Stop Complaining and Go To Church, It's Healthy
Science and religion agree that how you deal with adversity impacts not just your individual happiness, but the health and well being of those you have contact with, and that of society at large. This edition of Gist Say’n examines how.
Here's the Gist
To complain or praise, that is the question, and the choice has consequences. It turns out there is science to support what my parents have taught me all along, whether you choose to squawk or give thanks in the face of adversity matters.
New surveys show there is a relationship between religion, happiness, and civic engagement, and that as religion rates fall in the United States, anxiety, depression, and unrest are on the rise. Hope matters, and collectively we are losing it, but fear not, there is something you can do about it.
Life is Hard
Life is tumultuous, and we all need to process it. If you’d like to hear some personal examples listen to the podcast, otherwise, operate under the assumption that adversity has abounded in my life on a variety of levels of late. I can complain about plenty.
Last month held particularly good examples of the bad things most people experience, at least from time to time, as they move through this world. It was the type of month that forces you to choose whether or not you will focus on the bad and complain, or elevate the positive elements in your life and move on.
I am a Christian, so I try to elevate the positive, but I'm not necessarily a good Christian, so I stumble and fall. A lot. I complain too much, I'm sure, but I'd like to change that and as it turns out you probably should too.
The average person complains 30 times a day. But it's not just the amount, its how we complain that really has an impact on our selves and others.
“As a society, we complain too much, but more importantly we don’t complain effectively,” says Guy Winch, Ph.D., and author of The Squeaky Wheel. “We’ve lost a sense of what complaining is for; instead, we use it as an exercise for venting and that has consequences.”
Stating needs and expressing emotions is not the same as complaining. Complaining is the expression of powerlessness that blames others, or events, without accepting the situation and responsibility to make things better. If you make your feelings someone else's fault, you are complaining. If your needs aren't met because someone else is wrong, you are complaining.
"We all need to feel seen, heard, and understood. There’s nothing wrong with sharing our feelings about what’s been hard for us; that helps us let go of them and move on," says author and Clinical Psychology from Columbia University, Dr. Laura Markham. "[but] It can become a habit; the story we tell about our lives. 'You won’t believe how awful my day (week, year, life) has been.'”
Everyone complains, but chronic complainers focus on setbacks over progress, they repeatedly mull over problems and never seem to be satisfied. The process becomes habitual. Complaining and complainers come in three main types.
The Active Effective Complaint
The least utilized, but the most constructive form of complaining is known as the “instrumental complaint” or "The Active Effective Complaint."
People do this when they want to solve real problems. The focus of the complaint is on the impact of the issue, the importance of change, and creating a cooperative plan for reform. For example, you don't say, "I can't believe you charged all that crap on our credit card." You say, "Honey, we don't have enough money to pay this month's credit card bill, this can't keep happening, what should we do?"
The dissatisfied person lodges an active complaint at a specific event, situation or service. The complainer makes a statement to the responsible party explaining how expectations were not met. The “active complainer” generally has self-esteem, confidence, and enough assertiveness to effectively ask for and obtain what they want.
Then you have the "ventors." We all do it, and it has both positive and negative aspects. Venting is the expression of emotional dissatisfaction, and in small doses, it can relieve pressure and occasionally lead to problem-solving. Unfortunately, it usually ends up with us feeling 10 to 12 times more aggravated, which floods our bloodstream with cortisol, the effects of which we will get to in a bit.
When a person vents about a distressing situation to like-minded individuals, it can relieve anger and frustration, there is even potential for it to evolve into a brainstorming session that results in decisive action, but that is not the "ventor's" real agenda.
The main reason we vent is to gain attention and sympathy from our confidantes. "Ventors" are focused on their own, at least perceived, negative experience and they will likely discount any advice or solutions presented to them. At that moment they are not looking to solve anything; they just want validation.
So, venting is ok, unless it is overused. Constant venting with no course of action can turn into whining, and that can be as infectious and destructive as a virus.
The Ineffective Complaint
Next up is "The Ineffective Complaint," and this is the one you really should try to avoid.
The subject of an ineffective complaint often concerns a condition which the complainer has little or no control over. However, by complaining about it, you gain a temporary false sense of control and mastery.
Discussing world events and complaining about them is not the same thing. Honestly, complaining about the world's problems around the dinner table will do nothing to change their course, they can, however, impact your family's sense of security and well being. People, especially kids, need hope. Ineffective complainers often set their expectations very low. If you see the glass as half-empty, it protects you from disappointment. Ineffective complaints are not lodged necessarily to change a situation as much as they are to create or validate a mental state, which can lead to self-sabotage.
In this scenario, you assert specific complaints in a way that almost guarantees your needs will not be met. The recipient may often feel like you are looking for an argument that you don't expect to win, rather than resolve a complaint. Ineffective complainers, if you have kids insert their name here, use tactics that put people on the defensive. They may behave childishly, make unrealistic demands or choose to express the complaint at an inopportune time. Then when they don’t get their way, the belief that they can never get satisfaction is reinforced.
