I tried to give up complaining for 21 days... here's what happened

Five years ago, my daughter gave me a purple rubber wristband and challenged me to attempt the impossible – not utter a complaint for a period of 21 consecutive days.

A month of no complaining? Easy peasy! I’m not one of those people who are always going on and on about their health problems and troubles, and boring you to death with the run-in they had with a lout in the supermarket like Jan over the road – what? Hang on… What do you mean I was complaining? That’s not a complaint… or is it?

The challenge my daughter set me was part of a movement that’s been going since 2006 called “A Complaint-Free World”.

It was started by a church pastor who challenged his congregation to give up complaining. That meant no whingeing, whining, criticising or gossiping (both of the latter are, when you think about it, another form of complaining).

The pastor distributed purple wristbands, which you switch from one hand to the other every time you let a complain slip. Today some eight million have been sent all around the world, including the one on my wrist this minute.

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According to the Kansas City minister, Will Bowen, “Most of the complaining we do is just a lot of ear pollution detrimental to our health and wellbeing.”

Bowen reasons that by complaining – or regularly saying what we don’t want – we end up drawing attention to and even attracting more of the things we don’t want in life. Like buses that are 20 minutes late, then come in threes.

The point of the bracelet is to get you to notice the words that come out of your mouth, which in turn reflect what’s going on in your head, and the challenge is to have the band stay put for 21 consecutive days.

Let me guess what you’re thinking – “I know someone who could do with this.” I know because this is everyone’s first thought. Hardly anyone thinks, “I’m a real whinger, this challenge could really help me.” Bowen says, “I’ve never known anyone who thinks they are a negative person. Most people, myself included, think they are positive, upbeat, optimistic and sanguine.”

So I gave it a shot. Day one was a bit of a shock. Before I’d even opened my eyes I’d spewed forth a diatribe of complaints – our bed’s uncomfortable, my back aches, we’ve slept late, the dog woke me up in the middle of the night… I clamped both hands over my mouth to make it stop.Things didn’t improve much throughout the day: I changed my wristband 20 times.

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The next day, I tried simply not speaking, but my testy nature came through in emails to friends and eye rolls at the useless men around me.

“How about this rain?” asked the lady in the newsagent and I stared at her like a rabbit in headlights, wondering how to respond. A week in, we went to a dinner party and I sit there mute for the most part. When my friends start talking about phone companies, I couldn’t bear it any more and ended up having to change my wristband four times in as many minutes.

Just to be clear – real complaints are allowed on the challenge. If you are unfairly treated, if something is causing you grief, pain or discomfort, you should complain to change the situation. But so many of our everyday interactions are based on useless negative comments that achieve nothing.

Bowen says we complain because we think it will benefit us to do so when in most cases, it changes nothing. There are also secondary gains such as sympathy, attention or an easy way to make conversation with the plumber.

And complaining is not just a conversational common ground for strangers – entire friendships can be based on the trading of grievances or worse still, criticism of others also known as gossip.

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In his book, Bowen outlines four stages of awareness and ability to change. I seem to be stuck in the “conscious incompetent” stage, which means I know I’m complaining but can’t help myself.

Five years later, the best I have managed is three consecutive days without a complaint. See, it takes an enormous amount of effort not to “go off on one” and, let’s face it, there is a lot we can complain about!

Over the past five years, the wristband has languished in the drawer for months on end. Periodically though, I pull it out and slip it on one wrist, only to have to switch it to the other a few moments later.

Thing is, it’s really nice not hearing your negative thoughts come out of your mouth all the time. Most of the time, you can let something slide rather than hook in and have a big grouse. I can feel that it’s better for my blood pressure, my mood and my state of mind. It also makes me a more pleasant person to be around.

And you can’t complain about that.

Do you complain too much? What would happen if you stopped?