.”
And then there are those for whom complaining has become a way of life. Like Annie, who stopped complaining three years ago. The decision came when her boss told her she was becoming a negative leader for her team. “When I had my coffee with the other employees, I complained about everything and nothing: the schedules, the work objectives, and even the administrators of the company. Without that, I could have landed a much better job. I was a high performer, but was told I had an attitude problem.” Yet she did not consider herself a negative person. She had just developed a bad habit, like thousands of others who complain around the office coffee pot every day. “We all want attention, notes Leo Bormans. Complaining is a way to get noticed and take care of yourself. Some people only feel like they exist if they complain.”
By constantly complaining and activating the same regions of our brain, we condition ourselves to complain even more and to see life in black. The more we blubber, the more we predispose ourselves to blubber. “As the judgment works by association, by dint of experiencing situations for which we complain, we store negative perceptions which will have an impact on the next judgments that we will make, explains Lucie Mandeville. And crying is bad for our health. Our brain then activates regions associated with negative effects, and these produce hormones that, over time, reduce the effectiveness of our immune system and make us sick.
From complaint to action
Sociologist Diane Pacom sees things differently. In his eyes, complaining in a friendly way around the coffee maker would rather be a gesture of freedom and hope. For a moment, it allows you to escape constraints and conventions. “Fundamentally, I believe that we complain in order to reach out to the other, believing that it is good that someone listens to us. Otherwise, we close in on ourselves, we submit and we conform.”
By complaining, we create complicity and informal networks. In our professional and social networks, we test others and seek allies. Sometimes a complaint expressed informally can turn into an action plan or lead to a grievance. “Complaining is a way to build bridges between people. They may not be the best, but they are bridges all the same”, affirms the sociologist, specifying that it is also a question of culture. “I am Mediterranean. For me, the complaint is functional and very liberating,” she concludes, laughing.
Complaining would therefore be part of the social rules in certain groups, where complaining becomes a sort of entry card that allows us to feel part of the gang. “For my part, I prefer to be silent, admits Lucie Mandeville. I wait for it to pass, and when another more playful subject comes up, I reintegrate myself into the conversation. On the other hand, I do not believe that it is useful to lecture others or to be more positive than them. We risk making enemies.”
Stop complaining, it’s possible!
We are all entitled to sadness and a kind of “defensive pessimism”, according to Leo Bormans. It’s a bit like bringing an umbrella when you think it’s going to rain, but that doesn’t mean you have to open it every day! “Optimism is only 40 or 50% of family origin, he specifies. It comes from our parents and our grandparents through education and genetics. About 10% of our positive attitude is due to circumstances, such as work, home, money, or marriage, and the other 40% is a matter of state of mind.
The good news is that we can act on our state of mind and learn to be more positive by putting our failures in perspective, taking control of our lives, dreaming, stopping comparing ourselves to others, sharing, and always seeking more harmony in our lives. To change our attitude, Lucie Mandeville suggests the following exercise: identify an aspect that irritates us in the other or in a given situation and think about our reaction in a similar situation. If, for example, we complain that our best friend always belittles our successes, we may wonder under what circumstances we sometimes minimize or ridicule the successes of others. Could it be when we are envious? In short,
Being optimistic is not denying reality, but realizing that we always have the chance to give our own interpretation of events. And those who do so in an optimistic way are more likely to be happy and successful, no matter the circumstances.
10 tips to stop complaining
1. Compare yourself to those worse than you. Think of the poor, the homeless, the seriously ill. Not to deny our problems, but to put into perspective not so serious inconveniences, after all.
2. Think of a pleasant event that you are planning in the near future: a project, a meeting with a loved one, the weekend, etc. You can also choose an object, place it prominently, and resolve to think of something positive every time you see it.
3. Look for the silver lining or opportunity in a negative situation and focus on that. See things as a whole rather than dwelling on details.
4. Keep a gratitude journal. Gratitude is an attitude to develop to be happier. Every day, we note three positive things in a notebook or in our smartphones.
5. Wear a bracelet on our left wrist until we complain: we then slip it on our right wrist. We put it back on our left wrist when we say something positive. The goal is to keep it on our left wrist all day.
6. Nuance our remarks. Each situation can be seen from different angles. There are at least two other ways of looking at things before talking about them.
7. Surround yourself with positive people and ask them to teach us their secrets.
8. Put yourself in the shoes of a positive person. Before reacting, one wonders what this person would think of the situation.
9. Read books and watch movies that make us feel good, that put us in a better state of mind.
10. Keep quiet. Quite simply!
We took up the challenge to stop complaining!
For a week, at Coup de Poucewe watched our attitudes, our gestures, and our words. First observation? We often start our days by sharing our little irritants: the subway breakdown, the little one who woke up three times during the night, the emails that no longer fit. We then asked ourselves the question: “Are we complaining or finding the facts?” Between the lament and the simple sharing, the line seemed thin to us. And ventilating to empathetic colleagues about what we are experiencing is a relief! Especially when our colleague has been there and knows that there is a time when nocturnal awakenings stop, ear infections too and that life leads us elsewhere. Geneviève, the editor-in-chief, says it well: “We must prevent the zero complaint objective from becoming zero critical thinking. You have to know the difference between the complaint and the critical eye, which is open to possible solutions, while the complaint is closed to it.” In the end, the atmosphere was more relaxed and we were more smiling. Being surrounded by colleagues who make an effort to limit complaints is good for morale! Andree-Anne Guenette
- Optimist. A practical guide to looking on the bright side of life, by Leo Bormans. Editions de l’Homme. 2013. 224 pages, $24.95.
- Be happy, effortlessly, painlessly, without breaking your head, by Lucie Mandeville, Les Éditions de l’Homme, 2012, 227 p., $24.95.
- How to be happy and stay that way. Increase your happiness by 40%, by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Marabout, 2011, 416 p., $11.95.
- The happiness of meditation, by Yongey Mingyour Rinpoche, The Pocket Book, 2009, 409 p., $12.95.