Releasing some steam by way of complaining may seem like a healthier alternative to keeping it all inside. But according to author and human nature researcher Steven Parton, the logic behind thinking that complaining will make you feel better is flawed.
Not only is complaining ineffectual, it can wreak havoc on our physical and mental health, he explains. Beyond that, the health of our listeners will also be negatively affected.
Complaining is contagious
We all know it’s unpleasant to be around the Negative Nancys and Debbie Downers of the world, but the reason why might surprise you.
As it turns out, the brain is hardwired to try to duplicate the emotions -- or, fire the same synapses -- of whomever we’re talking to.
“This is basically empathy,” explains Parton via Psych Pedia. “It is how we get the mob mentality ... It is our shared bliss at music festivals. But it is also your night at the bar with your friends who love to constantly bitch."
Harms your health
Complaining is also shown to do a number on the complainer’s own physical health. According to Parton, the body doesn't react too kindly to an abundance of negative emotions.
"When your brain is firing off these synapses of anger, you're weakening your immune system,” explains Parton. “You're raising your blood pressure, increasing your risk of heart disease, obesity and diabetes, and a plethora of other negative ailments."
The reason for this is the stress hormone cortisol, which is released in greater quantities when you’re expressing negative thoughts and emotions, says Parton. Stress hormones can take a toll on a whole host of bodily functions, including learning and memory, blood pressure, weight, bone density, immune health, and cholesterol.
But while complaining may not be the healthiest way of letting go of negative thoughts, there's also research to show that bottled up emotions can do just as much harm. One study found that bottling emotions can even shorten your life.
So how can one slip into that healthy middle ground between complaining and bottling? Experts say a technique called "effective complaining" may be useful. Where regular complaining is essentially just passively "admiring" the problem, effective complaining (also called "positive complaining") is doing something to change it.
There is also the "but-positive" technique, which entails tacking on a positive addition to your complaint. (For example, "I don't like driving to work, but I'm thankful I can drive and I even have a job.")
Joe Gordon, author of The No Complaining Rule, recommends this technique as a way to deal with our natural desire to complain. Gordon says this kind of "complaint filtration system" can be an effective first step towards eradicating unnecessary complaining from your everyday life, especially for those who might find complaining hard to vanquish altogether.