Research has shown that people complain once a minute during a typical conversation. Complaining is tempting because it seems to feel good, but like many other things that are enjoyable at first, complaining too often isn’t so good for you.
Why? Because your brain loves efficiency and doesn’t like to work any harder than it has to. When you repeat a behavior, such as complaining, your neurons branch out to each other to ease the flow of information. This makes it much easier to repeat that behavior in the future -- so easy, in fact, that you might not even realize you’re doing it.
You can’t blame your brain. Who’d want to build a temporary bridge every time you need to cross a river? It makes a lot more sense to construct a permanent bridge. So, your neurons grow closer together, and the connections between them strengthen to become more permanent. Scientists often describe this process with the catch-phrase, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”
Repeated complaining "rewires your brain" to make future complaining more likely. Over time, you find it’s easier to be negative than to be positive -- regardless of what’s happening around you. Complaining becomes your "default behavior," which then can adversely change the way people perceive you.
Complaining may affect other areas of your brain as well. Research from Stanford University has shown that complaining affects the hippocampus -- an area of the brain that’s critical to problem-solving and intelligent thought.
Complaining Can Also Be Bad for Your Health
When you complain, your body releases the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol shifts you into fight-or-flight mode, directing oxygen, blood, and energy away from everything but the systems that are essential to immediate survival. One effect of cortisol, for example, is to raise your blood pressure and blood sugar so that you’ll be prepared to either escape or defend yourself.
Extra cortisol impairs your immune system and can make you more susceptible to high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. It could even make the brain more vulnerable to strokes.
Since human beings are inherently social, our brains naturally and unconsciously mimic the moods of those around us, particularly people we spend a great deal of time with. This process is called "neuronal mirroring," and it’s the basis for our ability to feel empathy. The flip side, however, is that it makes complaining a lot like smoking -- you don’t have to do it yourself to suffer the ill effects. You need to be wary about spending time with people who complain about everything. Complainers want people to join their "pity party" so that they can feel better about themselves. Think of it this way: If a person were smoking, would you sit there all afternoon inhaling the second-hand smoke? No, you’d distance yourself, and you can do the same with complainers.
There are things to consider when you have an impulse to complain. One is to instead cultivate an attitude of gratitude. That is, when you feel like complaining, shift your attention to something that you’re grateful for. Taking time to contemplate what you’re grateful for isn’t merely the right thing to do -- studies have indicated it reduces the stress hormone cortisol. Research conducted at the University of California, Davis, found that people who worked daily to cultivate an attitude of gratitude experienced improved mood and energy and substantially less anxiety due to lower cortisol levels. Any time you experience negative or pessimistic thoughts, use this as a cue to shift gears and to think about something positive. In time, a positive attitude will become a way of life.
Another thing you can do -- and only when you have something that is truly worth complaining about is to engage in "solution-oriented complaining." Think of it as complaining with a purpose.
"Solution-oriented complaining" hallmarks include:
Having a clear purpose. Before complaining, know what outcome you’re looking for. If you can’t identify a purpose, there’s a good chance you just want to complain for its own sake, and that’s the kind of complaining to nip in the bud.
Start with something positive. It may seem counterintuitive to start a complaint with a compliment, but starting with a positive helps keep the other person from getting defensive. For example, before launching into a complaint about poor customer service, you could say something like, “I’ve been a customer for a very long time and have always been thrilled with your service ....”
Be specific. When you’re complaining it’s not a good time to dredge up every minor annoyance from the past 20 years. Just address the current situation and be as specific as possible. Instead of saying, “Your employee was rude to me,” describe specifically what the employee did that seemed rude.
End on a positive. If you end your complaint with, “I’m never shopping here again,” the person who’s listening has no motivation to act on your complaint. In that case, you’re just "venting," or complaining with no purpose other than to complain. Instead, restate your purpose, as well as your hope that the desired result can be achieved, for example, “I’d like to work this out so that we can keep our business relationship intact.”
Bringing It All Together
Just like smoking, drinking too much or lying on the couch watching TV all day, constant complaining can be bad for you. Put the above tips to use, and experience the physical, mental, and performance benefits that come with a more "positive frame of mind."