If I tried to scroll back even a week in the WhatsApp window on my laptop, I would get RSI, but I don’t need to do that to know how much complaining it contains. It’s at least 88% complaints by volume. In chats with my best friend alone, a search revealed 27 uses of “I hate” last month, 12 of “tired” (surprisingly low!), plus various rants, whines, expletives and nonsense utterances representing general malaise.
It’s me more than her: I tallied up everything I said out loud to myself for a week earlier in the year and it was like Brian Cox in Succession fighting with Eeyore. I’d love to be a labrador puppy, spreading joy, but I fear I’m a morose little squid, squirting murky negativity ink over everyone. My friends complain a decent amount, too – we wouldn’t be friends if they didn’t – and I’ve been wondering for a while whether all the moaning serves us well, or makes us feel worse.
This came to a head recently when I discovered the concept of “negativity friendships”: bonds formed around a shared dislike of something or someone. In the Atlantic article where I read about it, the writer had joined an online group for dog haters, united by a shared loathing of slobber, hair and owner idiocy, but gradually became concerned that the group was making her even more disgusted by – and scared of – dogs.
Apparently we are wired to see a shared dislike as an opportunity to bond. Research in 2006 found that people see greater friendship potential in others who shared their negative, rather than positive, opinions. “It’s not that we enjoy disliking people,” said Jennifer Bosson, one of the research team. “It’s that we enjoy meeting people who dislike the same people.” There is something very special in meeting the exasperated, just-rolled eyes of a stranger across a crowded room where some blowhard is talking utter nonsense; it can be as heady as romantic love at first sight.
This is sort of comforting, as was my realisation that several of my chat correspondents aren’t just friends. We’re mainly home-workers and that means we’re sort of colleagues, too. Surely we can agree that work friendships are mainly characterised by negativity? No one is on the Slack channel bursting with joy about deadlines, team meetings or the annual appraisal process, and if they were, you wouldn’t want to hang out with them. The bleakest, loneliest stretch of my working life was the six months during which I shared an office with a relentlessly upbeat and generous man who saw good in absolutely everyone (and you had to be a bloodhound for positivity to find anything pleasant to say about several of our colleagues). Given that my friends and I are each other’s de facto workmates, it makes sense that there is a fair amount of venting, and that’s probably healthy: research shows “griping and joking” in a work context helps teams bond.
But if we weren’t colleagues, would it matter? That’s trickier to work out. When I tried to investigate online if being relentlessly downbeat and moany with my mates might be OK, I was hampered at every turn by the stridently SEO-enabled positivity industry, strongly advising them to cut my bad vibes out of their lives. Scratching around, some psychologists say “expressive complaining” – venting – can be beneficial, and not acknowledging and sitting with your emotions falls under the heading of “experiential avoidance”, which is definitely bad: you’ve got to feel the (negative) feelings, and no one could ever accuse me of bottling them up, at least.
This felt like slim pickings, so for a more reliable source of gloom-enabling, I turn to my safe space: WhatsApp. “Do you think we have a negativity friendship?” I asked my best friend. She said she didn’t think so. “We are just very clear about the reality of things.” Then we both agreed our friendship is above all deeply, non-judgmentally supportive. To be seen and accepted at your sulky, self-pitying, irrationally angry or unfair worst, and to be trusted with someone else’s worst self in return, is precious and we’re both grateful for that. It’s probably the most positive thing we’ve put on the chat in months.
• Emma Beddington is a Guardian columnist