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Always look on the bright side of life. Optimists – it is claimed – live eight to nine years longer than pessimists. Is that our cue to kill the grumble monster? Not so fast, says Louisa Bartolo
“History has made the Maltese a nation of pragmatists and realists; they grumble about trivialities on a day-today level as a matter of course but shine in the face of true adversity.” Whatever we might think of the latter part of this statement – it’s from an article by a certain Greg Cook with the title “Little Britain: A Guide to Visiting Malta” – there is little doubt that we love to grumble and moan.
Even the Maltese word for grumbling – “tgergir” – is a brilliantly onomatopoeic word. The harsh “g” sounds mimic the grating of the teeth while its singular “tgerger” gives you that repetitive – almost droning – sound that accompanies a good grumble.
Human beings in general spend an awful lot of their time grumbling. We grumble about growing old, about not winning the lottery, about not having children. Much of our complaining may in fact be based on misperceptions of what would make us happy, says assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School Ronald D. Siegel. He points to numerous studies showing that older people actually have many more moments of happiness than do younger ones, that parents don’t report feeling any happier when looking after their children than when they’re doing other things and that one year after they hit the jackpot, lottery winners were no happier than those who hadn’t won.
Siegel suggests, rather gloomily, that we may not have evolved to be happy. Many of the mechanisms that help us survive: like remembering things that went wrong in the past, anticipating what might go wrong tomorrow, all contribute to our unhappiness. Plus there’s what he calls “the hedonic treadmill” – we achieve or gain something which we believe will radically improve our lot but eventually become used to it and it stops being a source of happiness. Invariably, it seems, we are destined to grumble.
While everyone loves a good grumble, it’s also true that grumbling and a kind of negative disposition are more commonly associated with Europeans than Americans.
In the land of opportunity, of doing rather than reflecting, the key to success, it is believed, lies in being optimistic. It’s unsurprising that a now rather thriving branch of psychology – positive psychology – grew up in America.
Its proponents say that “gratitude” – the appreciation of what we have – the apparent antithesis of grumbling – is one of the five paths to happiness.
And if you needed an incentive to kill the grumble monster here’s one: it turns out optimistic people live between eight and nine years longer than pessimists. That’s according to pioneer of Positive Health Dr Martin Seligman of Pennsylvania who believes that being a pessimist is about as bad for you as smoking three packets of cigarettes a week. Ryan T. McKay of Oxford University and Daniel C. Dennett of Tufts University among others have argued that medically, an even at times unrealistic optimism in the face of adversity can yield significant health benefits.
It’s interesting that the Maltese word for “moan” – “teqred” – also means to destroy. While positive psychologists have not gone so far as saying that grumbling can literally destroy you (although its concomitant pessimism apparently can) – there is the very real sense amongst its key proponents and many lay people that grumbling or moaning is a destructive or at the very least unconstructive activity.
In fact, the idea underlying positive psychology is not just that there are health benefits to optimism but that optimism reaps all kinds of successes in the real world.
The suggestion is that there are two types of people: the pessimistic moaners and the optimistic doers.
It’s easy to buy into: just think of all those perpetual grumblers you know – constantly berating everything but taking no action. Armchair warriors, olympic gold complainers, critics who seem to enjoy picking things apart and watching them as they lie scattered across the floor.
It’s true, spending your entire day complaining about the Arriva buses with a total stranger on the bus stop is unlikely to bring about a complete overhaul in the public transport system and it’s certainly true that grumbling is sometimes nothing more than an act of cowardice by those too afraid or lazy to bring about or at least demand real change.
Still, making people believe that their grumbling is the result of a “pessimistic disposition” rather than real social, political or economic injustices is just as likely to discourage change. It’s worth remembering that the most successful dictators didn’t simply ban elections but imposed an extensive network of spies that made people afraid to grumble everywhere and anywhere – including in the supposed safety of their own homes.
There’s a Chinese proverb that says it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness. It makes perfect sense except that I feel it lacks a little nuance. In reality, there are plenty of examples of people sitting in a dark room who neither curse the darkness nor light a candle and instead accept darkness as part of the natural order of things or wait for someone else to kick up a fuss. That’s arguably as bad as s incessant grumbling… in fact it might just be even worse.
Illustrations by Mark Scicluna