Everyone either knows a complainer or is a complainer. With the pressing issues facing our society, it’s easy to fall into complaining. However, complaining is not as innocent as it appears. In fact, according to a study from Stanford, complaining actually shrinks your brain! Complaining for 30 minutes or listening to someone else complain for that amount of time shrinks the hippocampus which is the area of the brain linked to problem solving.
If you want to make a difference in the world, I doubt you want to inhibit your problem-solving skills! Yet, we need to be good listeners, right? How do we find the balance of listening well while also protecting our own wellbeing and mental health?
Practice the art of solution-based thinking. Complaining is talking about your problems, while solution-based thinking focuses on what you can do about problems. Few of us were taught how to focus on solutions in our childhood. We know how to talk about what is wrong, but we don’t always focus on what we can do to make it right. The increasing conversations around emotional intelligence can make this process even more confusing. If we talk about why the problem is frustrating us or why we are sad about the problem, it can feel as if we are making attempts to solve the problem because we are putting energy toward the problem. However, we are not putting energy toward the solution or getting any closer to our goals.
Let’s imagine you notice trash at a local park. You start complaining that people should be more responsible, and people should take care of the park, and people should make better decisions. You complain to a friend about how upset you get when you see trash left in a stream and how mad it makes you that others do not care about the environmental impact. You might connect with the friend over the shared frustration, but you have now turned your energy toward your emotions rather than the practical problem of cleaning up the park. The problem you want to solve is having less trash in the park, not relieving your distress about people not taking care of the park. You spend 30 minutes complaining to your friends and not only is the park still filled with litter, your hippocampus has suffered as well. Venting can feel good for a moment because we feel understood and vindicated, but it’s just as important to protect our brains from trash as it is to protect our parks from trash.
It’s just as important to protect our brains from trash as it is to protect our parks from trash.
Now imagine you commit to solution-based thinking and you say something like “I’m really frustrated to see litter in the park.” Is there anything we can do to make it better? With solutions in mind, you say the following, “I noticed there were no trash cans in the area that had the most litter. Who can we talk to about getting a trash and recycling bin condo to better protect the park? I also want to talk to the mayor about the waste pickup schedule. If the waste baskets are full then people are more likely to drop their paper products and cans on the ground. If the waste baskets are emptied more often, I think we will see waste litter in the park.”
In the scenario above, you still practice emotional intelligence by acknowledging your frustration, but you don’t feed the emotions by focusing on them. You keep your focus on solutions that can impact the change you want to see. It is easy to complain about what other people should be doing. It’s frustrating when people don’t do what we think they should do. However, putting energy towards our emotional complaining not only hurts our brains, it also doesn’t get us any closer to our goals. Solution-based actions such as new waste bins and more frequent waste disposal in the park actually makes the world a better place, and less complaining makes our brain a better, more abundant place!