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How to re-train your brain to stop complaining



Calah Alexander - published on 08/17/18

This technique will literally change your brain... and your life.

I used to be a champion complainer.

In the interest of honesty (and also because my mom and sister are probably going to read this), I’m still a champion complainer. But I try really hard not to complain, mostly because one of my best friends changed my mindset about complaining.

The first summer we were in Florida, I literally complained about the heat, humidity, mosquitoes, and alligators every single time I saw her. She would smile and laugh and then change the subject, which I thought was weird because it was her first Florida summer as well — and coming from Maine, the change was a lot more drastic than my transition from Texas.

She told me that a few years back that she had made the decision to stop complaining. “Complaining doesn’t change anything,” she told me. “It just makes you and everyone around you more aware of the unpleasant things in life.”

I was astounded (and to be honest, a little annoyed). What she was saying was so sensible, and yet so counterintuitive! But she claimed that not complaining had changed her life, making her happier and actually making things like heat or exhaustion less bothersome.

My friend wasn’t a natural Mary Poppins — she had actually altered her brain by altering her behavior, a scientific phenomenon known as plasticity. Run Wonder had a recent article explaining the science behind how complaining changes the plasticity in the brain by creating negative feedback loops.

Harmful behaviors such as complaining, if allowed to loop within the brain continually, will inevitably alter thought processes. Altered thoughts lead to altered beliefs which leads to a change in behavior. Our brain possesses a something called the negativity bias. In simple terms, negativity bias is the brain’s tendency to focus more on negative circumstances than positive. Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuroscientist and author of Buddha’s Brain, explains negativity bias: “Negative stimuli produce more neural activity than do equally intensive positive ones. They are also perceived more easily and quickly.” Repetition is the mother of all learning. When we repeatedly focus on the negative by complaining, we’re firing and re-firing the neurons responsible for the negativity bias.

It makes sense that negative stimuli would produce more neural activity than positive stimuli — after all, we are evolutionarily wired to react more strongly to negative experiences in order to survive.

But when those negative experiences aren’t actually life-threatening (like humidity and mosquitoes), constantly dwelling on them re-wires our brain to notice the negative more readily than the positive. In my case, dwelling on the negative part of living in Florida actually managed to shut out any notice of the many positives.

It took me a few years before I decided to take my friend’s advice and stop complaining. When I did, the difference was remarkable.

Instead of being miserable when the weather was (always) a sticky 85, I began to appreciate how nice it was that my children never needed shoes other than flip-flops. When my friends up north started commiserating about snow suits and months of sub-zero temperatures, I didn’t respond with my own complaints about being stuck inside because it rained every afternoon. Instead, I allowed myself to be grateful for the fact that we were never shut inside for weeks because of snow. In fact, we were never stuck indoors at all for more than a few hours.

The weather, combined with our tiny town (another previous cause for complaint) made things like travel by golf cart both possible and enjoyable. We could walk everywhere, all year, or take the golf cart. We could stop our carts in the street and chat with a neighbor, or send the kids down to Publix on their bikes when we ran out in the middle of baking.

There were so many wonderful things about living where we did and I truly believe that I would never have noticed and appreciate them if I hadn’t taken my friend’s advice and stopped complaining.

So the next time you’re tempted to complain about the weather, your job, or even a sky-high electric bill, take a second and ask if there’s a positive you can be grateful for instead. You might discover that dwelling on the positive rather than the negative changes more than just your mood — it might even change your life.

Read more:
How the Cult of Positivity is turning us against each other

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