By Yme Woensdregt
Are you kidding me? No complaints for 21 days? Come on now. I couldn’t possibly do something like that. After all, it’s human nature to complain. Right?
But that’s exactly what Rev. Will Bowen of Christ Church Unity in Kansas City challenged his people to do in July 2006. “The one thing we can agree on,” he said, “is there’s too much complaining.”
Inspired while taking a shower, he decided to start a movement. He invited the people of the church he served to break the habit. He challenged them to take a pledge to swear off complaining, criticizing, gossiping, kvetching or using sarcasm for 21 days.
The idea has spread like wildfire. According to his website, www.acomplaintfreeworld.org, some 12 million people have accepted the challenge. People who join in are issued little purple bracelets to remind them of their pledge. If they catch themselves complaining, they’re supposed to take off the bracelet, switch it to the opposite wrist and start all over again.
Now I generally try to be a pretty positive person, so I thought this would be a snap.
A month later (it almost sounds like a New Year’s resolution), please hear my confession: let me tell you from sad, personal experience that it’s not easy. We are so used to complaining that it’s hard to give it up.
I grabbed one of the rubber bracelets I have around the house, (I’m too cheap to buy a purple one), put it on my left wrist, and started on my complaint–free life. Feeling righteous and holy, I began. How hard could this be?
Then my computer froze and I found myself complaining. Start over. Switch the bracelet to the right wrist.
That night, as I watched television, I complained about a particularly odious commercial. Reset the clock. Move the bracelet to the left wrist again.
The next morning, I groaned about some of the aches and pains in my aging body. Start all over again. Then I complained about the light snowfall. Shift the bracelet again.
I was discovering what everyone who takes the pledge finds out: that going 21 days without complaining isn’t as easy as it seems.
Will Bowen says that it took him three and a half months to put together 21 complaint–free days. It has taken others seven months, or even longer. I figure that if the average person complains 20 times a day for 21 days, then 12 million bracelets have stopped over 5 trillion complaints. That’s a lot less ear pollution.
I kept at it. As of the writing of this column, I’m up to 2½ days. But if the wrong team wins the Super Bowl, all bets are off.
I decided to try replacing complaining with gratitude. Have you ever noticed that when you’re with a complainer, all you can think of is how to get out of there? When you’re with someone who’s grateful, you want to stay and live in that moment.
When we decide to stop complaining and focus on gratitude, we see all the blessings that fill our lives. We make a choice to see blessing rather than loss. We choose not to focus on what we lack, but focus instead on the goodness in our lives and in the world around us.
Dr. Robert Emmons, a psychologist at the University of California at Davis, has conducted extensive experiments on the impact of gratitude. Studies with thousands of people show that practicing gratitude can increase happiness levels by up to 25%. Dr. Emmons’ research also shows that those who practice gratitude tend to be more creative, bounce back more quickly from adversity, have a stronger immune system, and have stronger social relationships than those who don’t practice gratitude.
In a very real sense, this kind of gratitude is deeply and profoundly related to the spirituality about which I wrote last week. When we are grateful, we connect more deeply with ourselves, with nature, with other people, and with God. When we are mindful of all the large and small blessings in our life, our lives become so much fuller and richer.
People of faith have known that since forever. Science is finally catching up! As Dr. Emmons points out, “To say we feel grateful is not to say that everything in our lives is necessarily great. It just means we are aware of our blessings.” We choose to focus on all the goodness in our lives, which also happens to help us deal with those parts of our lives which aren’t so good.
I’m going to keep working at this. I’m going to send this column before the Super Bowl ends, and hope that even if my team doesn’t win, I can be grateful for enjoying a well–played game. I’m even hoping that by Tuesday, when the paper is published, I’ll have 4½ complaint–free days under my belt.
I am enjoying this challenge to stop complaining. It makes me mindful of the goodness in my life. It helps me see life from a more positive perspective. It gives me a greater sense of joy in my days. It lifts me up.
And perhaps … just maybe … if enough people try this challenge, we can work together to change the world.
Here’s to developing a new habit.
Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican priest living in Cranbrook