In his 1964 book Games People Play, psychiatrist Eric Berne describes what he calls the “Yes, but” communication pattern: First, one person states a problem. Next, another person responds by offering suggestions on how to solve it. The first then says, “Yes, but …” and proceeds to shoot down any solutions offered.
“Because [problem-solving] is not the purpose of the exchange,” Berne writes. “Its purpose is to allow the subject to gain sympathy from others in his inadequacy to meet the situation.” There’s even a name for this type of person in psychology circles: the “help-rejecting complainers.”
But research has shown that complaining, when done right, can also have its psychological advantages.
“Complaining allows us to achieve desired outcomes such as sympathy and attention,” says Robin Kowalski, a psychology professor at Clemson University. “The truth is, everybody does it.”
A recent study, published by Kowalski and her colleagues in the Journal of Social Psychology, examined relationships between mindfulness (focusing one’s attention on the present moment), happiness, and expressions of annoyance. The study participants, 410 male and female college students, listed the pet peeves they had with a current or former relationship partner. They also completed a questionnaire to measure their happiness, positive and negative affect, depression, mindfulness, relationship satisfaction, and overall life satisfaction. Those who complained with the hope of achieving a certain result, the study found, tended to be happier than those who simply did so for its own sake.