The other day I was sitting in a park, reading a book and enjoying a glorious summer day, and getting distracted by overhearing a small group talking near me.
For over an hour, they complained endlessly among themselves: about mutual friends, about times they’d been hard done by, about life in general.
This type of whinge-fest is so normal, you’ll have been a part of many of them without even noticing. I know I have.
Did the group of complainers enjoy their litany of misery as much as I enjoyed reading my book? Yes, probably more – complaining is fun! You get sympathy for your problems, and by complaining about others you establish yourself as being somehow “better” than them.
But then, doing heroin is fun too (or so I’m told) — at least to start with. Over time, both turn out to be highly addictive and damaging to your mental health.
Where your attention goes, everything else follows
Everything you talk about and think means you’ve made a decision about where to allocate your attention.
Even when you’re sitting alone in an almost empty room, there’s already too much sensory input for you to pay attention to everything. Your brain ends up processing most of it on autopilot, “filling in the gaps” based on what it already knows about what’s likely to be there, and leaves your conscious attention free for whatever seems to be most relevant or important.
Decisions about how to allocate attention are big a reason two people can have different experiences of an identical situation. If you’re paying attention to the beautiful flowers and I’m paying attention to someone’s out-of-control child running past screaming, your experience is going to be calmer and more enjoyable than mine.
Attention applies not just to what’s in front of you at the moment, but also your thoughts. Everyone’s brain is constantly generating a mix of negative and positive thoughts covering a multitude of different topics, and (with practice) you get to choose which of those thoughts gets the most attention.
So again, if you’re giving attention to your thoughts about the lovely breakfast we just had and I’m giving attention to my thoughts about how the waiter was rude when we wanted to split the bill, your current reality will be better than mine even though the external world is identical.
This is why complaining is dangerous: it’s satisfying in small doses, but it takes your attention away from positive things that have happened or are happening right now. Over time, because your brain falls into familiar patterns of thought, complaining becomes the default – which means your brain starts seeking out the negative aspect of any experience, and giving yourself a worse version of reality!
How to eliminate complaining
I go out of my way to avoid other people’s complaining, for two reasons:
- Hearing other people’s complaints forces me to focus on the negative things they’re talking about, which makes my experience of the world worse.
- In turn, having this focus on the negative is more likely to make me complain myself – and a negative cycle builds.
Because I consider it so important, I’ve taken steps to eliminate complaining in all the major areas of my life.
My friends don’t complain
Over time, I’ve naturally drifted away from friends who tend towards the negative. The people I’m closest to now naturally prefer to talk about positive aspects of their life and exciting future possibilities.
Of course, everyone has some tendency to complain – me included. However, while I’ll happily help friends out if they have problems and are interested in discussing solutions, I won’t pick up on cues that take conversation in the direction of solution-free complaints – so those conversational seeds tend not to take root.
There’s minimal complaining at work
I’m lucky to have a role in shaping the culture of my company and have a co-founder who feels the same way, so we discourage complaining in any way we can.
There’s an important distinction between complaining and pointing out areas of improvement. The difference comes down to two things:
- Having a focus on what’s wrong with a situation or process, not a person
- Bringing a potential solution, or at least a desire to find a solution.
In other words: complaining generally about a colleague isn’t helpful. Pointing out a broken process that’s making your job harder and asking for help solving it is extremely helpful.
I’ve heard there’s occasional negativity on the internet, but…
The internet is awash with complaining because the world is awash with complaining. On the internet though, you can leave your park bench and listen to anyone you want to – anywhere in the world.
Given that there’s more communication happening in a single minute than I could read in a lifetime, I can make deliberate choices about where my attention goes. It boils down to:
- Never using Facebook
- Keeping news to an absolute minimum
- Never looking at comments sections, with the exception of a few sites with communities that maintain high quality
- Having a lengthy list of blocked words on Twitter, and unfollowing the moment I notice someone complaining unhelpfully
But I do it sometimes!
Obviously, I complain sometimes. Probably far more than I’m aware of: I often catch myself when I notice it, but I’m sure there are plenty of times I don’t. Hey, am I complaining about complaining right now?
Sometimes, I don’t even try to catch myself: I happily get drawn into a self-pitying conversation, or consciously seek out online comments on a situation I know will make me angry or despairing.
Reflecting on it, there are two situations when I’m prone to doing this:
- When I’m tired.
- When something isn’t going how I want it to, and I want to wallow rather than fix it.
Both of these come down to a lack of energy – which proves that complaining is always the easier thing to do.
So you can never eliminate complaining from your life completely, but it’s worth trying to cut it down. As an experiment, spend a day noticing how much complaining you hear around you and how much you contribute to it yourself. Your findings might shock you into making some changes.