The positve mental attitude project: Could you quit complaining for 48 hours?

Like most of us, Charlotte Philby believed there wasn't anything wrong with the odd moan about life's little irritations. But would a challenge to quit complaining for 48 hours put a smile on her face?
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Indy Lifestyle Online

A t the start of the week, I was an upbeat, healthy young woman with a thirst for conversation. Now I am a venomous mute with a heart murmur and a scalded tongue. How has it come to this? Allow me to explain.

On Monday morning my editor asked me to get through two days without complaining. About anything. For 48 hours you shall desist from whining in any form, she said. It seemed a perfectly simple plan.

For two days I would live by the same rules laid down by two American bloggers, Hanna Rosin and Jessica Grose of DoubleX.com, who have made a public pact not to moan for an entire month, in response to a series of complaints from their respective partners about their whining.

Having accepted this challenge, I initally feel inspired by the prospect. Maybe I'll feel euphorically uplifted as a consequence? Perhaps my positive mental attitude will enrich the life of others, too? Maybe, in time, I'll become the type of person to have a bench on Hampstead Heath engraved: She bettered touched the lives of all who knew her".

I draw up a list of the sort of things likely to provoke complaint, so that I can avoid them. 'Group emails from unknown PR people addressed to boys and girlies, and signed off with three kisses', it begins. Then I realise that moaning about these emails is a favourite office activity, so rather than avoiding them, I decide I'll suffer them in silence. Next, there are traffic wardens and cyclists (if I'm I'm driving), and drivers (when I'm cycling), and Tube staff who make unneccessary announcements over the tannoy.

In fact, my first test arrives in the form of a call from a friend, demanding that I help her write a covering letter. I am about to explain that I can't possibly help her at this very moment as I have several looming deadlines, when I realise that it's no longer that simple.

But I do, at least, have the advice of Hanna Rosin to hand. She explains that there is an art to not complaining. Since taking on the project, she and Grose have been devising their own rules. While Rosin is banning herself from bitching and moaning, she explains, she permits herself the reasonable expression of genuinely negative circumstances in a clinical, straightforward tone. A term she has since coined the explaint.

Rather than getting home and saying 'I've got so much work to do, I'm going to die'," she says, "now I should say 'I have three things to do more than I am able to do, so maybe I can work this evening'. Despite a minor blip in the first week, when Rosin recalls venting her pent-up moans at her baby, the 39-year-old says that she has found the overall process helpful in teaching her to complain mindfully.

Good news for her, but it makes my efforts seem rather less purposeful. Does it not undermine the overall objective of a non-complaining project if you are still allowed, technically, to complain? It doesn't fit with my idea of an exercise designed to improve your mental attitude. Still, I give the explaint method a go with the letter-demanding friend.

Given the untimely nature of your call, I hear myself saying in an unfamiliar monotone, which conflicts with the set deadlines for my current assignments, I will be unable to assist on this particular occasion. She asks me if I'm feeling OK.

Switching my phone to voicemail, I head to the canteen for a cup of coffee. It is revolting, literally undrinkable. On any other day I would have a discreet word in the barista's ear, but I can't bring myself to make a formal announcement about the inadequacies of her beverage-making. Instead I dump the coffee in a bin out of sight and return to the office, mentally cursing my body's lack of caffeine. I had imagined that my abstinence from moaning would make me feel generally happier. But so far I'm distinctly less perky than usual.

Several hours later, my colleague Madeleine peers across from her desk: You're being very quiet over there, she probes. Everything okay? In the short time since I started this regime, I have already given up on talking because working out what I can and can't say is just too gruelling, and am unable to mutter a single word apart from fine. I have said fine so many times, in fact, that pronouncing the word now hurts my mouth. Now all I can do is grin.

I later find out that my frustrated reaction is perfectly reasonable. According to psychologist Emma Citron: One of the reasons we go to work is to socialise with colleagues; a major a part of the therapeutic is to have a good moan. Stran- gely enough, it is none of the things on the list of my regular moans which I find myself missing. It's smaller things, so inconsequential that I don't even realise they annoy me. Suddenly everything and everyone is worthy of a gripe.

By the time I get home, I have devised a mental list of people I hate: people who talk to friends on the Tube, people who travel alone on the Tube, people with brown hair, people who fill Evian bottles from the office water cooler, and people who wear jeans.

At home, my partner observes that I am quieter than usual; I fob him off and silently stew. By 11am the following day, I have become brooding, stressed and now have a scalded tongue, having knocked back six cups of coffee in an attempt to satiate my otherwise redundant mouth.

Citron is able to offer some words of comfort: moaning and complaining are actually vital bodily functions for cleansing the system, she says. Everyone needs to off-load their life experiences, positive and negative. Having a good complain is psychologically very healthy. Without these tools, you can suppress feelings of anger or simple annoyance, and these minor gripes inevitably brew and amplify internally, transforming even the most carefree person into a ball of rage.

Cognitive behavioural psychologist Dr George Fieldman offers me further enlightenment, by explaining the difference between positive and negative complaining. You have to look at whether vocalising your complaint enhances or detracts from your satisfaction, he says. Positive complaining might be eliciting support from your partner when you've had a difficult day.

That night, 12 hours short of my deadline, I decide to pack in the not complaining project, having already gathered sufficient evidence to know that it is not having a healthy effect.

The main flaw in enforced positivity is that it relies on the false notion that people who bitch and moan are negative souls who need to adjust their attitude. This is simply not true. While there are limits to how much one person can gripe before they become a draining misery-guts, releasing the occasional whinge does not make you negative per se. If anything it gets bad thoughts out of your system, making for an overall more upbeat personality.

This is why women meet up with friends and talk for hours about seemingly nothing, because – no matter how cheesy it may sound – you do inevitably feel better at the end of it. Also, how productive can it be to mentally cross-examine yourself every time you want to express a feeling about your experience of life? Zipping up and keeping a sunny demeanour going can simply you insular and introvert, and might, I sense, lead to a degree of paranoia.

But perhaps the most compelling argument against enfored cheeriness is one that we knew already. Is there really anyone more depressing in this world than someone who is constantly joyful? Exactly. I rest my case.

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