How to Stop Complaining

Is avoiding most of our usual topics of the conversation the best way to stop complaining? Our writer thinks so.

Twenty-four hours. That’s my record after a full week of trying not to complain. Most days I move my bracelet (to mark a complaint) from wrist to wrist about 15 times. So you see, 24 hours is an amazing accomplishment.

I only partially credit Will Bowen’s book A Complaint Free World: How to Stop Complaining and Start Enjoying the Life You Always Wanted with my success.

Clearly Bowen, a minister in the U.S., is new to the self-help genre. In his introductory chapter he states: “I’m not out to tell you or anyone else what to do.” Doesn’t he know readers of self-help books are after firm direction and repetitive mantras? If I were Bowen’s editor, I would have changed it to this: “Do exactly what I tell you.”

In fact, I’ve been translating Bowen’s sensible, reasonable prose into the bossy instructions I usually encounter in this genre. Not only are these one-dimensional rules simpler to remember, I find it’s easier to evaluate my progress this way.

Bowen says: “I realized that my relationships with some people I considered good friends centered on expressing our dissatisfaction about whatever we were talking about. I began to avoid them. I found myself beginning to feel happier.”

I say: “Don’t talk to your whiny friends.”

Note:Thanks to the holidays, most of my whiny friends have been too busy to see me. But I have run up against my whiny family quite a bit. While I’m trying not to complain, my mother is reading a book called Born to Kvetch and keeps telling me that complaining is in my genetic code.

Bowen says: “Complaining should happen infrequently; criticism and gossip, never. Check yourself. When you complain, is the cause severe?”

I say: “Are you dead or dying? No? Then don’t complain.”

Note: On New Year’s Day, I had severe cause for complaint—a doozy of a hangover. I lay in bed, and felt like death, so I think it’s fair to say I was on my deathbed. I complained appropriately.

Bowen says: “Poor health is one of the most common complaints people voice. People complain about their health to get sympathy and attention and to avoid aversive events such as adopting a healthier lifestyle.”

I say: “Don’t talk about your health.”

Being of generally healthy stock, I’ve found this an easier rule to stick by, until this morning, when I bashed my head against a low-hanging shelf in my office. Intermittent moaning and whining about the bump has elicited one extra-strength Tylenol and very little sympathy.

Bowen says: “Triangulation occurs when you have an uncomfortable situation with someone, but discuss the problem with someone else rather than going to the person directly. Talking to someone else is complaining.”

I say: “Um, don’t talk to other people…..hmmm.”


Bowen says: “Am I opposed to gossip? Absolutely not. As long as: 1. What you’re saying about the absent person is complimentary. 2. You would repeat, word for word, what you are saying if the absent person were present. If you can follow these two simple rules, gossip all you want.”

I say:“Don’t talk about other people.”

Note: So far, my most successful day—a full 24 hours without complaint—involved zero interaction with others. I stayed home, watched CSI reruns, made Kraft Dinner, napped and lounged. It was great. Obviously, it’s not a long-term solution, but 24 hours is 24 hours and I’m very proud of myself.

Bowen says: “We also complain as a way of making ourselves appear more discriminating. For example, even if the cuisine at a restaurant is excellent, a person might complain that the level of the food is not up to his or her standards.”

I say: “Don’t eat in fancy restaurants.”

Note: Just a few days ago I was enjoying my favorite lunch—sourdough bread with mustard—when a colleague began berating me for eating something so lacking in nutritional value. I said nothing of course, but thought fondly of Bowen’s illuminating thoughts on food snobbery.

Bowen says: “Processing is sharing your feelings about something that has happened and not rehashing the events of what happened. If your boss yells at you, you may want to talk to your spouse about the experience and share how it made you feel.”

I say: “Don’t talk about work.”

Note: My next project, after I’ve learned not to complain, is to do a study that proves the most popular people are those who never mention work—even when they are there. I’ve been practicing this rule since long before Bowen’s book came along.

Imagine a world where everyone followed these simple rules. A world where no one ever talked about work, a world without whiny friends, without foodies. A world where no one every talked about their chronic migraines or eczema and the only time someone complained was on their deathbed.

When I wonder if I can continue to not complain, I picture this utopia and feel strong.

Oh, and there’s one subject Bowen brushes by in his book that needs to be addressed. If you want to succeed on this 21-day challenge, don’t even think about watching CNN’s coverage of the U.S. Primaries with others—unless of course, you are on your deathbed.