How to Save Your Brain (and Improve Your Life!)

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 takeout dinner which we ate at home, just the two of us.  The next day, my daughter, son-in-law, and my 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 (and book*) 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.  

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candles and fireworks

An eye-opening experiment

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.

  • I complained that the morning was once again smoky (fire season in California).  
  • I noticed that it wasn't quite as hot as it was last week, and then complained about last week's weather.  
  • I complained about some paperwork I needed to do.  
  • I complained about traffic.  
  • I complained about being interrupted by a number of texts.  
  • I complained about my itching mosquito bites.  
  • I complained about how gray my hair is getting.  
  • 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.

Complaining is more than an annoying habit.

It actually damages our brains and makes us sick.

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.

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?

6 ways to stop complaining

1.  Let go of expectations.

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 problems will resolve themselves 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, I began to notice 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 type or 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.

Gratitude – the antidote to complaining

Today is a good day to stop complaining.  It's a good day to take the actions that will produce the changes I want.  It's a good day to improve my life.  You know what?  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.

Do you want to save your brain and improve your life?  You'll love my book, Simply Happy: A Little Book of Joy, available on Amazon.

Just as you can gain skill at maintaining your home, schedule, and budget, you can also get better at maintaining inner serenity and peace.  We can't control all the circumstances of our lives, but we have some control over our responses to them.  And we can mold our habits and even our brains toward positivity and happiness.  

Simply Happy will show you how to change the way you look at the world, and help you pursue your joy.  Get a copy for yourself or a friend today.

Post updated April 2023


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