The Fallacy of Inaction

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A deep breath pulls in crisp, clean air; every tree is perfectly accentuated with pure white snow, branches laden with sparkling icicles that fragment the sun’s rays into perfect rainbows over a shimmering snowy field.  A perfect winter morning for a serene walk to the bus.  A man in a neighboring seat spends the 20 minute commute on the phone finding everything wrong with the bus, from the gum on the window to the texture of the seats.  The bus doors open to a wall of biting cold and a puddle of grey sludge on slick, icy asphalt; the glare on the snow is blinding.  Exchanges like this happen far too often; people complain about small issues, and larger, more important things are obscured.  The grey sludge was always on the road and the air was always cold, but before the man started complaining, the true majesty of winter was apparent, and more worthy of attention than its slightly inconvenient side-effects.  People should strive to take positive action on important issues rather than complain about small problems, in order to be happier, reduce health risks, and increase productivity.


People are happier when they take positive action rather than idly complaining. Putting in the time and energy to make a change and think about better alternatives to the status quo yields a sense of purpose and satisfaction. An infuriatingly familiar example of this concept is a filthy environment.  Surely, at some point everyone has experienced coming home from an exhausting, stressful day, only to be met with a foul odor upon opening the door.  Maybe the cat decided the floor was her litterbox.  Maybe some milk was left out on the counter.  Maybe the dog knocked over the garbage can and the week old banana peel is now lying on the kitchen floor.  Either way, the suffocating, sickening stench is simply the despicable cherry atop a repulsive sundae of rogue laundry and never ending clutter.  Most likely, the natural reaction to this is to clear a spot to collapse, cry, and complain about the absolutely unacceptable conditions.  Unfortunately, this does not resolve the dilemma. Tomorrow the stench will be just a little bit worse, tomorrow the stain will be just a little harder to clean, tomorrow will have just a few more things to complain about, tomorrow will be just a little bit more of a mess than today.  What if instead of idle complaint, the habitual reaction was to immediately find the source and clean it up.  Resolving the issue spurs a distinct sense of accomplishment, and the smell is gone, and tomorrow will be odor free, and the satisfaction brings happiness.  The happiest people avoid wasting time with negativity, and take action instead.  An article from the Huffington Post reports that “exceptionally happy people are busy making their goals come true. They understand that spending time debating and arguing with others takes them away from what they care about most...” (Kaiser).  It only makes sense that truly happy people spend their time and energy doing things that make them feel content and satisfied, rather than constantly allowing themselves to be consumed by negativity.  Would mixing dark paints yield a light, bright color? No.  In order to have light paint, the constituents cannot be primarily dark, just as in order to be happy overall, a person must not fill their mind with negative thoughts.  Unfortunately, complaining is a negative spiral, and the more a person complains, the harder it is to think positively.  Marie Pasinski, a neurologist, writes that over time, dwelling on positive thoughts and emotions while consciously attempting to address and move on from negativity will strengthen positive neurological infrastructure—making positive thoughts more natural—and weaken negative thought transmitters with disuse (Pasinski).  While neuroplasticity can turn chronic negativity into depression, it has a beneficial effect on perpetually positive people.  Intentional optimism leads to natural optimism, so if one continues to consciously be positive, those neurological transmitters strengthen exponentially and the person continues to become more and more optimistic.  In addition to the psychological benefits of positivity, optimism is beneficial to physical health.
Habitual positive thinking increases physical health and well-being.   Therefore, by taking positive actions and maintaining a careful aversion to complaints, a person can live longer, happier, healthier, smarter, better. For example, 2007 study from the Harvard School of Public Health, “found that emotional vitality—a sense of enthusiasm, of hopefulness, of engagement in life, and the ability to face life’s stresses with emotional balance—appears to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease” (Rimer).  Does anyone want coronary heart disease? No. Does everyone want to live a happy life? Of course.  Hopefulness and enthusiasm is a step towards both of these goals; simply making a point to limit complaints and increase positive thinking lowers risk for heart disease.  Furthermore, the University of Wisconsin reports that “the activation of brain regions associated with negative emotions appears to weaken people's immune response to a flu vaccine” (Goode).  If nagging, nasty, nugatory, negative thoughts can lead to the flu and weaken the immune system, why does anyone cling to constantly complaining as a lifestyle?  Complaining does not actually resolve any problems, so continually dwelling on aggravating aspects of life increase stress, and can lead to chronic stress issues (Green).  Research published in the Journal of Neuroscience explains, “A growing body of evidence has demonstrated that chronic stress can cause hippocampal damage” (Vyas).  The hippocampus is a part of the brain that is largely responsible for emotion regulation and long term memory; complaining—and thereby stressing—excessively can hinder both of these functions as well as impair the ability to adapt to new situations.  Better health and a more optimistic mindset pave the road for more productivity.


