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I was talking with a friend the other day and when I got off the call I felt a little ‘off’ and then I realised that, love her as I do, this friend had spent the whole call complaining about everything in her life from her family to the people she’d just encountered at the supermarket.

We all complain at times. Even me, but then I’m not complaining, I’m just making a point, right?

In 2007, Will Bowen wrote a book, ‘A Complaint Free World’ where he challenged people to go for 21 days without complaint. Bowen says, ‘Complaining is like bad breath — you notice it when it comes out of someone else’s mouth, but not when it comes out of your own.’

Bowen, who was the minister of a small midwestern church delivered a series on prosperity. He noticed that his congregation all said that they wanted greater prosperity and more stuff but, at the same time, they all complained about what they already had. This led to Bowen asking his congregation to put a rubber band around one wrist and switch it to the other wrist every time they complained.

I tried this years ago but I spent so much time switching the band that I got fed up. And then complained about it. But things shifted for me a few years ago when I realised that I was complaining. Like, a lot. When I noticed this habitual pattern, I paused and asked myself where I thought this experience was coming from?

And my experience never came from the things I complained about. Often the things I grumbled about in my head happened minutes or hours ago and yet I was still upset by them. Or, rather, I was upset by my thoughts about whatever happened.

What’s the harm in complaining?
Research from Stanford University found that complaints shrink the hippocampus, the area of the brain that’s critical for problem-solving and intelligent thought. And when you complain, the brain releases the stress hormone, Cortisol which can raise your blood pressure and blood sugar. And all the extra cortisol released by frequent complaining impairs your immune system and makes you more susceptible to high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Just because you like a little complaining.

I talk a lot about neurons, I love neurons, and neurons play a large part in why we complain so much. When you repeat the habit of complaining, just like when you repeat any habit, your neurons branch out to each other to ease the flow of information which makes it easier to repeat the behaviour in the future. The more you do the behaviour, the closer the neurons get together and the connections between them become more permanent.

But the good news is, as you know, a new thought can change the neural pathways in a moment.

It isn’t just our own complaints that can harm our health, it can happen when we listen to other people complain too. Just like secondhand smoke is bad for your health, secondhand complaining is too.

But surely a complaint is an observation? No, a complaint is an observation with a bit tagged on the end. Like, ‘it’s cold today’. That’s an observation but to say, ‘it’s cold today and I hate living in this place’ is a complaint.

Be aware of how often you complain.
If you just change a few words you can turn the complaint around. Instead of saying ‘have to’, change it to ‘want to’ or ‘going to’. So instead of ‘I have to make dinner’ or “I have to go out later to pick up my daughter’, say ‘I want to make dinner’ and if you don’t want to, say, ‘I’m going to make dinner’.
Notice when you’re being judgemental. The judgements might be about yourself or your own life, they don’t always have to be about other people and their lives but no good feelings ever arise from judgements.

If you’re in a restaurant and the food just isn’t up to scratch you might feel justified in complaining about the meal but unless the server is downright rude, is there any satisfaction in complaining about the staff? What might be going on for them? I’m not asking you to guess what is happening in their head but showing kindness instead of complaining is better for you and for them.

And judgements about yourself and your life rarely encourage you to make changes. Judgements start to feel like truth instead of beliefs and keep you stuck because there isn’t much you can do to change what is true.

If you find yourself in an environment where people constantly complain, maybe in an office, either change the subject or leave the room for a few minutes in the hope that they might have moved on to talk about something else by the time you get back. Whatever happens, don’t get drawn in to join the conversation. Don’t compare your despair.

Strangely, people complain about other people complaining without realising that they’re doing the same thing. This is a bit like people complaining about the traffic jam without realising that they’re part of the traffic jam.

Notice what is going on for you when you complain.
Mostly happy people don’t find themselves complaining just like happy people don’t say anything nasty about others. If you notice that you’re complaining, take a look at what’s happening in your life in this moment. You know that if you’re complaining, you’ve probably got a head full of sticky thinking so notice that.
Are you complaining about people around you because they aren’t acting in the way you want them to? Or someone isn’t coming up to your standards? Or that your expectations haven’t been met. If any of these things strike a chord, you know what’s causing that feeling.

Despite the fact that complaining can feel, momentarily, like a uniting experience, people mostly don’t like to be around someone who complains. It’s exhausting. It’s a downer. It’s draining. And I’m not talking about your reaction to someone else, I’m talking about your reaction to yourself, to your own thinking.

It might not look as if you’re reacting to your own thinking. After all, you’ve got justifiable reasons for complaint, haven’t you? But when you realise that you’re always, 100%, experiencing thought in the moment, you can see that the feeling that you have something to complain about isn’t coming from bad service, other people or any other aspect of life, it’s always coming from the thoughts you have about bad service, other people and life. You are always creating your experience from the inside out.

You’ll notice that the less you complain, the lighter you’ll feel. Some people spend hours complaining and then wonder why they aren’t having a good day?

Try a complaint free day. And then help yourself to have another one tomorrow.