They are now the victim and can go vent to their friends about it. It can become a vicious, self-indulgent and destructive cycle. We use to outgrow this. Now society seems to be wallowing in it.
Health professionals believe that constant complaining can be damaging to your health and the health of those around you. They advise that you strive to complain only when it can affect real change and that you limit your exposure to other complainers. They also recommend that you consider affirmation or another strategy that may work better.
Rewire Your Brain Not to Complain
There is science behind the parables that being negative or positive is a state of mind. On the website Curious Apes, Steven Parton quotes a phrase used by his AI professor to explain it like this. "The synapse that fire together wire together."
Your brain is filled with synapses separated by empty space called the synaptic cleft. When you have a thought, one synapse shoots a chemical across the cleft to another synapse, building a bridge the thought can cross in the form of electricity. Every time this electrical charge is triggered, the synapses grow closer together. The shortened distance form a stronger bond. So the more you think about something, the easier it is to think that way.
Parton says it can, "come to represent your default personality: your intelligence, skills, aptitudes, and most easily accessible thoughts (which are more-or-less the source of your conversation skills)."
Add this to the fact that people tend to do the most complaining when they are stressed and anxious, and you now have to worry about the chemical environment your body is repeatedly being placed in when encased in constant complaints and negative settings.
In the past, the stress hormone, cortisol, has been described by Psychology Today as public health enemy number one. An article published on the site in 2013 states that:
"Scientists have known for years that elevated cortisol levels: interfere with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density, increase weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease... The list goes on and on. Chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels also increase the risk of depression, mental illness, and lower life expectancy. [In 2013], two separate studies were published in Science linking elevated cortisol levels as a potential trigger for mental illness and decreased resilience — especially in adolescence."
Continually heighten levels of cortisol, the fight or flight hormone, secreted by the adrenal glands are also linked to anxiety. Given the broadly negative social landscape of America these days it is not surprising that a study released in February by the Pew Research Center states that anxiety and depression are on the rise among America’s youth and, whether they personally suffer from these conditions or not, seven-in-ten teens today see [anxiety and depression] as major problems among their peers. It doesn't matter where they live, what race they are, or how much money they have, teens across all demographics say this is a significant issue in their community.
In the same month, a Gallup poll came out that states that the percentage of young Americans that have no formal religious identity is also on the rise. Conversely, according to Gallup, those that identify themselves as Christian is on the decline and decreases with each progressively younger age group.
There is at least some reason to believe that this decline of religious identity is impacting the resilience of America's youth and allowing for increases in their anxiety.
Resilience and Religion
"Resilience is the capacity to recover from adversity and pursue your goals despite challenges. It helps you survive the worst day of your life and thrive every day of your life,"says psychologist and New York Times best-selling author, Rick Hanson. "The harder a person’s life , the more challenges one has, the less the outer world is helping, the more important it is to develop inner resources."
Complaining is not an inner resource, spirituality is, and for many it is a powerful source of hope. Doctors say that hope is a critical part of the human experience and necessary for a high quality of life. One way people develop inner resources like resilience and hope is by being part of a strong faith-based community.
At the end of January, the Pew Research Center released an analysis of survey data from the United States and more than two dozen other countries that found that people who are active in religious congregations tend to be happier and more civically engaged than either religiously unaffiliated adults or inactive members of religious groups.
In the U.S., being active in a religious community is tied to increased measures of health, happiness, and civic engagement. According to the survey, actively religious people are more likely to engage in other types of groups, and they are also more likely to vote.
According to the study, friendship networks fostered by religious communities create an asset that scholars call “social capital.” Having a sense of purpose, and belonging that can also make it easier to find jobs and build wealth are all benefits of this "social capital."
In other words, those who are active with a house of worship may have better resilience and hope as they have more people to draw support from in both good and bad times. They also have stronger inner coping mechanisms because their faith gives them hope and fellow parishioners reinforce positive health behaviors while deterring negative ones. Couple that with the sense of community gained through positive social activity and you have a time tested winning recipe.
The study also sites researchers that argue that the virtues promoted by religion, such as compassion, forgiveness and helping others, may improve happiness and even physical health when put into practice. It sites that psychological well-being can benefit from belief in the divine because it helps people deal with stress caused by difficult life events.
Therefore, in times where stress and frustration are on the rise, I don't think it is helpful that the next generations are abandoning one of the proven ways we have of dealing with those conditions. Complaining about it sure isn't helping and becoming a nation of chronic complainers is making it worse.
Finding fault in every situation, and in every person that dares to have a varied world view eventually drains your life of pleasure. In short, it's depressing because you are left feeling hopeless.
There is never one cure all solution, but perhaps we should at least try some time test and scientifically backed advance. Do what my parents have always told me to do, stop complaining and go to church.
Agree or disagree, it's okay, I'm Gist Say'n.