When TODAY show hosts Sheinelle Jones, Al Roker, Dylan Dreyer, and Craig Melvin heard the latest findings in Gallup’s 2019 Global Emotions Report, they wanted to do something to improve the emotional state of America. And they asked me for advice! (OMG, right?!)
Americans’ levels of stress, worry, and anger have all increased since last year. According to the poll, more than half (55%) of us feel stressed “during much of the day,” 45% feel worried, and 22% feel angry. In fact, stress in America is higher than in all but three countries in the world. It’s even higher than stress in Chad, where violence and displacement has left 66% of the population in daily physical pain.
So yeah, Americans are pretty stressed out, and the TODAY anchors decided it’s time for a cleanse! A ‘complaint cleanse,’ that is.
Why are Americans so Unhappy?
Many residents of the countries on Gallup’s list have less money, fewer possessions, lower education, and way less access to resources than we do in America, but they are actually happier—much happier! Why is that? Could it be their attitude?
When we complain, we focus on what we don’t want or don’t like, and if we do it often enough, our brain is trained to look for things to complain about. It actually changes what we focus on and we become primed to experience more of what we don’t want in our lives. Complaining literally gives us more of what we don’t want. And on top of that, it releases the stress hormone cortisol, which is super bad for our health in high amounts.
Are we a country of chronic complainers? If so, a ‘complaint cleanse’ could be just what we need! And I’m thrilled that the TODAY show asked me how to do it. Ready to join in on the challenge? First, we should define a complaint…
So, What is a Complaint?
A complaint is simply saying that you don’t like the way something is. As hard as this is to believe, a complaint is actually just a perspective. Remember the film Life is Beautiful (or the real-life stories in Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning?) Even amidst the horrors of a concentration camp, your attitude is what shapes your experience. It’s all relative.
Next, how can you tell if you’re actually complaining? What if you’re only stating a fact – like the bus is late, or my coffee is cold? It all depends on how you feel about it. A complaint feels negative, while a neutral statement has no emotional charge.
Complaining is a Habit, and a Choice
A habit is an action or thought that we repeat often enough for it to become automatic. Habits create neural pathways in the brain (like well-worn highways that your brain travels on repeatedly) and they can be hard to change. It takes repetition, dedication, and effort. For many of us, complaining has become a habit. But not complaining can become a habit too – with willpower and practice.
And there are huge health benefits to making this choice! Optimism is a condition that can be trained in the brain. Studies show that optimists are happier, more creative, faster at solving problems, and have better health and longer lives than pessimists. Are you convinced yet? Ready to kick complaining to the curb? Here are 10 tips that can help a lot.
10 Tips to Help You Stop Complaining:
- Catch yourself! You may be surprised by how often you’re complaining. This includes your words and your thoughts.
- Switch it around. Speak about what you want instead of what you don’t want (this process is called “reframing”). The same goes for what you’re thinking about.
- Don’t join others in their complaints. Practice the old adage, “If you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all.” Change the subject.
- Find something to be grateful for. Gratitude releases dopamine and serotonin in the brain, which relax the body, reduce stress, and feel great. Gratitude is a highly effective way to switch your mental, emotional, and physical state fast.
- Focus on what you’re learning from this. It could be that you’re getting clearer about what you like/don’t like. Or maybe you’re realizing you need to change the dynamic in a relationship you have. You get the idea; see the good in the situation.
- Practice acceptance. This can be hard, I know! Take deep breaths and release the tension you’re holding in regards to the subject of your complaint. If it’s a persistent complaint that you can’t get out of your head, get some physical exercise to pump endorphins into your system and distract yourself with something funny.
- Have a stockpile of go-to happy thoughts to switch to. Or perhaps your go-to mood booster is a favorite music playlist or pictures of loved ones. Change your mental state in any way that you can.
- Explore if you have “happiness guilt.” Some of us feel like we always have to complain about something, either because we believe it’s bad luck if we’re too happy (this is actually more common than you might think) or we worry about that our overabundance of joy will make others uncomfortable. Can you relate?
- It could always be worse. This isn’t my favorite method because it focuses on something even worse than what you’re complaining about BUT it can be really effective. (For example, when I complain about my psoriasis, I realize that my health problems could be much worse, and then I feel grateful for my body and my life.)
- Choose your company wisely. Moods are contagious. This is because our mirror neurons, specialized cells in the brain related to imitation, automatically mimic the facial expressions, voice tones, and even emotions of the people around us. When you have a choice, choose positive influences.
Practice Gratitude Like Your Life Depends on It (Because it Does)
I mentioned gratitude in #4 above, but I want to clarify that this is something you can practice preemptively and not just when you have the urge to complain. Train your brain to focus on gratitude by spending the first few minutes when you wake up in the morning thinking about things that you’re grateful for, and do the same in the last few minutes before you fall asleep. This will really make a major difference in your experience of life—try it and you will see.
You can also write what you’re grateful for in a “gratitude notebook” throughout the day. This practice actually changes the neural circuitry of your brain. Just like complaining trains your brain to look for more things to complain about, with a gratitude practice, you will be primed to look for things you’re grateful for throughout the day. And gratitude activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxes and soothes your brain and body, so it’s great for your health.
Your Kids Will Reap the Benefits
We all know what it feels like after we’ve been around someone who is complaining. And we know how others’ joy can rub off on us, too. So if you’re a parent, doing a “complaint cleanse” will definitely have a positive effect on your children. Mirror neurons are most active in children; kids copy the speech and behaviors of those around them because that’s how they learn.
If your kids are complaining, ask them to either tell you or write down three things that they’re grateful for. You can also try a “gratitude jar.” Our family keeps a glass jar on the kitchen counter with a pile of scraps of paper and pens next to it. We all write down things that we’re grateful for on the paper scraps and toss them into the jar whenever we think of it. Sometimes we even play “gratitude charades” – we pick a piece of paper out of the jar and act it out, and then see if the family can guess what’s on the paper. This is a fun way to get your kids to focus on gratitude instead of complaining.
Keep it Up!
In my book, The Joy Plan, I write about how I initially challenged myself to stop complaining for a week. But then this simple change decreased my anxiety so much that I kept it up for a month. And now, it has become a way of life. I’m not saying that I never complain. But I practice those 10 tips religiously and it changed my life. A new habit is formed (or broken) in 18 – 254 days, depending on what it is. I found that complaining was actually a really easy habit to change – I definitely kicked it within 30 days. I encourage you all to keep it up past this week!
Kaia Roman is the author of The Joy Plan. She teaches neuroscience-based mindfulness to elementary school children and lives in Santa Cruz, California. The Joy Plan is available wherever books are sold, and also in Spanish as El Plan de la Alegria (in paperback, Kindle, and audiobook). Visit TheJoyPlan.com for more info.