Complaining usually gets a pretty bad reputation — that is to say, no one really wants to be known as a "complainer" because it has the negative connotations of being immature, draining, and a waste of time. However, science shows that there are health benefits to complaining. That's right: There's value in complaining, as long as you do it within reason. Sure, if you're constantly complaining at the detriment of fostering other conversations or to the point where you're putting guilt or stress onto others, then the complaining has drifted over the line from healthy to unhealthy. But how do we know where that line is? What sort of complaining is healthy?
Research shows that complaining can offer both emotional and physical relief to our stress. Seriously: Vocalizing our worries, concerns, and frustrations can take a huge toll off of our minds. Sometimes there is nothing that makes a situation less scary than talking about it out in the open. With the relief of mental stress, sometimes physical relief follows — when we lower our stress levels, we tend to sleep better and exercise more. Seems like a win-win situation to me!
Here are five of the science-backed reasons complaining is actually good for your health — and why you should allow yourself to do it every now and again.
1. It Can Alleviate Stress
That's right: Complaining can alleviate stress. Now, if you complain constantly, it's very possible you've gotten yourself into a cycle of unhappiness where you're not getting any relief and complaining has become your default means of communication. However, if you complain on a low to moderate basis, it's more likely than not that complaining actually lowers your stress levels. How come? Basically, when we get scary or stressful thoughts off of our chests, we often feel that these fears become smaller, less abstract, and more tangible and manageable.
2. It Can Help You Feel In Control
While the reasons we complain vary from person to person, complaining typically stems from the same root: We want to feel in control. Complaining about your boss? You probably feel out of control at work, or like your voice isn't being heard. Complaining about your mother-in-law for hours on end? You probably feel uncomfortable with how often she talks about your partner's ex and how many subtle (or not so subtle) comments she makes comparing you two. In a lot of scenarios, it's healthy to confront someone directly and talk through what's on your mind. However, that's not always the case; it's important to weigh the potential gains and risks, especially if it has to do with livelihood or serious personal relationships. Sometimes it's totally OK to bite the bullet in the moment and blow off steam later by venting.
3. It Can Foster Group Bonding
We've all heard the saying: Misery loves company. If you're truly miserable all of the time, you may find yourself with toxic friends because you all sit around and complain together constantly, which is not ideal. However, there's no reason it needs to be so extreme: Complaining can actually help foster group community because it gives you the opportunity to voice your concerns and find people with a similar mindset. Ideally, you can commiserate with one another and feel connected and understood.
4. It Can Help Us Make Better Choices
A lot of the time, when people complain, it's actually a cry for help: we want attention from others and we want their input on our problems and decision-making. Now, if you're complaining to the wrong people, it's totally possible you'll follow bad advice or just end up in a worse position than you were originally in. However, if you complain strategically and go to people who have a good understanding of your circumstances and can offer you guidance and mentorship, you may actually get insightful, helpful feedback — which, in turn, will help you better your circumstances and (ideally) eliminate that need to complain in the future. Win-win, right?
5. It Can Raise Your Self-Esteem
Personally, this one surprised me: I typically associate people who complain with having low self-esteem, but Robin Kowalski's 1996 study Complaints and Complaining found that people who complain tend to have higher levels of self-esteem than those who don't. How come? People who complain frequently likely believe that their voice matters and that they're entitled to the attention others give them when they complain. Therefore, they believe that by complaining and making their voices heard, they can change situations and make things operate in their own favor.
So, there you have it! While I definitely don't recommend going out of your way to complain, it's important not to beat yourself up over it if you find yourself complaining. Just remember to keep the amount of time you spend complaining in check, and try to think of what your goals are: Do you just need to blow off steam? Do you want advice? Is this complaining hinting towards a deeper issue you need to investigate? As long as you keep your head on your shoulders, complaining can be a totally healthy and reasonable thing to do.