Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Go ahead and complain, but don't let it become toxic

Complaints can be goal-oriented or to express frustration, elicit sympathy or bond with the people around you
By Gary Hayden, The Straits Times, 3 Jan 2017

I have long been convinced that there are few things more inimical to happiness and well-being than a complaining attitude.

I speak from experience. I am, by nature, somewhat predisposed to being whiny.

So I have had ample opportunity, over the years, to observe how useless and joyless a habit of complaining can be.

That is not to say that I have anything against complaining.

Complaining is by no means always a bad thing and can sometimes be a good thing.

It is only when it becomes a habit, an attitude and a state of mind that it turns toxic.


Complaints come in two varieties. The first is goal-oriented. You verbalise your dissatisfaction in order to bring about change.

For example, you might complain about the quality of food or service in a restaurant. Or you might complain about unfair demands made by your boss.

This type of complaining, when it is done appropriately and assertively, and when it is focused on things that can and should be changed, can be constructive.

It can help to bring about a more positive state of affairs.

In the words of the philosopher-writer Julian Baggini: "Constructive complaint requires only two things: that what you are complaining about should be different, and that it can be different. It sounds simple, but too often, our protests fail this test."

The second kind of complaint is expressive. You verbalise your dissatisfaction to express frustration, elicit sympathy, or to bond with the people around you.

For example, you might complain to a friend about your spouse's behaviour. Not because you think that complaining will improve your situation, but simply because you feel the need to vent, or because you want some sympathy and understanding.

Or you might, when you meet friends, spend time complaining about the state of the world, or the economy, or the rise of celebrity culture, or anything else that you all feel strongly about.

In doing so, you are not looking to change or achieve anything.

You are merely expressing solidarity with the group, demonstrating that you have shared ideas about what is important and how things should and ought to be.

This type of complaints does little harm, and may even do some good. But not when they are overdone.

Spend too much time complaining and you end up stuck in victim mode, irritating and alienating the people around you.

Worst of all, I think, is when you fall into the habit of complaining to yourself, when you begin to maintain an internal dialogue of moans and gripes. This is more or less guaranteed to make you feel disappointed and depressed.

Some months ago, I wrote in this column about the first, and arguably the best, self-help book, The Enchiridion, by the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus.

The book's message was that attitudes are more important than circumstances when it comes to leading a happy and fulfilled life.

Epictetus took a dim view of fretting and complaining.

He wrote: "Don't curse every time you have an earache. I'm not saying that you can't complain, only don't complain with your whole being."

What is interesting is that Epictetus does not insist that we should stop complaining.

He merely advises us not to complain "with our whole being".

It is only when complaining becomes a habit, an attitude and a state of mind that it turns toxic.

Gary Hayden is a science and technology writer. His new book, Walking With Plato, is out at major bookshops here.

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