Uncategorized

Living Complaint Free

happinessA couple of years ago or so, I stumbled across an article that highlighted Will Bowen’s quest for a complaint free world. This also happens to be the title of his book. I was so intrigued, I bought the book and read it in one morning. Will Bowen, who was a minister in Kansas City, noticed an increased level of negativity and overall unhappiness among his congregation, but also in himself. Long story short, he devised a plan to empower himself as well as others to live a complaint free life, or at least complain a whole lot less, and in doing so lead happier lives.

Bowen defined what complaining meant, researched how complaining adversely affects us, and created a few guidelines to follow. Over the years, he discovered through the millions of people who’ve participated in his Complaint Free movement, the power our thoughts have over our behavior and the power those two combined have over our overall well-being. There’s no doubt I was drawn to this whole idea because of the underlying Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) framework he seemed to follow. Examining our thoughts and challenging negative distortions so we can break destructive patterns of behavior is the focus of CBT. Through the development of better insight, we can modify our thoughts and perceptions that have the greatest influence on our behavior, which will lead to an increase in happiness.

As a clinical therapist, CBT is an approach I use A LOT. Its an incredibly effective way for people to learn the necessary skills in developing a better sense of self; a better understanding of their thinking styles and their behavior. This improved awareness lends itself to decreased over-emotional responses and better problem solving. This was also experienced by those participating in Bowen’s movement. Now, I am not saying, this alone should be a substitute for CBT, but there seemed to be enough anecdotal evidence available to give this movement some merit; some value in changing negative habits. So, naturally, I wanted to try it, and I wanted others to try it with me.

In a matter of weeks following my read of Bowen’s book, I put out a call for participants, if you will. I wanted to see how others experienced the process as we all plodded down this path together. I also wanted to take some data along the way. I titled this the “The Choosing Happiness & Living Complaint Free Project” and was able to get 14 willing participants to engage. The first step was doing some participant education on complaining and the known adverse effects of negativity.

Merriam Webster defines “complaint” as an expression of grief, pain, or discontent.1 Bowen took “complaint” even further and included gossip, criticism, and sarcasm. I know what you’re thinking, “Well, geez. What’s left?!”, and me too, but once we have a clearer understanding of what complaining is, we can increase our awareness of how we’re responding to it. Breaking it down even further:

Pain – distress due to illness or injury OR mental/emotional pain

Grief – distress over a loss or regret

Gossip – talking negatively about someone to a third party

Criticism – talking negatively about a person, to the person

Discontent – dissatisfaction or a restless desire for something you do not already have

Once everyone had a clear idea of how we were going to define a complaint, we needed to be able to differentiate between a complaint and a neutral fact or statement.

A complaint is considered a complaint when there is a negative charge to our intent behind the words chosen. There’s no resolution to the negative feeling or problem, offered. It’s just negative energy that is just left to hang out, and the longer it’s there just hanging out, the probability that more negativity finds it, increases. We know that negativity breeds negativity, and when we don’t feel as if our issue has been resolved, well, the cycle of negative thinking starts all over, and for some of us, becomes our default mode. Negative thinking takes no effort at all. This is one reason it can seem to completely take root in our all our thoughts, or at least our automatic thoughts. I provided the participants examples of complaints (c) vs. statements (s) (i.e. I am feeling warm. (s) vs. Why is it always so hot in here?! (c) OR Julie is so fake, everyone knows it. (c) vs. I just don’t think my personality meshes with Julie’s. (s) ). To better help differentiate between the two statements, Bowen also lumped reasons we complain into five categories, and remembering these categories helps to facilitate the continued development of increased self-awareness:

Gaining Attention

Absolving Responsibility

Inspiring Envy

Taking Power

Excusing Performance

The next objective before we really dug in was to make sure the participants understood the effects of negativity on our health. There’s more to reducing negative thinking than the warm and fuzzies that follow. There are some real health concerns associated. In doing his own research, Bowen found that some studies showed approximately 67% of illnesses originate or increase in severity by how we simply think about it.2 Negative thinking brings about negative feelings, which automatically engages our limbic system; our flight, fight, or freeze response. This response releases an abundance of epinephrine and cortisol. Chronic health conditions such as heart disease, obesity, and diabetes have been linked to cortisol levels that remain too high. Three very compelling reasons to give this whole no complaining thing a try.

The last objective before setting some ground rules, was to make sure the participants understood that not complaining did not equate to the abandonment of self-advocacy. We can express discontent without the negative intent or berating of others. So, if you expressed your discontent about a situation/event or person directly to the person and/or with the addition of potential solutions for the future, without the unnecessary negative charge, it was not a complaint. We also did not count typical expressions of discontent about situations and events that were as bad as or worse than say losing an immediate family member or experiencing a natural disaster firsthand. Once this was clear, learning the expectations or ground rules was the final act before setting everyone loose in their worlds.

Included in their packets was the infamous purple bracelet Bowen created to serve as a visual reminder. Bowen’s challenge was doing this for 21 days, which is the amount of time it is believed a new habit can be created. Taking note of which wrist the bracelet was placed on at the start (Day #1) was crucial. For every complaint made, the participants had to switch the bracelet to the other wrist and start the count of days over. The participant packets also included pre/post-tests, for some basic data collection.

There were 14 participants in total, 12 females and 2 males, aged 28-48.

Stress Level Ratings

1(very little) – 10 (significant)

Before

Pre-Test

After*

Post-Test
 
 

1-4

22%

29%

5-8

64%

35%

9+

14%

7%

*4 participants did not complete this rating within the post-test

Complaints Made Ratings

1(very little) – 10 (multiple/day)

 

Before

Pre-Test

After*

Post-Test
   

 

1-4

7%

29%

5-8

57%

29%

9+

36%

7%

*5 participants did not complete this rating within the post-test
 

Happiness Ratings 

 

Before

Pre-Test
 

After

Post-Test

   

 

Never

NA NA

Sometimes

21%

NA

Often

76%

65%

Always NA

35%

 

# of Consecutive Days

bracelets worn before changing wrists
 

Participants*

 

 

1-7

64%

8-14

7%

15-21

NA

*4 participants did not keep track

With the data that could be collected, the participants experienced positive results of going complaint free, overall. Happiness was shown to increase as stress levels and complaints decreased. As a participant myself, I can say this was one of the most difficult habits I have ever tried to break. And there is still much work to do. It was a relief to find out that Bowen discovered the same thing as he noted that it takes the average person 4-8 months to reach 21 consecutive days without the bracelet changing wrists. So, I’ll part with something MH Alderson, someone who was known as just a regular guy, who did regular things, once said, “If at first you don’t succeed, you’re running about average.” And remember, whenever there is a change to be made involving behavior, its important to know that small steps add up, and no matter how slow it seems like we are moving ourselves forward, it’s still forward.

 


1. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/complaint
2. Bowen, W (2007). A Complaint Free World: How to Stop Complaining and Enjoy the Life You Always Wanted

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s