I've never been one to "look on the bright side." That's slightly embarrassing to admit, since in the grand scheme of things, I don't have many—if any—things wrong with my life. I'm a healthy 20-something, living and working in New York City, with an awesome family and a bunch of great friends.
Still, a lot of people who have it pretty damn good (like I do) find plenty of things to complain about. Ask any of my acquaintances "How are you?" any given day of the week, and chances are you'll hear one of the classic, knee-jerk responses: "So busy at work." "So exhausted." "Can't wait for this week to be over."
It's almost as if complaining about how tired, busy, stressed, or "over it" we are has become a sign of successful adulthood.
The Dark Side
I'm guilty of seeing the glass half-empty too. After a carefree childhood, I went through high school and college plagued by a vague yet ever-present anxiety. It was never crippling, but it was always there, hijacking my thoughts, causing me to ruminate over what was going wrong in my life—rather than what was so incredibly right.
I fell into a habit of calling out whatever was less than perfect. Whether it was a comment from a friend, a traffic jam, or a boring project at work, I would dwell on it. I would worry about the worst that could happen, rather than think about the best outcomes. I'd overthink everything and sweat over what could've gone better.
I'd overthink everything and sweat over what could've gone better.
If something negative happened, no matter how minor, I’d almost always talk about it. Outwardly, I stayed relatively upbeat, so I felt OK letting small complaints—ugh, I hate the subway; my apartment is so tiny and dark, I can't stand it—slip occasionally (or maybe multiple times per day).
Last winter, after hitting a few rough spots in my personal life, including a death in the family and a breakup, my pessimism hit its peak. I came home after a long day at work and running errands all over town to find my power—and heat—had gone out.
I sat on my couch in the dark, crying. I was living the life I’d dreamed of since I was young: I was a successful editor living in New York. But I was miserable. I knew something had to change.
Getting a Grip
Ironically, I've done a good amount of research on positive psychology over the past few years for work. I’ve read countless studies on the power of positive thinking and gratitude. I've interviewed leading happiness experts like Shawn Achor, Gretchen Rubin, Michelle Gielan, and Gabrielle Bernstein. I’ve worked on articles about how positive thinking really can change your life and how your language can help you be happier at work. But I wasn't really compelled to put it into practice.
Until one particular book landed on my desk: Operation Happiness by Kristi Ling. What really struck me was the subtitle: "Why happiness isn’t something you find, but something you do."
As I read, all the research fell into place, and it finally clicked: I had the power to improve the way I felt through a few tweaks to my thoughts and words. As Ling writes,
Our thoughts are responsible for the amount of happiness we experience.
“Thoughts are not just important; they are the entire foundation of our life and how we live and encounter it. Our thoughts are responsible for every choice we make, everything we create or destroy, and yes, they’re responsible for the amount of happiness we experience.”
I realized my constant complaints weren’t helping me by letting me “vent” my frustrations—they were letting me stew in my own pessimistic, pathetic, half-empty pot of negativity. In order to break the habit, not only did I need to stop complaining, but I also needed to proactively replace those thoughts with something positive.
On April 1, I promised myself I’d look for the good in any situation I was tempted to complain about. Any time I was going to say or think something negative, I’d stop myself and find a constructive counterpoint to bring up instead.
Thanks to Ling and a few other resources (including Greatist's life coach columnist, Susie Moore; Gielan's book, Broadcasting Happiness; and Deborah Heisz's book, Live Happy: Ten Practices for Choosing Joy), I created a few rules to put into action.
1. Focus on what you want to attract.
When you catch yourself thinking about what you don’t want (i.e., "I hope this doesn't..."), pause and start again with positive phrases like, "I’d like to see…," Ling suggests. Even telling myself "This party is actually going to be fun," or "This project is going to turn out great" helped change the way I viewed an entire experience.
2. Stop beating yourself up.
We've all heard how damaging negative self-talk can be, but I never realized how often I was talking sh*t to myself until this experiment. "When you start beating yourself up—in your mind or out loud—for anything, squash that negative self-talk," Ling says.
Thinking "God, I look terrible today," is not going to do anyone any good, even if you're only saying it to yourself. I know it's harder to do on certain days when you actually do feel like crap, but thinking about my new Nikes (that I can wear to work!) made me feel much better.
3. Change your thought process.
When you notice you're in a stressful or sad place, Ling suggests asking yourself: “Is the way I’m thinking right now encouraging or discouraging?” In other words, every time you catch yourself beginning to worry, stop and intentionally think about something else—a compliment someone gave you or a pretty view nearby. Just telling myself "things are actually going pretty great right now" was a nice reminder if I was starting to freak out about something small.
Honestly, I was pretty amazed how easily I was able to transform any complaint into a positive. Here are a few examples of how I switched my thought process.
— There was a seemingly endless span of cold and rainy days. (And I'll admit it: I'm one of those people whose mood is directly correlated to the weather.) On my way to work, out of habit, I pulled out my phone to complain to a friend and maybe compose an angry tweet. Instead, I took a deep breath and thought about how lucky I was to have a job I love—let alone be able to walk there.
— I accidentally broke my iPhone, shattering the screen beyond repair. I knew I'd have to pay out-of-pocket for a new one. But before I went to the AT&T store, I went a full day without a phone. In the past it would've made me anxious, but taking time away from technology was actually relaxing. I walked to meet someone for coffee, without headphones, taking in sights and sounds I would've skipped over before. And while the process was a hassle, I got a rebate back for my old phone, bringing the total down payment for my new phone to just $20 rather than $100. Score!
— After a recent trip, I was tempted to complain about travel to anyone who asked—the long security lines, gross airport terminals, and uncomfortable plane seats. But hey, I could afford to take the trip, I didn’t miss any of my flights, and they weren’t terribly delayed. And most importantly, I got there and back safely.
— Let's be honest: Mondays at work aren't pleasant. I'm usually tired, cranky, and way too busy. But when I caught myself spiraling into complaints about how exhausted I was, I'd remind myself that I had a really fun weekend with friends—and that's why I was so tired. Case of the Mondays, cured.
Plus, the more I focused on finding good things, the more I noticed them in action—a stranger helping a mother carry her stroller up the subway, a man giving a homeless man a few dollars. (New Yorkers aren’t so bad, after all.)
It’s not too far-fetched to say that my month of no complaints changed my life—I've never felt happier or less anxious. The best part is that it's become a habit to catch myself in a negative thought pattern. Whenever I start to feel a sense of anxiety or worry coming on, I reflexively reroute my mind to a positive, different thought. Doing this has a calming effect on me like no medication or therapy session has ever had.
I'm not saying I’m suddenly the most optimistic person in the world. And I still may complain every now and then (especially in winter). I'm also not saying having a positive mindset is going to make you oblivious to stress, sad life events, or even the occasional bad day. Sh*t happens. But believe me, shifting your focus to the good—not the bad—can make it all a little easier to deal with.