Late last week as I worked on the first draft of this article, I caught myself complaining. I had meetings all afternoon and hadn't even made it halfway through the article.
I criticized my business partners for scheduling so many meetings and wondered how I avoid them.
Suddenly, I noticed that others were complaining, too. Not about the meetings, which didn't bother anyone else.
No, my colleagues were launching into stories about past meeting disasters, and telling each other which clients to avoid. My complaining had gone viral.
Does it seem like everyone around you is always complaining? Or maybe like me, you find yourself complaining too often.
It needs to stop.
Researchers have discovered that complaining shortens your life, not to mention wreaks havoc on your career.
If you've caught yourself in the complaint loop, consider this information, and how you might be able to change.
Complaining HarmsYour Body
Whenever we complain about something from the past, our bodies react as though we were reliving the experience.
Our heart rate and blood pressure rise,, and our brains release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, triggering our fight-or-flight response. Our muscle tissue goes into a tense state of hyper-readiness, and non-essential systems like digestion go on temporary shutdown.
This would be useful for zebras running away from lions on the Serengeti, but doesn't make much sense for us humans who sit around conference tables and gripe. Our bodies gear up for a frantic burst of predator-evasion, but we never discharge that energy.
Instead, the pent up energy eats away at our health.
Entrepreneurship is tough as it is. Many startup founders wind up with high blood pressure, migraines, and digestive problems, setting the stage for heart attacks and strokes.
Long-term stress also suppresses the immune system and impairs metabolism, making us more susceptible to illness, obesity and diabetes.
According to biologist Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University,
When our brains marinate in a stew of adrenaline and cortisol, it causes shrinkage in the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in learning, memory and judgment.
Complaining Affects the Workplace
70 percent of Americans say they work with someone who is a complainer, and about two-thirds of us who have a complainer in our midst say that it reduces our productivity.
Complaining is like a virus. It's contagious. As happened in my meeting example, when one person complains, the guy next to him chimes in, and eventually the whole room is grousing.
The worst-case scenario is when leaders whine. Leaders are the most visible people in the group, and others look to them to direct the team's energy. If they are complaining, you can bet everyone else is following suit; it's how our brains are wired.
From a very early age, humans have an innate social tendency to mimic the actions of others. There are even groups of cells in the cortex called mirror neurons that specialize in that behavior.
If you're in a position of leadership, you don't have the luxury of whining.
Complaining reshapes the brain
Disturbingly, mirroring negative behavior may actually change the structure of our brains, making us more likely to complain in the future.
Neurons communicate with each other at canyon-like junctions called synapses. Each time a pair of cells transfer a message and form a bridge, they grow closer together so that it is quicker to make the same connection next time. In this way, we build memories ... and bad habits.
The more time you spend complaining and dwelling on the negative, the stronger those neural pathways become, and the easier it is to slip into that same behavior again.
To make matters worse, neuropsychologist Rick Hanson notes that,
The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.
What to do instead
Research is beginning to investigate how we can respond to stressors in productive ways that make us feel better instead of worse. One small study suggested three helpful coping strategies:
What might have happened if I had made a joke about busy meeting schedule, or had made an effort to view it in a more positive light (for instance, as a helpful nudge to schedule ahead of time)?
I would have reduced my exposure to cortisol, and would not have sparked a cortisol-fest among my colleagues, either.
Retrain your brain
Another strategy might be to try to counteract negative thoughts with positive ones.
Because unpleasant thoughts are tend to associate more strongly in your brain, you'll need to think of 3-5 pleasant thoughts for every complaint. This might strengthen your positive neural pathways.
One radical approach recommended by author Tim Ferriss is absolutely no complaining for 21 days straight, about the time it takes to form a new mental habit.
If you must complain, make sure it is goal-directed, and try to keep your emotions in check.
- Only complain to someone who can fix the problem.
- Use Guy Winch's "Complaint Sandwich" technique -- starting and ending with an upbeat message, so that your overall tone is friendly.
What about venting?
Despite being touted by some psychologists, venting may not be the healthiest choice. According to researcher Jeffrey Lohr,
Anger dissipates faster when you try to control it. Try deep breathing exercises instead.
If your workplace has a corporate culture of complaining, you must change it. The longer you wait, the more deeply ingrained it becomes.
Set the example and start now, to rebuild your brain and the brains of your associates in healthier and more positive directions.
Can you kick the habit of complaining?