For several years now, scientists, social psychologists, and career coaches have been taking a closer look at the impact of complaining. Everyone complains to some extent, of course. But for some, complaining becomes chronic, a daily habit. What has been coming to light is that too much complaining (or “venting” as many prefer to call it) has some surprising consequences. Our bodies, brains, relationships, and careers can all be negatively impacted by habitual complaining. In other words, chronic complaining just isn’t good for us.
Chronic complaining “rewires” the brain. Repetitive behaviors like habitual complaining cause the brain’s neurons to branch out toward each other, making the signal pathways easier to travel. Repetitive complaining reinforces the brain’s pathways for these messages. The neurons learn to anticipate complaining, so they construct a “bridge” to carry complaint messages more efficiently. This makes it easier for someone to continue complaining. While the brain is trying to be helpful and more efficient, this “rewiring” isn’t actually helpful. Complaining has a surprisingly negative impact on other aspects of health and life, such as:
The emotions generated by complaining stimulate the release of cortisol, the “fight or flight” hormone, into the bloodstream. This puts chronic complainers at increased risk for elevated cholesterol, a weaker immune system, higher blood pressure, obesity, strokes, heart disease, and diabetes. Most of us would never imagine that habitual complaining could have such a dramatic impact on the body, but, over time, it does.
According to research done at Stanford University, complaining shrinks the part of the brain known as the hippocampus. That’s the brain structure we’ve heard so much about in the context of the forgetfulness of Alzheimer’s disease. There are two hippocampi, one in each temporal lobe of the brain (the area just above your ears on both sides of your head.) The hippocampi play an important role in learning, memory, spatial navigation, and problem-solving. Long-term complaining may put those functions at greater risk.
The brain contains special neurons that enable us to feel empathy for others. These are the mirror neurons. These neurons allow us to “try on” and walk in another person’s shoes and understand their grief or their joy and empathize accordingly. Empathy is a good thing—until your brain begins to mimic another person’s complaints and negativity. (If you tend to complain a lot, give serious thought to how you are impacting the happiness of the people around you.)
Career coach H.V. MacArthur has observed that “people get into the rut of constantly complaining” about their job situation “without feeling empowered or responsible to do anything about it.” Other career experts point out that complaining can be purposeful and effective if the complaints propel us toward solutions. But ironically, habitual complaining can steal the emotional energy that is necessary for making the positive improvements you want to see.
WHAT’S THE CURE?
How can chronic complainers break the habit? Here are three ideas:
- Refocus Your Emotional Energy
Career coach Stella Grizont defines complaining as “taking an observation and adding negative energy or emotion to it.” This inclination to add negativity is universal; everyone does it to some extent. Even the Bible acknowledges our tendency to gripe, and, because it’s not good for us, it urges, “Do everything without complaining…” (Philippians 2:14 New Living Translation).
If you find yourself complaining about the same thing over and over, take a deeper look inside: what is the situation challenging you to do? Do you need more education to move ahead in your career? Do you need to have an honest conversation with your spouse? Figure out how to pour your energy into seeking solutions instead of into complaining. That said, here’s an uncomfortable truth: not everything is under your control. In the words of Viktor Frankl, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Maybe that’s your challenge.
- Surround Yourself with Positive People
There is no doubt that we are greatly influenced by the company we keep. If you surround yourself with positive people, your mirror neurons will reflect their positivity and solution-oriented thinking. Chances are, you’ll soon find that you’re complaining less.
- Practice Gratitude
In the words of career expert Thomas Oppong, “…an attitude of gratitude can significantly reduce your stress hormone. When you feel like complaining, shift your attention to something that you’re grateful for, especially if you are in no position to change it. Think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love, etc.” That’s great advice for all of us.
- H.V. MacArthur, “Hate Your Job? Stop Complaining and Take Action,” forbes.com
- Travis Bradberry, Ph.D., How Complaining Rewires Your Brain for Negativity, talentsmart.com
- Thomas Oppong., “Complaining rewires your brain to make future complaining more likely,” The Ladders.com/career-advice. Feb 12, 2020.