Added 26 September 2022

Complaining while on vacation – does that mean I’m unhappy?

When Professor Bogdan Wojciszke presented the results of his research on complaining at a scientific conference in Spain, representatives of various nations claimed it was about them. The only ones who did not consider themselves a complaining nation were Americans. And while we are not alone on this globe in complaining, we seem to be at the forefront.

Let’s look for a moment at two studies that seem to illustrate this phenomenon well. In the first, 30 respondents were asked for 65 consecutive days how they felt today in relation to their usual daily well-being. The respondents were given an 11-point scale spanning between a score of – 5 to + 5, where a negative score meant feeling much worse than usual, and a positive score correspondingly better than usual. Zero was to give the option of answering that “today I feel as I usually do.” After the survey was completed, all responses were averaged and a score of +1.2 was obtained, indicating that the subjects felt much better than usual during the survey.

About 60 years later, another 24 people were asked to participate in a very similar survey, this time the survey lasted for 100 consecutive days, and the respondents expressed their well-being on a 7-point scale: (1) clearly worse than usual; (2) worse; (3) rather worse; (4) same; (5) rather better; (6) better; (7) clearly better than usual.

After averaging the survey data, a score of 3.41 was obtained, indicating a mood clearly worse than typical. The study was first conducted by B.W. Johnson in the 1930s in the United States. The study is considered an exemplary demonstration of the so-called “positive effect” in research consisting in the phenomenon that subjects want to perform better in the study. This was later explained by the fact that such an inadequately positive perception of reality affects the motivation to take various actions, by subjectively raising the chance of success. This study has been repeated many times in different variations around the world with very similar results.

However, the second study seems to show that there is a place in the world where people are guided by quite different norms and value reality quite differently. This place was Poland of the late 1980s, and the author of the study was Professor Dariusz Dolinski. The results of this study began a scientific discourse on the phenomenon of the so-called “Polish culture of complaining.” Subsequent surveys conducted in our country in the 1990s of the twentieth century made it possible to gain a deeper understanding of this topic. In 1994, the survey included 1,050 people and in 1998, 1,067 people were surveyed. Both of these surveys focused on an important element of our complaining, i.e. the sense of wrongness. According to the survey results, only 16% of the 1994 and 30% of the 1998 respondents did not feel wronged by anyone in their lives. For this, the group of respondents included people who, from a list of “15 wrong-doers,” indicated as many as 13 sources of harm suffered in life.

In 2003, Professor Wojciszke published the results of a very interesting study related to the state of our complaining. In the study, participants were asked to justify their complaining. The first most common justification was “wanting to make things better for myself,” and the second was “wanting to relieve myself.” Both of these seem quite implausible, as it’s hard to expect that complaining about things like wages, prices or government was going to improve our situation in any way. On the other hand, research shows that complaining does not provide a sense of relief, and in fact worsens our subjective evaluation and well-being. So if both of these explanations are not true then it’s worth asking: why do we do it?

Professor Wojciszke’s 2003 study shows that after the age of 30 our tendency to complain increases dramatically, and no significant correlation was noted between our life situation (financial or health) and an increase in our tendency to complain. So we can conjecture that this is a tendency we simply acquire with age, heavily influenced by our surroundings. Since we are among people who complain we start doing it ourselves. Could it be that this is an adult initiation ritual based on the fact that since we want to be part of a group we have to show that we can conform?

In fact, Prof. Wojciszke’s research confirms this, as it turns out that in our country people who complain are perceived as smarter and more knowledgeable about reality, as opposed to people who affirm reality and are perceived as naive, childish and less insightful. Don’t want to be seen as shallow, naive and weird? Stop enjoying life, or at least don’t show it outwardly.

So since complaining has an important function in building relationships, let’s ask ourselves, what are we doing to ourselves with our complaining? What are its consequences?

  • First: self-presentation. Since I complain about others I can see and know the standards they don’t meet (and implicitly I do, of course). If I complain about other drivers I’m actually trying to show myself as that good, fair driving professional.
  • Second: complaining is an airbag – by complaining about ourselves, belittling our successes and criticizing our actions, we get ahead of potential implied criticism. By acting according to the maxim “no one criticizes me as much as I criticize myself,” we guard against potential attack. Entering a group of friends for a meeting, we can criticize our appearance, creation, etc. on good morning. – then no one will dare to say anything anymore….
  • Third: expressing anger, or rather – passive expression of anger. Anger as an emotion allows us to demonstrate dissatisfaction with some state of affairs, unfulfilled needs, overstepping boundaries, etc. If we do not express it in response to what we face, it will not disappear on its own, unfortunately. Unexpressed anger often transforms precisely into complaining.

So if you would like to try to stop complaining then you are in for quite a challenge. Complaining is common in our country and serves a very important social function, but for years there has been a growing adequate feeling that it doesn’t quite serve us.

Every change starts with the first steps. And what can be that first step of ours? We can learn to appreciate ourselves and be able to talk about it to other people. We can learn to deal with criticism and experience less discomfort with it. We can finally learn to set boundaries and express our anger appropriately. Shall we try?

Text: Michal Smialowski – psychologist, psychotherapist, trainer, expert at the Mental Health Center

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