Ironshrink

How to live with a human mind.

The Art of Fine Whining

Why is it so easy to complain?

What is the difference between whining and complaining? Function, of course. Complaining can get things done; whining usually doesn't ("futile complaining" might be a more useful term). But like any behavior that has survived evolution, even futile complaining serves us when done correctly.

Having given up complaining during the month of January (rather successfully, if I may say so), I've learned a few things. For example, I learned that dissatisfaction is a sufficient cause for complaining, but a person need not be dissatisfied in order to complain. Psychologist Robin Kowalski pointed this out several years ago.

Kowalski (2002) wrote that people often complain to reduce discomfort, which is different from dissatisfaction. She explained that "...a state of self-focus forms the basis of every complaint episode. When in a sate of self-focused attention, people compare the current state of events with their standards for those events."

According to Kowalski's research, when the current state of affairs matches our standards, we feel good. When reality falls short of our standards, we feel the need to complain or whine.

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Human minds are expert at creating expectations, standards, and presumptions for all manner of things beyond their control. Those expectations may be unrealistic, but they can compel a person to complain all the same.

Futile complaining reduces discomfort by reducing the discrepancy between reality and a person's standards. If another person lends a sympathetic ear or agrees with our complaint, then the discrepancy has been addressed even if it has not been reduced. Sometimes, sweet validation is all we need. As I've written elsewhere, angry people can often be calmed simply by letting them know that they have been heard, that the violation of their standards has been recognized.

There are other benefits to futile complaining. Kowalski points out, for example, that complaining can create insight into or distance from a problem. It is no secret that disclosing one's experience of traumatic events decreases the likelihood of post-traumatic stress disorder, even if it changes nothing outside the confines of the mind.

Naturally, there is a shadowy downside to whining and complaining. While the benefits tend to be immediate, the costs are harder to spot because they lie further down the road.

One of the long-term costs of unchecked whining, according to Kowalski, is being ostracized by folks who tire of hearing it. While a bit of whining about shared problems can establish common ground and bring us closer to each other, too much can leave a person socially adrift. It's testimony to humanity's capacity for social subtlety.

Another unsurprising long-term cost is unhappiness. Since we tend to believe what we see ourselves doing and hear ourselves saying, chronic complainers run the risk of buying into their unhappy words and losing sight of life's pleasures.

With such high costs, what makes whining so darned easy? Simple: it feels good, right away.

That, I think, is what makes whining rather addicting. Immediate rewards naturally outweigh delayed consequences. Unless we take special care to focus on the future, it is easy to become reliant on short-term fixes and lose sight of long-term costs. That's true for substance abuse, sex, eating, or any other behavior that provides immediate gratification. Complaining is no exception.

As habit-forming behaviors go, complaining poses a unique problem. As I've discussed at elsewhere, the mind is a problem-finding machine. Its first job is survival, and that requires it to spot flaws and dangers in the environment. And since our survival depends on social connection, we are compelled to alert others to problems – we are compelled to complain. We are well-served by the pessimistic, complaining parts of our minds, as long as we do pessimism and complaining correctly. For some tips on good pessimism technique, go here.

As for me, going gripeless is working out fairly well. I think I'll keep it up.

Reference:
Kowalski, R.M. (2002). Whining, griping, and complaining: Positivity in the negativity. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58(9).

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Dr. Smith is a psychologist in Denver, Colorado and the author of The User's Guide to the Human Mind: Why Our Brains Make Us Unhappy, Anxious, and Neurotic and What We Can Do about It. You can read the introduction and find other goodies at guidetothemind.com.

Shawn Smith is a licensed psychologist in Denver, Colorado.

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