There are people who, if they won a $56 million lottery, would only complain about how much they'd have to pay in taxes. You know the type. The steely lady with the down turned mouth, nose in the air, who doles out grievances like Halloween candy. Or the curmudgeonly old man, so sour faced you can almost hear the litany of complaints running through his mind from his lifelong feud with pleasure.
Unfortunately, these aren't just caricatures or descriptions from a bad family reunion. All our brains are predisposed to notice the negative things in life. And if we give voice to them and let those things remain our focus, the act of complaining will rewire our brains to notice and create even more negativity.
Dr. Rick Hanson, psychologist and New York Times best-selling author of Hardwiring Happiness, explains how, over 600 million years, a negativity bias has developed in our brains as a survival skill. Ned the Neanderthal learned quite painfully that it was better to be alert and aware of the cougar in the bushes rather than ponder how the sky got so blue. But like other useless things Ned left behind (thanks for the appendix, and wisdom teeth Ned!), that type of hyper vigilance toward negativity is counterproductive in today's world.
Now, often the most dangerous things we encounter are our own negative thoughts. The act of complaining is like allowing negativity to do pushups in your brain. During any act or behavior, neurons in the brain branch out and connect to each other. If a behavior is repeated, as complaining often is, the connections are reinforced. As you complain more, the connections grow closer and stronger together, creating a neural pathway that is easier and more likely to be followed in the future.
But hey, let's not focus on the negative here. Even though we all complain, we are not doomed. Two simple things can go a long way toward rewiring our brains to focus on the positive.
The first is gratitude. Make a list, keep a journal, write a song, draw a pictograph, whatever is your thing. Sit down and really consider the things you have to be thankful for every day. Research by Robert Emmons, the world's leading scientific expert on gratitude, has shown that people who regularly practice gratitude report more joy, pleasure, and higher levels of positive emotions and are also more forgiving, outgoing, helpful, compassionate, and generous. If that weren't enough, there's a host of other physical, emotional and psychological benefits grateful people enjoy.
Second, linger on positive feelings whenever the occur. Maybe someone gives you a compliment, or you notice a flower's beauty, or your favorite team wins. Really wallow in and relish the positive emotions you experience. As you are feeling them, your brain is building new connections and pathways that reinforce positive thinking. And don't cut yourself short. It takes 10 full seconds to transfer the positive feelings from your short memory buffers to long-term storage to get the benefits.
So, go ahead, be like an elephant in a muddy watering hole; settle in and just blow good feelings all over yourself. Then feel them all again later when you practice gratitude. Slowly, over time, you can rewire your brain to focus more on the positive, and you'll be a lot less likely to even want complain. Now that's something to be grateful for!