In the UK, we believe that ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’. And that’s absolutely true. Bottling up unhappiness is destructive. It is a relief to able to express our feelings to someone who listens thoughtfully and without judgement. Sharing our experience can help us work our own way to a solution or a helpful next step, or simply get the issue into a better perspective.
But there’s another, rather dangerous, British past-time, which goes by the name of the ‘good old moan’. This is more like competitive complaining: it’s when we vent to others who agree with our moans and add to them, trapping everyone in a negative cycle.
It can be all too fun to join in a moaning session over a coffee or on a social network – it’s a form of social bonding, and a stimulus to creativity, as you think of ways to elaborate on the original complaint. And we do love to moan: a study from 2010 found that British workers complain every day for up to 10 minutes.
But does venting really help us feel better? There is an immediate release that comes from giving voice to our pent-up feelings. But sharing our moans with others who reinforce them ends up making us all feel worse in the long run. The fact that everyone appears to agree traps us in the situation – we don’t solve our problems or move forward. And often the people we’re moaning about are oblivious to our issues and the things that need to change. Researchers studying employees across different sectors found that people are happier when they don’t complain about the minor negative events of daily working life. Moaning, even if justified, reinforces and amplifies the effect of those negative events, and stops people from recovering their good mood.
In some respects, moaning is the easy option. It saves us from the hard work of understanding what our true dissatisfactions are, and the deeper needs that underlie why these things are bothering us. I’ve moaned for years about other people failing to put their dirty dishes in the dishwasher, at home and at work. I’ve written notes and even short poems on post-it notes to remind people to put their dirty dishes away. I’ve felt self-righteous and aggrieved, as if dirty crockery were a personal insult. Deep down, I’ve worried that I don’t look like a good parent, or a good boss, if the kitchen isn’t clean: somehow, dirty dishes mean that I’m not in charge. But it was only when I asked myself why it bothered me, that I realised I need let go of my need for hierarchy and control, as well as my self-imposed Cinderella tendencies (poor me – cleaning up while others watch telly!).
It feels easier to blame others behind their backs than find a way to talk with them honestly about our feelings and needs. In my case, instead of moaning, which put others on the defensive, I needed to engage in a more constructive conversation with the people who shared the space. Coming to the conversation with a more open attitude helped pave the way to understanding what good outcomes looked like for everyone, and how to get there.
There are better ways to bond socially and solve problems than moaning. If you’re tempted to moan, think again about how you are using your friend or colleague. Instead of drawing them into a moan, seek their help to work through your issue. If you’re the receiver of a moan, be a good listener, maybe ask a couple of questions, but resist the temptation to join in.
Taking a more productive approach to our frustrations will hopefully lead us all towards a much more positive British trait: being chipper. Or in other words, sprightly, cheery and in good spirits. Whatever the weather!