Choosing between complaining, giving gratitude, or empathy

Hopefully, by now you’ve seen the (in my opinion) wonderful satirical “42 reasons The  Netherlands is the Worst Place on Earth.” I found it super refreshing, needed reminders of things I appreciate about my adopted country, yet sometimes lose sight of.

Perhaps it has mostly to do with the long dark winter, but just about every February, I notice I’m seeing things around me more as glass half-empty than glass half-full. I also hear quite a bit of what I call “a complaint culture” around me. It’s actually everywhere no doubt, and depending on my own state of mind, I notice it sometimes much more than others. And I get caught up in it myself sometimes without even noticing.

So why do we complain?

My guess is that most people don’t realize how often they complain because it has become a subconscious habit. I imagine that some think it’s a good conversation starter because it can be a relatively easy way to find common ground with others.  It also strikes me that we complain because we want validation, maybe even sympathy for our beliefs – to know we are not alone with them.

complaintWhat I’ve come to understand is that complaints are actually a negative way of communicating a longing! In fact, it’s
just the other side of the same coin as giving gratitude. Both say something about what’s very important to us.

Here’s an example . . .

For context, I’m from a “customer-is-king” culture and am completely surprised, confused, and put off when I’m confronted with anything different. Here are my two sides of the coin, both of which I’ve uttered recently:

Complaint: “I cannot bear to call another customer service line only to be treat rudely – they’re supposed to be helping me, not cutting me off and talking right over me!”

Gratitude: “I was helped by someone today who really listened and assisted me. I felt like a valued customer, and I will definitely go back to them!”

In both situations, what’s driving me is a longing to be heard, understood, and receive support. When I can focus on THESE things, there’s no good vs. bad lens – there’s just self-awareness and drive to find other ways to get these needs met. We call this empathy.

Project Happiness, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering people with the resources to create greater happiness within themselves and the world, recently put out a 21-Day Happiness Challenge. Day 5’s call to action grabbed my attention:

For the next 24 hours, replace complaining with appreciating. If you catch yourself starting to complain, immediately give yourself a moment of appreciation. Then watch how your life changes. Remember: Complaining is draining, appreciating is invigorating. The choice is yours…


In my household, we made this a resolution for 2015, and it’s pretty amazing how an atmosphere of positivity is growing. And yet, it’s not always easy! We slip up often and let the complaints roll. It’s a part of life, so we try to not be hard on each other. Instead, we try to remember to make guesses as to what might be behind the complaint – the longing. Here’s an example:

“So you wish the recycling bin didn’t overflow on a regular basis, and you’d love for someone to take care of it today?”

Try it out for yourself—less complaining, more gratitude, more empathy about what’s wanted by the complainer—even if just for one hour and let me know what you notice!

Cara Crisler
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