I’m a relentless optimism factory. I’m not sure how that happened, exactly, but I think it has a lot to do with having some very good things in my life.
I have two children — a boy and a girl. They’re smart and healthy and fun to hang out with. A couple times in my life, I’ve had really cool jobs. I have a new boyfriend who is smart, wise, gentle, emotionally available, creative and handsome. I have supportive parents who are educated, interesting and flexible, and they make it clear that they love me. I have the world’s best little brother. I’m reasonably healthy. I live in a happening town. I have a sweet, easy, adorable dog who — and this is important — doesn’t stink. I have sufficient mental health to function. I have wonderful, weird and witty and interesting friends. Heck, I have an iPhone. I’m a lucky girl.
The real luck here is I have a brain tuned toward gratitude.
Sometimes, I feel like complaining. Am I allowed to complain? I think in general people aren’t. Not really.
When my kids were little, if I complained about homework or youth sports or toilet training mishaps, I was admonished: Be grateful they’re healthy.
When I was going through a divorce, I said a few things about how sucky the whole process was, and how I was sad that the center of my life for more than a decade was going up in flames. Everyone was so surprised — and visibly uncomfortable.
When I had my first kick-ass post-newspaper job, and I griped about the workload, whined about boredom or said catty things about normal office things like loud chewing or slowpoke coworkers, I was admonished to shut my trap and be glad I was working.
Allow me to violate social mores: Screw that noise.
“Things could be worse” is always a safer bet than “things could be better.” We all know that. People blessed with a tendency to savor and be grateful tend to be happier. (My friend Ginny Sassaman can explain that better than anyone.) I just don’t think a clear-eyed view of where things are and what needs to be worked on precludes gratitude.
People learn to act tough. They learn not to discuss negatives. They learn to silence their complaints. Contrary to the evidence offered by my movie-watching habits, I’ve got two X chromosomes, so I see this from the female perspective. I don’t know why, and I’m sure there’s some super clever biological explanation, but I’ve noticed men fail to take women seriously when they sound like women. And the women I know sound very, very feminine when upset. Our voices get higher, softer and maybe wobble a little. So what if when I’m stressed I sound like your mom when she was about to cry — that doesn’t make it any less of a problem for the copy desk if the reporter won’t call me back. I learned to doggedly chase down whatever I needed at work without asking for help, because sounding like a whiny girl just made everything worse. Yay, me, right? Except working solo can yield sub-par solutions. (A legitimate complaint.)
It’s not like I think listening to complaining is awesome. My least favorite things on the Internet are those lists of things never to say: Ten things never to say to a parent, 20 things never to say to a cancer patient, a dozen things never to say to a single person … I get that the point is encouraging sensitivity, but it actively discourages communication.
A little complaining is, in my opinion, healthy. Remember all those studies that suggested Facebook makes us sad because it turns us into envious little cretins? That’s one good reason. Another reason, one I find significant, is that a complaint can focus attention. Worry may be useless, but figuring out what doesn’t fit and needs to be fixed is not. I’m not talking about blind panic, general malaise or whining so much as I’m talking about acknowledging what isn’t working. It can be a first step toward setting a goal.
But the real reason is that it lets people in. Sometimes that’s very uncomfortable. Complaining about a partner who almost invariably makes you happy can feel like a failure to honor the good times. Complaining about a job when you have unemployed friends feels insensitive. But letting the people we love know that sometimes the ducks stray from single file also lets the people we love know we need them. When I call my girlfriends to tell them I’m worried about my kids or freaked out about money, I’m telling them I’m human, I need them and that I’m a safe person to open up to. It’s hard to talk about our fears. It helps when someone you love and trust goes first, feels along the path a few feet ahead and promises to hold your hand when it gets steep. Friends, you know I’ll be calling you with my list, and I’ll be all ears if you have stuff to air. I’m happy when you’re happy, and I’ll be here when you aren’t.