Complaining won’t make you more satisfied with life but it can make you happier, argues Mariana Alessandri, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Texas-Pan American.
Alessandri revives an important distinction between satisfaction and happiness, first stated by John Stuart Mill. Satisfaction is the physical sense of having our needs met while happiness is motivated by the intellect. “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied,” said Mill.
Complainers are often chided because their negative emotion won’t change anything for the better. Complaining about cold weather, for example, isn’t going to make things warmer. True, says Alessandri, but complaining does help us process our negative emotion about the weather.
And complaining is an important social tool. When we state the difficulty and stupidity of the world, we are stating it to somebody, asking them to participate in our assessment of the moment. Alessandri, who is also a New Yorker, writes:
“A funny complaint from the person next to me can quickly lighten my mood, and hers. But the possibility of someone’s being a happy complainer gets lost when we equate dissatisfaction with unhappiness.”
As polymath Peter Baumann explains in his Big Think interview, humans possess a “uniqueness bias” that makes us think that we are truly special. When we are inconvenienced by life—being stuck at a traffic light or suffering a long wait in a line—we complain. Our shared sense of entitlement demands that we be treated specially.