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How to be happier one complaint at a time

Whining with a purpose leads to happier people, according to a recent study from The Journal of Social Psychology (paywall). Researchers determined that when people are mindful of when and how they complain, they're emotionally better off.

Mindfulness, or a person's commitment to be intentional about the present moment, enables an annoyed individual to get an emotional boost out of sharing their concerns because they identify how a complaint could lead to solutions, said study co-author Robin Kowalski to The Atlantic.

This kind of strategic complaining "is all about making the best choice, knowing when to complain and to whom," she said.

The study, which explored the interplay between happiness, mindfulness habits and communication about pet peeves, found that men and women who saw a purpose behind sharing their pet peeves were often happier than their nitpicking counterparts.

"The most effective type of complaining … takes place when the complainer uses facts and logic, knows what they want their desired outcome to be, and understands who has the authority to make it happen," The Atlantic reported. In other words, the complainer is not just whining for whining's sake.

This research echoed findings from psychologist Guy Winch, whose advice about effective complaining was featured in a January article from Fast Company.

According to Winch, Americans have "lost a sense of what complaining is for; instead, we use it as an exercise for venting, and that has consequences." Dwelling on problems floods the body with cortisol, the stress hormone, and wastes energy that could be put toward more productive habits.

Like Kowalski, he supported results-focused complaining, such as when people take their concerns with a company directly to customer service personnel, instead of first describing how they've been wronged to friends and family members.

The Atlantic's article also highlighted a different, more nuanced kind of purpose people find in complaints: the power to build their social identity. Mindful whiners can air their frustrations in order to control how they're perceived by others.

Members of this group might complain "as a means of crafting or reinforcing their identities; they use their complaints, in other words, to manipulate how others may see them," the article noted, offering the example of a diner who complains about a restaurant's wine list in order to show off their high standards.

In that way, complaining is like gossiping, which, as Deseret News National reported in November, helps people make sense of their social environment.

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com; Twitter: @kelsey_dallas