From grumpy to grateful

Okay, so there are a lot of things that can make you grumpy.

When the shop clerk believes texting her friend about last night is more important than getting you checked out quickly.

Raisins you thought were chocolate chips.

The way no one in the house but you sees the trash can when it’s overflowing. (Must be your superpower!)

Then there are those grumpy thoughts that move in as soon as you decide to make healthier choices in your lifestyle.

As you begin to make changes in your diet and other health habits, you’ll probably encounter thoughts like these:

“Boy, some {favorite junk food} would taste really good right now! Why can’t I just eat whatever I want? This sucks!”

“I do NOT want to work out today! I hate taking the time, I hate feeling inept, I hate feeling out of breath.”

“I just want to eat what everyone else is eating. 🙁”

These complaints may seem harmless, and we think we’re just “letting off steam,” but these thoughts can actually keep us stuck if we give them free rein.

What’s wrong with a little griping?

Complaining is acceptable in our culture. You might even say it’s our favorite pastime. We use it as a way to make small talk, a way to bond with co-workers, a way to show off our wit. It’s become so normal we often do it without thinking. I’ve seen estimates that the average person complains 20 to 40 times a day.

Yes, some complaints can be purposeful and productive. If you’re complaining to the company who made your dishwasher because it’s broken and still under warranty, that’s purposeful. If you’re reminding your teenager that the dishes they said they’d do last night are still dirty, that may be productive. (Or it may not.)

Another kind of productive complaining is when you’re processing something to work through it. Maybe you’re trying to weigh out the pros and cons of replacing your old dishwasher vs. putting up with it for a few more years.

If you’re “venting” your feelings about something with a trusted friend or a professional counselor, with the understanding that after you’ve unstuffed those feelings, you’ll try to figure out a way to deal with the problem – that’s productive.

But some complaints are just purposeless, persistent, and often, petty. If you’re complaining as often as you can to anyone who will listen because your dishwasher is old and noisy, this is persistent. And this is the type that qualifies as grumbling. One writer calls it “counterproductive commiserating.” This is the stuff that can take over our life and damage our heart and soul if we’re not careful.

In fact, grumbling may make us more miserable.

sad emoji

Grumbling gets you down

We tend to think we grumble because we’re unhappy, but really, we’re unhappy because we grumble. Oh, the grumbling may start because of something unpleasant, but the moment we choose to complain about it, we begin to magnify its importance in our mind and the degree to which it affects our outlook.

Dr. Travis Bradberry suggests three ways complaining actually does damage to your body and brain:

  • It rewires your brain’s synapses to make future complaining easier, making it more likely to have negative thoughts than positive ones.
  • It shrinks the hippocampus, a problem-solving part of the brain.
  • It releases the hormone cortisol in your body, raising your blood pressure and blood sugar – with all the health ramifications of that.

Feeling sorry for yourself is a mental habit that makes even good times seem bad and bad times seem worse. It’s a habit you can break.

– Allison Fallon

What’s the cure?

The best way to permanently root out something bad is to replace it with something good. If you’ve pulled weeds from your garden and want to eradicate them once and for all, the best approach is to plant a vigorous ground cover in their place. The best groundcover to crowd out grumbling is gratitude.

Grumbling takes away joy, but gratitude breeds it.

Grumbling focuses on what you don’t have. Gratitude focuses on what you do have.

This probably sounds weird, but one of the most joyful seasons of my life was the first few weeks after my dad died.

I wasn’t glad because he was gone: I missed him deeply. I was sad for my loss, and I didn’t stuff or deny those feelings. But I was also incredibly grateful to know he was now with Jesus, and his pain and struggle were ended. I was grateful for heaven, grateful for a Savior, and grateful to know my sweet Daddy was now enjoying both!

It was the gratitude that made me joyful, even in the midst of my grief.


Ready to switch?

For most of us, gratitude doesn’t come naturally. It’s something we need to cultivate with intentional practice. What are some ways we can do that?

Go cold turkey. Here’s a challenge: try to go 48 hours without complaining about anything. Unless this is something you’ve already worked at rooting from your life, you may be shocked at how often you gripe.

To make it more effective, tell a few friends or family members that you’re doing it. If you’re really brave, ask whoever you live with to call you out when they catch you complaining.

And when someone calls you out, you’ll probably want to defend yourself: “I’m not grumbling, I’m just explaining….” Resist that urge. Be humble; accept the correction. Learn from it, and turn your heart and mind toward things you can be grateful for. Some ways to do that…

saying grace, 1942

Say grace. If it’s not already your habit, say thanks before every meal. For thousands of years, mankind was kept mindful that the food on his table was a blessing, and not guaranteed. Weather or pests could decimate a crop or a herd, leaving a family or a community hungry for months. Our 24/7 grocery stores and restaurants have separated us from an awareness that all our food ultimately comes from God’s providence. If it’s already your habit to say grace, try to make it a more mindful habit: thank God for the farmers who grew the crop, the favorable weather that nurtured it, and the money that enables you to put that food on the table.

Practice. You can practice gratitude like you’d practice a musical instrument or a sport. Start your morning and/or end your day focusing on things you have to be thankful for. Like priming a pump, practicing gratitude in the peaceful moments can stock your mind with things to be thankful for when you do catch yourself complaining. Pre-load some different ways to think about the things you usually complain about:

  • Instead of “Why can’t I eat whatever I want?”, try, “Wow! I’m really lucky/blessed to live in a place with so many food choices!”
  • Instead of “Ugh, I don’t want to work out today,” try, “It’s so awesome I’m healthy enough to move on my own!”
  • Instead of “I want to eat what everyone else is eating,” try “I’m really looking forward to spending time with my friends. It’ll be so good to hang out with them.”

Write it down. One of the best ways I’ve found to practice being grateful is to keep a gratitude journal. I have a pocket-sized journal I keep for this sole purpose: recording things I’ve noticed, small and large, for which I can be grateful. This has helped me in two ways. First, it trains me to look for blessings in the everyday – thereby rewiring my brain to be better at gratitude. Second, when I’m having a hard day or when depressive thoughts are looming over me, reading back through all the good things I’ve been blessed with in the past helps counteract those thoughts and refocus my mind on the good I do have.

An alternative to a gratitude journal is a gratitude board, placed in your kitchen or family room. This has the added bonus of allowing you to model gratitude for those around you – and they may just join in!

picture of a bulletin board with sticky notes listing things to be grateful for

The better payoff

Research shows that negative thinking rewires the brain to think negatively in the future, but happily, the reverse is also true. The more you practice gratitude, the more your brain is wired to go first to gratitude! It actually creates new pathways, so that you can get to those positive thoughts faster.

As you persist at trading grumbling for gratitude, in time you’ll learn to look for the good in everything. This will lift your mood, and help you break out of the feel miserable > make unhealthy choices > feel miserable cycle.

You might even replace the dopamine of quick carbs with the dopamine of gratefulness and joy!


PS: If you need help re-wiring your brain, I highly recommend the book The Renewing of the Mind Project.

Also, I provide one-on-one online chats to help with this kind of thing.

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