I recently had a milestone birthday, one I might normally have celebrated with a big party, friends, and family. But with COVID-19 protocols in place, my husband and I ordered a nice take-out dinner which we ate at home, just the two of us. The next day, my daughter, son-in-law, and two young grandsons visited. We all wore masks and ate at two different tables separated by more than six feet.
I almost let myself feel disappointment. I was tempted. Wow, it’s so easy to fall into self-pity, isn’t it? An organization called A Complaint Free World estimates that the average person complains aloud 15 to 30 times each day. That doesn’t count the negative comments we think. (Maybe those should be counted too. After all, isn’t thinking about another person when you’re married a type of cheating?)
I generally think of myself as a positive, upbeat person, relatively complaint free. Guess what happened when I started tallying each complaint I made on a normal day?
Maybe you can guess. I complained that the morning was once again smoky (fire season in California). I noticed that at least it wasn’t supposed to be really hot, like it was last week, and then complained about last week’s weather. I complained about some paperwork I needed to do. I complained about the traffic. I complained about being interrupted by a number of texts. I complained about my mosquito bites. I complained about how gray my hair is becoming. I complained about my knee pain. I complained that my husband forgot to do something he said he’d do. Every time I noticed, “Wow, I really complain a lot,” and vowed to stop, something else would grab my attention and I’d respond negatively.
When we complain, our brains release the stress hormone cortisol. Extra cortisol impairs our immune systems, making us more susceptible to illnesses, even heart disease, and stroke. Some studies suggest that the constant stress of complaining is linked to shrinkage in the hippocampus, a region of the brain that’s involved in emotional control, memory storage and recall, and learning.
So complaining damages our brains and makes us sick.
Why are we so prone to complaining? Sure, when I hear about something bad happening to someone else (a friend’s parents’ house was burned down over the weekend, an acquaintance needs surgery for thyroid cancer), I think, “I have NOTHING to complain about. Let me thank God for my good situation and pray for those poor people dealing with their afflictions.” And yet, very soon, I find myself complaining once again.
Can I do anything about that?
Here’s how I became complaint free.
Much of my complaining is because of unmet expectations. Somehow, I expect traffic to flow smoothly when I have to get somewhere, I expect that a certain issue will resolve itself quickly and with no hassle, I expect that people will always act kindly and rationally and be on time, and I never expect to be sick. It’s a challenge to proceed with no expectations, with an open mind and curiosity as to how things will unfold. It’s a rather Zen mindset, but it does take the pressure off. In my experience, it also let me see how much I worry about things going wrong and complain about things that haven’t even happened.
2. Let go of the past.
When someone or something doesn’t meet our expectations today, it’s so easy to dig up every past disappointment and complain about it. I’m guilty of this. But recycling old letdowns does nothing to help today’s situation. In fact, it can make it worse. And it’s really bad for relationships. Learn to stay in the present.
3. Remember it’s a habit.
Complaining actually changes our brain chemistry and structure. Our brains are efficient — they’re designed to make frequently repeated tasks easier to repeat again (like learning to play an instrument). When we constantly focus on problems, we train our brains to make future grumbling more likely, and our mindset more and more negative. This is definitely not the default pattern I want to live with.
4. Spend time with positive people.
Humans are social animals, which means we have a tendency to mimic those around us. Maybe you’ve noticed that if one person in a group starts complaining, it isn’t long before everyone adds their grievances. You can even see this behavior in people who regularly listen to negative news sources or talk show hosts. However, the same is true for positive comments. Like your Mama said, friends and what you read, watch, and listen to are strong influences — for bad or good.
5. Search for solutions.
Some things are out of our control, but not everything. When we constantly complain, we start to feel powerless. We nurture a sense of hopelessness and futility. That’s why ranting about a problem only leads to anger and exhaustion. Although I’ve done my fair share, complaining never solves a problem. It only keeps our eyes on what’s wrong with the world. It can be helpful to share struggles and heartaches, but not to wallow in them. It’s fine to notice a potential difficulty, but think of ways to deal with it rather than fretting about it. Take action to make a difference.
6. Practice gratitude.
It’s hard to feel joy when I’m focused on what’s not working. But just like complaining, happiness is a habit. An attitude of thankfulness stimulates the production of both serotonin and dopamine, improving mood, metabolism, and sleep. When you focus on what you’re grateful for, you actually crowd out negative thoughts and start noticing even more good things to appreciate. The practice of gratitude improves your life experience.
Today is a good day to stop complaining. It’s a good day to take the actions that will produce the changes I want. I don’t need a milestone birthday, designated holiday, pay raise, vacation, or gala celebration to give thanks or notice blessings. I can do it today and every day.
About the Author: Karen Trefzger is a writer, singer, teacher, wife, mother, and grandmother who has been choosing a simpler life for over 20 years. She is the author of Minimalism A to Z, and blogs at MaximumGratitudeMinimalStuff.