I came across a most interesting article on “How Complaining Rewires Your Brain for Negativity.” Essentially, it is a [not so surprising] corollary to the power of gratitude—underscored in a post from November, 2018 on “Count Your Blessings!”
In a nutshell, the article speaks of the brain’s desire or inclination to create shortcuts… and how the creation of some shortcuts (like complaining) can be unhealthy (no matter how “natural” it is or has become):
Repeated complaining rewires your brain to make future complaining more likely. Over time, you find it’s easier to be negative than to be positive, regardless of what’s happening around you. Complaining becomes your default behavior, which changes how people perceive you.
And here’s the kicker: complaining damages other areas of your brain as well. Research from Stanford University has shown that complaining shrinks the hippocampus — an area of the brain that’s critical to problem solving and intelligent thought…
While it’s not an exaggeration to say that complaining leads to brain damage, it doesn’t stop there. When you complain, your body releases the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol shifts you into fight-or-flight mode, directing oxygen, blood and energy away from everything but the systems that are essential to immediate survival. One effect of cortisol, for example, is to raise your blood pressure and blood sugar so that you’ll be prepared to either escape or defend yourself.
All the extra cortisol released by frequent complaining impairs your immune system and makes you more susceptible to high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease and obesity. It even makes the brain more vulnerable to strokes.
Interesting (but, again, not surprising to me) is the way that the complaining of others around us can accrue in our souls and poison:
Since human beings are inherently social, our brains naturally and unconsciously mimic the moods of those around us, particularly people we spend a great deal of time with. This process is called neuronal mirroring, and it’s the basis for our ability to feel empathy. The flip side, however, is that it makes complaining a lot like smoking — you don’t have to do it yourself to suffer the ill effects. You need to be cautious about spending time with people who complain about everything. Complainers want people to join their pity party so that they can feel better about themselves. Think of it this way: If a person were smoking, would you sit there all afternoon inhaling the second-hand smoke? You’d distance yourself, and you should do the same with complainers.
Fortunately, the article posits a few solutions. First, there’s the invitation to make your complaining productive. I mean, if you’re going to go there, at least do so with constructive ends and means in mind and heart. “When you have something that is truly worth complaining about… engage in solution-oriented complaining. Think of it as complaining with a purpose.” It’s a variation of Paul’s telling us to speak the truth in love.
As powerful (and most relevant to spiritual formation) is our cultivating an attitude of gratitude. I say powerful because 1) it has proven impacts on health (cf, articles like “7 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Gratitude” from Psychology Today) and because 2) the majority of my complaints and complaining are so trivial in nature.
Altogether, it has me wanting
to give new life and intention
to the often neglected disciplines
of gratitude and keeping a joy journal…
and praying for the graces that I’d be aware of my complaining
and more automatically look for the things for which to be thankful!
So how’s this for starters?
“Lord, thank you for air conditioning!”
(Okay, okay… It’s a start!)