You’ve got plenty of reasons to complain.
Your significant other isn’t speaking to you, your kids hate your cooking, and your boss is asking you to cover the weekend shift. You’ve got a lot to complain about—but not so fast. Before you get on Facebook to list your troubles, there’s something you should know.
According to a recent study from Indiana University, complaining might be the worst thing you can do. In fact, complaining might even rewire your neural pathways for negative outcomes, essentially reinforcing your negativity.
This isn’t a sappy saying on a greeting card, either; it’s real science, and the study offers some fascinating insights on how we live our lives.
The research team studied 43 subjects who suffered from depression or anxiety.
Those subjects were split into two groups. One group didn’t make any behavioral changes, while the other group was given a “gratitude exercise” in which they write letters of thanks to the people in their lives.
Next, both groups were subjected to a brain scan. While the scan was taking place, the participants were told that they’d been left a large quantity of money. Researchers asked the subjects whether they’d donate a portion of this imaginary money to charity.
The participants knew that this was all just part of the study, but researchers threw them a curveball by suggesting that a random participant would actually receive money (less any amount that he or she donated to charity).
Researchers described the neural effects as “profound.”
There were several important takeaways. First, participants who’d completed the gratitude exercise said that they felt more grateful when they were told about their new fortunes. More importantly, these feelings of gratitude corresponded to the brain imaging—the grateful participants’ brains had literally changed.
As is the case with all scientific studies, the results will need to be replicated, but the findings could have vital implications for psychological treatment. It suggests that cognitive behavioral therapy could be as effective as medication for rewiring otherwise healthy brains (something that many psychology professionals already believe).
So, how can you use this information in your daily life?
Let’s set aside all of the other reasons that you shouldn’t complain (for instance, that negativity makes you less attractive to potential mates). The psychological component of negative thinking seems powerful.
Feelings of gratitude can effectively rewire your brain, but they require frequent “workouts.” You have to build the pathways in order to see the benefits of positive thinking. How do you do that? Well, positive thinking, for one.
Creating a positive mantra that you repeat every day (and especially when you feel like complaining) could help you see some of the same benefits. The gratitude exercise mentioned in the study—writing letters of thanks to the people in your life—can also prove effective.
But to see results, you need to be consistent.
The more you practice, the more results you see, but as with all habits, consistency seems to be key.
“You could even think of your brain as having a sort of gratitude ‘muscle’ that can be exercised and strengthened,” suggested New York magazine writer Christian Jarrett.
We should note that this isn’t unique to gratitude; any emotional response may be “strengthened” in this manner. That means that if you walk around thinking that your life is terrible, your life will probably be terrible because you’re wiring your brain to reinforce your negative feelings.
This isn’t to say that occasional feelings of negativity are in any way abnormal, or that when you feel that negativity, you’re necessarily putting yourself in a worse place. However, the study does enforce the power of positive thinking—especially when we feel like complaining.