Some people just love to complain. You know them or maybe you are one of them. In an article in the New York Times Opinion section, Samantha Irby claimed, “To complain is to truly be alive.” For her, complaining is comforting, “a hot bath” for her feelings.

The problem is that while complaining might (and we say might because the research does not support this, as we will explain) make us feel better, it certainly doesn’t make the people around us feel better. Betsy remembers first observing this phenomenon in college. Sitting in the common room with my dorm-mates, the conversation would inevitably turn to complaining – too much work, unfair professor, stupid boyfriend, unsympathetic parents. Instead of getting validation for her woes, the complainer would typically hear, “You think that’s bad! Here’s my story…” I called it one-downmanship (the opposite of one-upmanship), and it drove me nuts. At some point, I’d just take myself back to my room. However hard my work was, it wasn’t as hard as everyone else’s, if I believed them!

It turns out that was probably a smart thing to do, as Dr. Travis Bradberry explains in a blog published on Negativity rewires our brain to be more prone to negativity. As he says, “Repeated complaining rewires your brain to make future complaining more likely. Over time, you find it’s easier to be negative than to be positive, regardless of what’s happening around you. Complaining becomes your default behavior, which changes how people perceive you.”

Bradberry recommends nurturing gratitude instead of complaining. That damps down the cortisol response that make us anxious. There is good research that cultivating gratitude is a healthy practice.

That doesn’t mean that we should completely give up complaining. But before we do, we should ask an important question, “What good will it do?”

Let’s face it. Most of our complaining results in nothing more than reinforcing our negativity and nothing changes. But complaining (not whining, complaining) can be an effective way to point out something that does need changing.

Here’s an example of a brilliantly effective complaint. Roger lived around the corner from a bank. The sidewalks around the bank were constantly full of litter and weeds were growing in the cracks… it was unsightly. Roger didn’t like it and decided to complain. He walked into the bank and asked for the manager. He explained that he was sure she actually cared about how people thought of the bank and wanted it to be a welcoming place. He explained how the trash outside the bank affected neighbors and potential customers. The manager’s first reaction was to blame in on the landlord. The bank didn’t actually own the building and technically it was the landlord’s job to clean the area around the building. But the landlord wasn’t there every day. The bank manager was, and it was affecting the bank’s business. A week later, the trash was gone and the sidewalks around the bank were spotless. Roger sent flowers to the manager to thank her.

We can learn some important lessons from this about what we like to call the fine art of complaining.

  1. Complain only rarely, when you think complaining will actually accomplish something productive.
  2. Think through and be clear on what your goal is before you complain.
  3. Find the right person to complain to.
  4. Be specific about what you find problematic and what the situation would look like if the problem were solved.
  5. Don’t pile it on. If you throw in every grievance you’ve ever experienced, the issues can quickly become overwhelming for the person you’re complaining to and then they’re not actionable.
  6. Try to take the emotion out of it. First of all, if we’re angry, then our stress rises. Second of all, emotion breeds emotion and it makes it much harder for the person on the receiving end of the complaint to respond calmly.
  7. Don’t subject yourself to never-ending complaining from others. It can be catching, and it will affect your mood, and over time, your health.

Betsy is thinking about putting a new sign on her office door, “This is not the complaint department. Positive ideas welcome.”


About the authors

Betsy Hill is President of BrainWare Learning Company, a company that builds learning capacity through the practical application of neuroscience. She is an experienced educator and has studied the connection between neuroscience and education with Dr. Patricia Wolfe (author of Brain Matters) and other experts. She is a former chair of the board of trustees at Chicago State University and teaches strategic thinking in the MBA program at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching and an MBA from Northwestern University.


Roger Stark is Co-founder and CEO of BrainWare Learning Company. For the last decade, Stark championed the effort to bring comprehensive cognitive literacy skills training and cognitive assessment within reach of everyone. It started with a very basic question: What do we know about the brain? From that initial question, he pioneered the effort to build an effective and affordable cognitive literacy skills training tool based on over 50 years of trial & error clinical collaboration. Stark also led the team that developed BrainWare SAFARI, which has become the most researched comprehensive, integrated cognitive literacy training tool delivered online in the world. Follow BrainWare Learning on Twitter @BrainWareSafari