The culture of complaint and the case for optimism

This column first appeared in the June 2016 All Month edition of the Friday AM

I have started reading a book called The Rational Optimist. I am optimistic that I will finish it. Given the twitterverse of 120 character defining statements on all matters of global importance, it’s no small accomplishment to read, never mind write, a book of 500 pages. 

 
The author, Matt Ridley’s thesis, near as I can tell, is that a good case can be made to embrace optimism if you look at the facts over time. He had me at the opening chapter which I did manage to finish. I invite you to check it out. 
 
The part of our caveman brains that still remain in us all wants to believe that the next fire, flood, famine or sabre tooth tiger attack is imminent. And that stress level is not good for the humans. Not good at all. It leads to terrible outcomes; fear, anxiety and worse, bad decisions, especially in the public realm. Truth is, we are very fortunate to live where we do. It’s not unreasonable to state that Canada, and especially British Columbia, have one of the world’s best public service sectors. To say nothing of the strength and commitment of our volunteer and non-profit sector who work tirelessly to promote community, safety, sports, the arts and protect the disadvantaged. They need our support, not our complaints.  
 
So often we react rather than act. This is wrong, this is bad, this won’t do; we are increasingly fond of saying. I’ve seen some terrible and terribly disturbing examples in the public sphere of late. And I have one thing to say. Hold on a minute. Where is the optimism? 
 
Terrible things happen to your brain when you complain. Your nervous system is flooded with cortisol. It’s bad for your blood pressure. It’s bad for your heart. It’s bad for your health. And it rarely improves the situation. Resist the temptation to complain, if not for you, then for those who surround you. Research suggests that the culture of complaint is contagious. When you complain, those around you suffer and react too. 
 
A wonderful thing happens to your brain when you embrace optimism. Dopamine. Say it with me. Do Pa Meen. It’s good for your blood pressure. It’s good for your heart. It’s good for your health. And from it, comes the best ideas, the best intentions and the best outcomes. 
 
I’ll remind you that the Wright Brothers, bicycle builders who wanted to make something fly, could have complained about the buckets of money poured into maned flight by the US government to a competing group. The Wright Brothers were not remembered for their complaints. They were remembered for their accomplishments. If you had a choice, which would you prefer?
 
But in order to make it work, I suggest we need to do some heavy lifting just as the Wright brothers did despite the odds. It’s easier than ever to complain. Social media has been taken by some as a free ride to complaintville. But, if you follow my drift, that’s a one way ticket. nobody, not even you, can afford. 
 
First step. Breathe. In through your nose, out through your mouth. Say no to complaint. Say yes to solutions. It’s not an easy task but it’s an important one. You can do it. I am optimistic. 
 
Criticism is critically important. Of that there is no doubt. But criticism and complaint are two different animals. One is division (complaint) the other is constructive (criticism). Complaints are one-sided. Criticism necessitates a two-way conversation. Constructive criticism moves an agenda forward because it creates useful friction without which neither a car nor a bike, nor a human never mind an airplane for that matter, could move forward. 
 
The harsh truth is (not a complaint so much as an observation) that we don’t get that many chances to make a difference. If you find one, please use it. We all share the promise and potential of constructive criticism, conversation, discussion, debate and ultimately, positive change. 
 
As a final note, I admit, there can come some personal satisfaction, and even some odd fame (think Salmon Arm Salute) from the perfectly crafted single pointed finger of complaint. It’s important to remember, under all circumstances, without any doubt, that the real joy and possibility of making life better, comes from the lending of a whole hand.
Thanks for reading.
Louise
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