A little griping can be good for you.
I was at work at my job at a magazine when the phone rang. It was the company VP, and she wanted to see me in five minutes. “Relax,” she said, no doubt sensing my apprehension. “It’s nothing bad.” Inside her office, she indeed had good news: I was getting a bonus. “It’s our way of thanking you,” she said in a crisp corporate tone. “We hear you work hard and never complain.”
Amazing, I thought on my way back to my cubicle. I was literally getting paid for not complaining.
It’s a lesson most of us learn early: Nobody likes a whiner. “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit,” parents tell their toddlers. “Nice girls” are taught to be polite and not to complain—which helps explain why I’ve put up with my share of bad haircuts, dud dates, poor restaurant service, and yes, extra work over the years. Not that I’m complaining.
But here’s the new way of thinking: Done right, complaining can actually be healthy. In her book, The Language of Emotions, Karla McLaren explains how “conscious complaining” can help you pinpoint problems, focus on solutions, and ultimately enjoy life more. “It sounds contradictory, but you just can’t be happy unless you complain,” McLaren says. She recommends kvetching in private: The idea is to give yourself permission to rant—out loud, to yourself—for as long as you want, without fear of burdening others. Listening to someone complain makes most people uncomfortable, McLaren says; a solo session lets you get things off your chest without getting on someone else’s nerves.
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Other experts agree, to a point. While a venti dose of venting in the shower may work for some, it’s probably not for everyone, says Ali Domar, Ph.D., head of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health in Boston and coauthor of Live a Little! Breaking the Rules Won’t Break Your Health. She cites numerous studies that show that writing down negative thoughts seems to help more than just talking about them. Still, Domar thinks complaining is healthy. Many of us grow up learning to avoid certain behaviors that are actually OK, and that includes the right to gripe, she explains. “Sometimes, mouthing off just makes you feel better.”
So, I’m giving it a whirl. I may have been trained not to complain, but I’m now mastering the fine art of griping. When the hair salon loses my appointment again, I ask to speak to the manager. Instead of my usual perky “I’m fine!” when a faraway friend calls, I try telling the truth—which, for most of us, is a mix of fine, so-so and not so much. When work piles up, I’m learning to push back. As for my patient husband, who gets to enjoy most of my whine time, I’m trying to cut back. After all, McLaren has a point: For others, a little complaining goes a long way.
And here’s the thing. The more honest I am about what’s wrong with my life, the more I see what’s right with it, too. It may sound cliche but when I listen to my own garden-variety gripes, I realize that even on bad days I have abundant reasons to be grateful.
That’s a bonus I’ll take any day.