Mustn’t Grumble

25 Nov 2011

Happiness? Pah! There’s nothing like a good ol’ moan says Harriet Sinclair

I’ve always been slightly suspicious of people whose common response to the question ‘how are you?’ is ‘can’t complain’. I feel that if they thought hard enough, they probably could. There are plenty of things to feel unhappy about, so who are all these calm people? Where have they come from? And why aren’t they annoyed about anything?

In contrast, I find that there is something I can complain about in most situations. Perhaps I am channeling my inner toddler, or maybe I encounter more moanworthy situations that most people. The truth, I suspect, is that I am just a rather grumpy person.

I shout at Virgin radio, I moan at the cat, I am annoyed about the price of cabs, the sweaty Dubai temperature, the state of the economy and the fact that sometimes I have to queue up for longer than two minutes in Spinney’s. I express varying levels of irritation about issues great and small, and often find myself getting irate over things that, on reflection, I don’t care about at all: should a distant acquaintance have a birthing plan, can orchids re-bloom, Scarlett Johansson in general - all these topics mean nothing to me, and yet I could happily moan about them for hours.

As it turns out, I am not alone. A recent survey conducted by the University of Lancaster in the UK concluded that people love a good moan. According to the study of 4,000 people, we moan for an average of eight minutes per day. That’s a grand total of 2,920 minutes per year or, to put it into perspective, a full two days of the year that we waste complaining.

Pessimistic much?

While I doubt I’d spend my two moan-free days discovering the solution to world hunger or even the solution to The Times crossword, I suspect that there are better ways to spend my time than complaining about minor irritations - particularly when I discover that all this moaning could be bad for my health.

Dina Zalami, clinical psychologist at Life- Works Dubai explains, “Moaning is likely to reinforce any pessimistic tendencies we have and it can negatively affect our emotions, which in turn may negatively affect our attitudes and behaviours,” she says. “In fact, what we say out loud can have a strong impact on what we think and therefore what we feel.”

So while I do enjoy a good grumble, I decide it’s probably time to hang up my complaining hat and look on the bright side of life. So I attempt it, just for one week.

Day one goes rather well. I have an uneventful afternoon, complain about nothing and even smile indulgently at the parent whose child shrieks throughout my metro journey home. For nine stops. Seriously, nine.

During day two I deal with several irritating situations with an uncharacteristic level of calm, and begin to envisage myself as one of those happy, carefree folk you might see on The Waltons, or singing in the Austrian Alps. I am, I think, happy as I glide home swinging my bag, a bit like the Dalai Lama. Or at the very least that nun from The Sound of Music.

Unsurprisingly, my smugness is short-lived. On my fourth day, I come home to find that the small pile of washing up left in the kitchen in the morning has mated with a leftover pizza box and spawned a horrific amount of mess, no one has bothered to empty the bin, and the front door was left unlocked. Were we burgled? I honestly can’t tell you, given the amount of junk left all over the place.

Trying to be positive

This is prime grumbling territory for me; I hate mess - particularly when it’s not mine - and would usually see this as an opportunity to have a good old moan about the need for a cleaning rota, but Zalami says it’s important for negative thinkers to “reframe their perspectives and what they say about things in life”.

She explains: “Instead of saying ‘I hate my job’, one can say ‘I am hoping and looking to move on to a better job’. Changing the way one states their discontent changes how they feel about it. Instead of feeling deep frustration and a sense of helplessness in the first scenario, they may feel more hope and empowerment in the second scenario.”

Bearing Zalami’s advice in mind, I decide I’ll see my messy house as an opportunity to have a good tidy and work my arm muscles by taking out the (now overflowing) bin. And it works, it really does. That is until the bin bag breaks, along with my resolve.

I gripe about the bin, the mess on my shoes, the child on the train, the annoying meeting I had, the price of supermarket food, my annoying alarm clock, my neighbour playing loud music, in short - everything I’ve kept bottled up for the past four days. In fact, I’m so busy moaning that I fail to notice there’s no one to hear me but the cat.

He looks at me knowingly and proceeds to eat the contents of the bin. I call my best friend, who tells me she knew I’d crumble before the week was up, and my other half, who tells me to switch brands of bin bags.

One week and a ruined pair of shoes later, I have learnt that it’s unlikely I will ever stop moaning altogether, mainly because bottling it all up leaves me feeling as though my inner monologue has been hijacked by Jack Dee.

But it has made me think twice about when it’s necessary to voice my frustration. Bin juice on my shoes? Yes. Telling someone off for eating loudly? No. It turns out there are far better things to do with my time. At least, that’s what I’m telling people - the cat would say otherwise.