How Happy People Complain

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Complaining gets a bad rap. We brush it off as ungrateful, unproductive, and whiny — and, okay, it can be. In a study published in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, researchers asked subjects to write about an annoying situation at work and rate its severity, then track their moods and how often they complained throughout the day. The study found that complainers were less satisfied during the workday and their bad moods even spilled over to the next morning. Venting can feel so good in the moment, but research shows it can make things worse in the long run.

There is, however, a case to be made for complaining. By dismissing it entirely, we miss out on some useful benefits. Here, we’ve rounded up some tips on how to complain to get your point across without making yourself miserable.

Consider the complaint sandwich.

Let’s say your waiter brings you the wrong dish and you don’t want to complain, so as a result, you’re stuck eating halibut when you actually ordered salmon. If you’re complaining with a specific fix in mind, like swapping out your restaurant meal, you might try what psychologist and researcher Guy Winch calls the “complaint sandwich.” In his book, The Squeaky Wheel, Winch writes:

Ear-openers represent the top slice of bread in the complaint sandwich. The meat of the sandwich is the complaint itself, or the request for redress, and the bottom slice of bread in the complaints sandwich is the digestive. The digestive is a positive statement much like the ear opener that comes at the close of the complaint.

An ear-opener is basically an opening line to ease your target into the complaint so they don’t become defensive, which is a natural reaction. Revisiting our halibut example, a complaint sandwich might look something like this: “This plate looks delicious (ear-opener). I ordered the salmon, though (complaint). I really had my heart set on salmon, so if there’s a way to swap this out, I would really appreciate it (digestive).”

Kvetch with a purpose.

It’s one thing to complain to remedy a situation, but sometimes we complain without a solution in mind. And that’s okay, too — as long as you know why you’re whining. “Complaining in moderation can be used as an icebreaker, to convey information about oneself so that others can form a particular impression of you, or to call others to account for their behavior,” says Robin Kowalski, a psychology professor at Clemson University. She says the key to complaining effectively is to do it strategically.

In 2014, Kowalski and her colleagues published a study in the Journal of Social Psychology that researched the ways happy people complain. The results suggested that complaining doesn’t have to get you down, as long as you’re deliberate about it. Perhaps not surprisingly, that old buzzword mindfulness likely helps here: The researchers concluded that mindful people probably express their complaints in a more deliberate way, so they can work through those complaints more productively. In the paper, they wrote:

… mindfulness may be a means of attenuating one’s likelihood of expressing pet peeves when one is feeling happy. Perhaps people who are more mindful modulate the type of complaints they offer, preferring to engage in instrumental types of complaints over expressive complaints, thereby expressing complaints only when they believe they will accomplish desired outcomes.

In other words, Kowalski believes happy people complain with a purpose. So if you want to get the most out of your bellyaching, be aware that you’re complaining in the first place — and then understand why you’re complaining, even if the goal is to just get something off your chest. (Because, let’s be honest, sometimes complaining does just feel good.)

Venting is one thing. Dwelling on it is another.

Although complaining as an emotional release can be cathartic, it can also underscore your annoyance and make you feel worse. Again, the key is to vent deliberately: A purpose gives you a guideline so you know when to stop complaining, which prevents you from dwelling on the subject, which can indeed make you feel worse. “For [mindful] people, there is likely to be little relationship between venting and dwelling because they aren’t going to dwell,” Kowalski says. In other words, if you’re aware that the goal of your venting is catharsis, you should be safe from dwelling territory.

Aside from being deliberate about the purpose of your complaint, Kowalski offers two suggestions to keep your venting in check: Do it in moderation and pick your audience carefully. “For those who are truly dissatisfied and venting about that dissatisfaction, those who do so in moderation and to audiences who will offer thoughtful and useful responses are more likely to move on and not dwell than those who just blow off to anyone,” she says. Picking the right audience is important, because the wrong listener might make you angrier or more annoyed over the complaint. Find someone you feel comfortable confiding in and make sure they support your purpose: to get something off your chest, so you can let it go.

The best place to complain may be your journal.

Venting isn’t just about releasing anger over a slacker co-worker, though. It can be especially helpful for people dealing with trauma or stressful events. Writing is a useful way to vent these weightier complaints, research shows.

James W. Pennebaker, a researcher and professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, has conducted a number of studies on the topic of writing as a coping mechanism. In one study, Pennebaker and other researchers asked subjects who were going through a job loss to write about their stress. They found that writing helped those subjects cope better, but perhaps even more interestingly, subjects who wrote about losing their jobs were more likely to find new ones down the road.

This kind of venting helps you recover from specific circumstances, though — namely, chronically stressful or traumatic events. While revisiting small grievances can actually make you feel worse about those grievances, writing about the stressors that bother you most can actually help you work through them.

In his book, Expressive Writing, Pennebaker says you can start by writing about “what keeps you awake at night.” As he puts it, the “emotional upheaval bothering you the most and keeping you awake at night is a good place to start writing.” Can’t complain about that.

How Happy People Complain