The Art of Aging HAPPY

Raeleen Mautner, Ph.D.

After having put a deposit on a major appliance recently, I called a friend to complain about how ill-mannered I felt the person at the front desk was—both to me and to the lovely older salesperson, who clearly had a physical disability. My friend on the other end of the line was equally outraged when I described the situation and agreed with me that if it were not for the salesperson possibly losing a commission, she would have walked out and gone elsewhere for the appliance. 

We often bristle at the concept of “complaining” but the fact is, that none of us can go very long without complaining about something; and sometimes—if not excessive to the point where it takes over our entire personality—complaining here and there has its usefulness along the spectrum of social interaction.

In a research study that looked at the psychology of complaining in social interactions, researchers found that complaining may be an important form of social communication, which serves a function.  Most of us complain on average about 5 times/day. We complain mostly about other people, objects, or events, as opposed to complaining about ourselves. When we do complain about ourselves, it is usually about a physical state (“my back is killing me”; “I’m so hungry I have a headache”, etc.). When participants were asked to keep a log of their complaints, the data showed that over 75% of all complaining did not involve an attempt to change a situation (“instrumental” complaining), but rather to find solidarity, a common ground to agree upon, to find solidarity, or as a way to express frustration.

I once challenged the students (and myself) in one of my psychology classes to go without complaining for 30 days. They were to keep of diary to first record a baseline of how many times they complained in a day; then draw up a behavioral modification plan to gradually decrease and then eliminate their complaining behavior. That was perhaps, they told me, one of the hardest assignments I had ever given them! I wasn’t surprised, having caught myself lamenting more than once during this same period, when I couldn’t find a parking space, or when icy roads made driving a nightmare, or when…

While eliminating our complaining behaviors completely may not be realistic, I still believe that if we want to be happier, we need to complain less and find more of the positive aspects in every situation we encounter. Believe me the positives are there if you look for them. Make sure to notice them and let them outweigh your negatives. 

My friend and I ultimately agreed that I did a good thing in going through with the purchase after all, since I wanted that appliance anyway, and as a result that salesperson who was so nice to me would get the commission. Then we set a date for lunch before we hung up.

Reference: Alicke et.al (1992)  Complaining Behavior in Social Interaction, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 18 (5) pp286-295

copyright Raeleen Mautner 2021

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