“No whining unless you’re bleeding.” My dad used that phrase countless times when I was growing up and so did his dad when he was a kid. It’s probably the life lesson of which I’ve made the most use. I’m not impeccably stoic, of course. Life in America is better than it has ever been, we get to use mind-blowingly advanced technology to do just about anything we want, and we have solutions to many previously unsolvable problems — such as polio, Fermat’s last theorem and the lack of Oreos. And yet, most people still find reasons to whine. If our coffee is lukewarm, if the line at the bank is too long or if traffic is bad, we send off irate tweets, texts or status updates. As Louis C.K. so aptly put it, “Everything is amazing, and nobody’s happy.”
It’s useful to have my dad’s phrase in the back of my mind when I’m feeling particularly irritated. Nobody should have to care about the little problems that pop up here and there in my daily life. I should be able to fix them myself or just ignore them, rather than calling attention to them and thus making them worse. When every inconvenient experience is rehashed over and over again, they tend to get bigger and bigger. The more you complain, the more annoying the problem becomes, until it seems like the only thing you can do is complain more.
This doesn’t mean that we should bottle up our problems or refuse to talk to anyone who asks about them. Some problems are best solved together. That study shows that approaching an issue from multiple perspectives increases the number of possible solutions to it. Interestingly, English speakers and non-English speakers have different reasons for seeking out other viewpoints. We English speakers often want to confirm our own opinion, a logical fallacy known as confirmation bias; non-English speakers, however, usually want to get a better understanding of the problem. This duality points to an interesting cultural phenomenon. If we English-speaking Americans just try to find the viewpoints that match our own, we cement the problem in place in our heads without taking any steps to find other answers. This is, perhaps, why most complaining is so unilateral — when we rant about petty wrongs done to us, we just want people to agree that they’re unjust, not help us fix them.
Of course, there are problems big enough that “whining” is necessary. “No whining unless you’re bleeding” is not a literal instruction — If you’re seriously injured you should get help; the same is true for emotional pain and major life obstacles. The phrase has a second, implied meaning, which is that if you are in fact bleeding, asking for help doesn’t count as whining. Unfortunately, some people don’t see that, refusing to “whine” even when their problems are far larger than can be solved individually. Refusing to seek assistance — as in the case of addiction or depression — can be far more destructive than seeking it too much. A balance must be struck: If the problem is too big to solve alone, get someone to help you; if it’s a petty annoyance, don’t bring it up.
The fact is, the phrase is useful in a lot of different settings and a lot of different ways. Bad things happen when people complain. We get dumber and more likely to engage in the same behavior. Communication gets muddled when a discussion has to detour from the subject matter to explain personal aggravations. Besides the time wasted, bringing attention to unimportant issues derails important conversation, often bringing others’ minds back to their own small problems, which are then thrown into the mix. This half-empathetic, half-competitive instinct is destructive to meaningful communication and also self-destructive, because it offers no possible solutions to the problems, only making them seem bigger.
So what should we do instead of whining? The aforementioned article on the effect of complaints on the brain gives good solutions for dealing with others, but what should we do to turn our plaintive impulses into productive energy? The first step should always be looking for a solution. If your house is always dirty, clean it more. If your pants don’t fit, run more. If you always miss deadlines, start working earlier. All of these problems, and many other common ones, do have solutions — it’s just that we choose to use our time to discuss the problems instead of how to fix them.
Some problems don’t have easy solutions. The traffic in LA can’t be fixed by a good hard thinking session. But luckily, there are fixes in the works. Companies like Uber are working, perhaps indirectly, to reduce congestion; companies like Joulebug are doing so more intentionally. Elon Musk is doing his best to upend the gas industry. People everywhere are working to bring their solutions to life. If you have an idea about a way to make the world more efficient, step forward — there’s never been a better time for turning far-fetched ideas into realities. And remember — no whining.