Thursday, February 10, 2011

Criticism and Complaints: Is Blowing Off Steam Really Good for You?

I'm currently reading a book called The Happiness Project  by Gretchen Rubin. I'm only about a third of the way through, but so far it is a fantastic book. This post is not a partial book review, but rather a look at one paragraph that really caught my attention.

In Chapter 2, Rubin mentions that there is no proof that the well-known belief that "letting off steam" is really good for you. In fact, openly expressing anger often amplifies it instead of relieving anger. Instead, it appears that not expressing anger often allows it to subside and disappear without a trace (not to mention the effect it has on those around you).

So what does this mean? I immediately thought of all the criticism and anger over the Black Eyed Peas half-time show at Super Bowl XLV. Judging by the online response, I can imagine rooms full of people moaning throughout the entire 2nd half about how awful they sounded. I'll be honest, I couldn't really hear the show that well where I watched the game, but I assume that if they really sounded that awful, some of it was out of their hands and due to sound issues created by a 5 minute stage setup in a new Super Bowl venue. Don't forget, sound check won't really be accurate when the stadium is empty, so the sound guys have to adjust on the fly. Even Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20 came to their defense on Twitter stating that as someone who performs live for a living and has done TV shows, he knew the sound guys shafted them.

Whether you liked the Peas or not, there was certainly something to like about the show. For instance, I thought it was visually incredible, and  I didn't think it sounded as bad as everyone thought (though as I said, I couldn't hear it that well). The point is, wouldn't it be better to focus on something positive that happened instead of complaining for a week afterwards? The game was great wasn't it?

I'm not trying to defend the Black Eyed Peas here, just trying to put into perspective the culture of complaining that we have become. We seem to feel that it is our right to complain and criticise to the point that we miss all the good things going on around us. Undoubtedly, another opportunity for widespread complaining will come this Sunday at the Grammys. I'm sure the Twitterverse will be flooded with real-time critques of every act (I know because I am sometimes guilty of this trait). I used to watch award shows with someone who had nothing positive to say the entire show. I often wondered why this person watched these shows if it caused such misery. This person was a so-called music fan, but could only muster praise for around 5 artists in the history of recorded music and even that was qualified.

So what if you don't make a habit of music or movie criticism? I bet you are still guilty of outbursts of complaints at home or work. Most of us air every annoyance as soon as possible. I know I'm guilty of this sometimes. How may times have you been chomping at the bit to talk to someone so you could let them know all of the awful things that happened to you that day? Did you feel better after dwelling on how awful your day had been? Do you think the person on the receiving end felt better? Would a shift from "these 15 things went wrong for me today" to "these 5 great things happened to be today and I'm really looking forward to my evening" make you feel better? Right off the bat, if you have the opportunity to complain that day, something good happened: you woke up that morning.

I'm not claiming to be an expert in the subject, or in any way a good example, but it is food for thought. Pull up your Facebook news feed and weigh the positive against the negative posts. How many people are complaining about the weather, school (a  problem that you don't realize is a blessing until you are in the working world), work, traffic, house cleaning, the President and everyone/everything else that has contributed to unhappiness on that day? To make it worse, of the small pool of positive facebook posts, a good percentage of those are copy and paste or status shuffle jobs making it seem that the majority of us really can't think of anything nice to say about the world around us.

Don't get me wrong, we all have to complain sometimes. Occasionally, just hearing yourself say these things to someone else helps to put them into perspective. However, too much complaining makes us like "the boy who cried wolf." People can become so accustomed to our negative attitudes that they don't really take us seriously when we really do have a problem. I've tried to work on this extensively over the past few years, but I have a long way to go.

So here are some things I pledge to try:

  • When someone complains to me, listen. However, I won't respond in a one-upsmanship manner, trying to out-complain the other person. Instead, I'll express empathy and then try to lift that person's sprits. We all need that sometimes.
  • If I've had a terrible day, I will wait until I have had a break from work to start telling everyone about it. I'll listen to my favorite music (The Shins are my go to mood lifter), go to the gym or have a good meal with my wonderful wife (she's a blessing I often take for granted) and then see how much of that stuff is really important.
  • When someone does something that irks me (driving, making a mess, standing in my way at the grocery store), I'll try to be understanding, and realize they are likely not doing these things to inconvenience me (and probably don't even notice what they are doing). Maybe I have done a few things that day to inconvenience other people that day. I hope they will be understanding when I make these mistakes.
  • Most of all, I'll try not to take things that other people do quite so seriously. Sure sometimes people do things that are hurtful (especially those you care about), but you have to assume these things are done with the best of intentions. Before I complain about something someone else is doing, I'll ask myself if my complaining will really make a difference. Is this person going to change this behavior (is it even something they can really control), or just resent me for bringing it up (hint: most people won't change because you nag them to). This can be thought of as "Picking your battles." I will let things go once in a while (and not just temporarily). 
We'll always have things we need to complain about. However if we can remove some of the negativity from our lives, "act the way we want to feel" (another one of Gretchen Rubin's ideas) and simply reduce some of our time spent complaining, we might be suprised by the results. Let's all start Sunday when we watch the Grammys. Instead of feeling entitled to the entire show being catered to our tastes, let's focus on the moments we do enjoy. If you find that you don't like anything about this year's show, maybe you shouldn't watch next year. Maybe your time could be better spent doing something you will actually enjoy.

Well, I'll step down off of my soapbox for now. What about you? Do you think we could benefit from a little more positive focus on our lives? Have you read The Happiness Project? If so, what do you think of it?

I'll leave you with a song by The Shins that makes me really happy (though I'm not really sure it qualifies as a "happy song," it works for me):

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