How Complaining Can Actually Make You Feel Better

As college students, we all hear and do a lot of complaining.

“I’m literally so broke, I can’t afford to order Fin’s tonight.”

“Is this snow ever going to stop? I can’t take it anymore.”

“I have four midterms AND two papers this week.”

“It’s so cold out!”

While you may feel like a downer after complaining to your roommate for hours, research has shown that it can actually be good for your mental health when it’s done right.

Photo courtesy of Adam / Flickr

Photo courtesy of Adam / Flickr

A study recently conducted by Robin Kowalski, a psychology professor at Clemson University, and her colleagues examined the relationships between mindfulness, happiness and complaining. Mindfulness is the ability to focus on thoughts and emotions in the present moment. The study, published in the Journal of Social Psychology, found that those who complained with the hope of achieving a specific result, rather than those who complained simply for the sake of complaining, were generally happier.

A 2006 study cited by Kowalski determined that happiness may be partially determined by intentional activities, like consciously being optimistic or deliberating trying new things. Similar to happiness, mindfulness is also related to a sense of deliberateness, as mindful people are more aware of their actions and the possible outcomes of these actions. Kowalski hypothesizes in her study that mindful people are better at adjusting their complaints and only complaining when it serves a purpose, whereas less mindful people may complain more but with less positive results. She also found that there is a positive relationship between happiness and mindfulness.

According to Kowalski, complaining is most effective when the complainer is aware of what they want the outcome to be and understands how they can make it happen.

However, complaints don’t always need to achieve end results. People, especially those who have suffered trauma, commonly complain for the emotional release and catharsis.

Writing feelings down helps to focus the experience and provides greater understanding, according to James Pennebaker, a social psychologist at the University of Texas. His study found that survivors of trauma saw improvement in their mental and physical health after writing their feelings down.

Another reason people may complain is to influence how they are perceived, a phenomenon called “impression management” by psychologists. For example, complaining about a restaurant’s menu doesn’t change the food selection but it influences others into thinking that their companion has a sophisticated palate.

Certain people are more likely to complain than others, according to Kowalski and her colleagues. In another study, they examined the correlation between personality traits and the likelihood of a person to express dissatisfaction. They found that the more agreeable a person is, the less likely they are to complain. People with high self-esteem tend to complain more often, perhaps because their confidence leads them to believe that complaining will turn things around for them.

Photo courtesy of Tumblr

Holding in complaints can have a negative effect on physical and mental well-being, according to Barbara Held, a psychology professor at Bowdoin College. Past research has shown that suppressing thoughts and feelings leads to long-term stress and associated health problems.

“It’s important to learn how to tell friends and family when you’re upset,” says Held. “If you don’t, you end up alone in your pain.”

Many students at Boston College feel pressure to be perfect. When students suppress their complaints in order to seem happier and more perfect, they aren’t being their authentic selves and could be damaging their happiness and wellbeing in the process.

So for the sake of your mental health, indulge in complaining every once in awhile. For the sake of your roommate’s mental health though, please keep the complaints mindful. As Kowalski says, “A positive outcome is more up to you than you may think.”

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