Kvetching for Better Health

Are you tired of being told to look on the bright side? Of smiling when you feel like crying? Of saying, "It's okay," when really, it's not? Well, at last someone understands.

Barbara Held, Ph.D., author of "Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching: A 5-Step Guide to Creative Complaining," thinks Americans are ready to rise up against what she calls the "tyranny of the positive attitude." While not advocating that everyone become a pessimist, she believes people can and should have the opportunity to "kvetch" (Yiddish for complain) when they feel like it—and feel okay about it.

"I'm arguing that pressure to pretend you're okay when you're not, and pressure to be optimistic when you're not feeling that way, can be harmful," Held says. "I think it can be helpful in our culture to have a little more space for people to feel bad, because life is hard. People shouldn't have to feel guilty when they can't smile and have a nice day."

Held stresses that she has nothing against happiness, optimism, or even looking on the bright side. "What I'm against is pressuring people to pretend to be okay when they're not," she says. But she realizes that complaining can drive people away in a culture that tends to label expressions of pain as "negativity."

Creative Kvetching

Held invented the term "creative kvetching" to describe complaining that not only makes you feel better, but helps your listener empathize, thus reducing the number of "cheer up, things could be worse" platitudes.

"Creative kvetching is about connecting with someone when you're in pain so you're not so alone," Held says. "There is evidence in the psychological literature that if you can express in words what is wrong with you, it helps you think about it in new ways, it helps you reorganize it and to get unstuck."

Her five steps are:

1. Your Inalienable Right to Kvetch

"In America, in the Land of the Positive Attitude, I invite people to recognize that life is hard for everyone, at least some of the time," Held says. "Just because your problems are not as bad as someone else's doesn't mean you don't have the right to feel bad or experience pain and express that in appropriate context."