Gratitude over Attitude

“Gratitude is one of the strongest and most transformative states of being. It shifts your perspective from lack to abundance and allows you to focus on the good in your life, which in turn pulls more goodness into your reality.”–Jen Sincero

I caught myself complaining, AGAIN, about an irritant within my life. While I was doing this in the safe company of a trusted person, it was a habit I was beginning to recognize and for which I was beginning to feel I needed to personally address.  Therefore, I began to ponder why I have such a strong tendency to bellyache, fuss, and grumble?   Does my complaining make anything better?  Does it benefit anyone?

Furthermore, why is it our nature to yammer on about all the so called wrongs in our life?  Part of the reason, I know, is that in a polite world, we often bottle our frustrated feelings inside and continue to wear a smile on the outside.  This often leads to our complaints exploding out of our mouths with the first opportunity to release them in like-minded/sympathetic company. It plain ol’ feels good to liberate the tension–which, on one hand, is a healthy coping mechanism.  

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But what happens when we keep going on?  Telling anyone and everyone who will listen to us about the perceived infractions.  As our audience changes and expands, so does the story, expanding in power and hijacking our brains. We might even post our complaint on social media, magnifying the story and giving us the impression that we are truly supported, and most of all, righteous, in our indignation.

What does this gain us?  Is it a sense of control?  A sense of support?  A sense of community?  Perhaps all of that and more, but since I am not a psychologist, I’ll leave that answer to the professionals.  Instead, all of these ponderings brought me to the importance of mindset. 

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One of the more inspired lines that I’ve run across, previously written about, and regularly applied in my own life, is “mood follows action.”  It is a phrase I implement when I don’t feel like doing a particular task, such as getting up early, tackling a workout, or instigating work/chores.  Those three words remind me that once I complete the task, I will feel a sense of accomplishment, and my mood will lift as a result.  It is the dread that is often worse than the actual doing. I began to wonder if something similar was true with regards to complaining . . .

action = increased complaining = decreased gratefulness = negative mood

If I continue to choose the action of frequently complaining, particularly about the same thing, am I creating my own negative mood?  And if so, am I creating a bias towards these so-called “terrible” events, making them out to be more grievous than they actually were?  What if instead, like the eye doctor asking me if I preferred A or B,  I flipped my daily lens so that it was tinted with more gratitude and shaded less with attitude? 

action = reduced complaints + increased gratefulness = happier mood

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I took this thought even further and researched what the science said. It turns out that complaining can actually negatively harm your health, not to mention serve as a repellent to others.  First of all, it turns out that every time we complain, our brain rewires itself to produce more negative thinking. According to neuroscience, synapses that fire in the production of the complaint, wire together, making it easier, over time to react, complain, and think negatively with more frequency.

Negative thinking/stressing and complaining can damage the hippocampus, which is responsible for overall cognitive function, problem solving, and critical thinking.  The smaller the hippocampus, the greater our decline in memory and the less adaptive we are to change. The more we complain and/or focus on the negative, the more we increase our levels of stress, and, in turn, cortisol.  High cortisol levels decrease immune function and make us more susceptible to a wide variety of health problems such as sleep disruptions, digestive dysfunction, depression, and high blood pressure to name a few.

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Complaining, and an overall pessimistic attitude, can shorten our lifespan.  Research indicates that optimistic thinkers tend to live longer than proverbial pessimists. Additionally, like attracts like. The more positive or negative we are, the more we tend to attract others who do the same. In fact, our brains naturally mimic those with whom we most often associate through a process called neuronal mirroring. This is often due to our ability to feel empathy, which can be a positive thing, but it can backfire on us if we repeatedly surround ourselves with negative people.

Nonetheless, there is a time and place for complaining, but it is how you frame it, and to whom you speak, that makes a difference. If something is truly worthy of a complaint, think constructively when talking (or writing) about it.  Identify, before initiating the conversation or written evaluation begins, a clear purpose about the specific goal/desired behavior. Then behavioral experts encourage us to deliver the complaint like a sandwich.

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Start positive, with a true and affirming comment. (This first step may require some thought and some reframing, but it is worth the time to get the listener/reader to pay attention.) Next, state the desired outcome/behavior in a matter-of-fact tone without accusation.  Then, follow this with another positive, but true, statement.  Below is a highly simplistic example, but it illustrates the point.  

“I really love shopping at this store because the employees are so friendly and helpful.  However, lately, I encountered issues with the pick-up system in which numerous items in my order are not bagged.  I’d like to continue shopping here, so I am wondering if there is a way to ensure my order is properly bagged on my next visit.”

If, however, someone is directing the criticism to you; own it, and empower yourself as an agent of change rather than victim. By taking ownership of the issue, we have the power to create a solution that works for us. In the end, we earn more respect for owning up to our own mistakes, flaws, or misperceptions. Furthermore, it allows us to be perceived as a problem solver with integrity.

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One point worth remembering is that, while complaining can be a healthy way to relieve stress, we want to be careful with whom we confide, who is around us when we make these comments, and how often we are complaining.  If you know that you will feel better to get a grievance off  your chest, do-so with trustworthy companions in a private location–rather than on a platform for everyone to read or in an area in which anyone can hear.  Then move on, let it go, and identify at least one positive about your day/situation on which to focus, including your controlables–one of which is your attitude.  

By training ourselves to choose gratitude over attitude, we are more likely to see our blessings, promote our own mental and physical well-being, and increase our ability to perform tasks.  Furthermore, we may ultimately attract more good to our life by merely opening our eyes to seeing it.  For many of us, however, this takes practice and time.  Therefore, the next time you find yourself complaining, be like the eye doctor, flip the lens, determine the better view, and find something for which to be grateful.  

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If you must complain, do so. Then, flip the lens and look for the points for which to feel grateful.