Taking positive actions to change something is more productive than complaining about minor problems. If a person focuses on one issue they are passionate about and comes up with solutions, they have the potential to carry out those plans and make a change to improve their community. However, for most people this rarely happens, as they get bogged down in a multitude of other issues they either cannot—or lack the passion to—fix.  As Guy Winch of Psychology Today explains that people “associate the act of complaining with venting far more than [they] do with problem solving. As a result, [people] complain simply to get things off [their] chest, not to resolve problems or to create change, rendering the vast majority of [the] complaints completely ineffective” (Winch).  This ineffective complaining gets nothing done, whereas taking a concrete action in order to make a positive change or resolve the issue has a clear impact.  Everyone remembers some time in school growing up when the teacher misses class and assigns some tedious busywork that means nothing and does nothing to further the student’s education.  For the most part, the reaction to this is utter frustration and defiance; too much busywork and a student can end up believing that school is a waste of time rather than a priceless opportunity.  Natural aversion to time wasting is not left behind in the classroom, and continues to influence people throughout their lives.  If a person dedicates a significant portion of their time to complaining and get no results, they will inevitably become frustrated and think of life as more of a time filler and less of an invaluable opportunity.  Research from both Hiroshima University and the University of Muenster finds that “exposure to negative words impairs the formation of memory associations critical to productive work” (Arnold).  What seems like innocent banter is not only wasting the time of those speaking, but distracting and slowing down everyone within earshot.  In the same way breathing in secondhand smoke can cause severe damage to a non-smoker's lungs, constant complaints can drag down a previously thriving group, and make everyone less productive, thereby creating more things to complain about and fanning the wildfire of pessimism.


Complaining does have many merits; voicing negative opinions is how change is made.  While this is true—in order for a problem to be resolved, it must be identified—there is a distinct difference between constructive complaints and a poor attitude.  Complaining can be extremely helpful if it serves a goal, and is intended to identify a problem so it can be fixed.  Unfortunately most complaining is done for the purpose of venting, and sharing feelings of irritation.  For example, if a product is unsatisfactory, 95% of the population will complain to friends or family instead of contacting the company (Winch).  This ineffective complaining does little to enact change, and constantly whining about minor issues with no real purpose is the behavior that leads to unhappiness, increased risk for health issues, and minimal productivity.


Everyone wants to be happy, healthy, and helpful, but chronic complaining and negativity directly hinders all of these goals.   A negative thought stream paints reality in the dark colors of negativity and discontent, along with literally rotting the brain and hindering the productivity of the speaker, as well as everyone within earshot.  Fortunately, editing perspective is possible.  Begin by identifying the one thing that is ineffectively griped about the most, and then decide to not say another word about it again. Focus on this one topic, and complaining in other aspects of life will naturally reduce on its own.  Dousing the wildfire of pessimism may be challenging, but the difficulty of the journey pales in the light of the radically increased quality of life, health, and productivity that come with a lifestyle of positive action and realistic optimism.






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