The average person complains between 15 to 30 times a day, often without realizing they’re doing it. And if that isn’t bad enough, complaining has been shown to cause negative health impacts, decrease morale within the workplace and shrink areas of the brain needed for creativity and problem-solving.

This warning, and a path to limiting complaints in our lives, came from Will Bowen, creator of the Complaint Free Challenge, keynote speaker at the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation annual meeting in Des Moines last week.

“I would say there’s nothing wrong with a little complaining now and then. The challenge is that most people don’t do just a little complaining,” Bowen said. “I joke that complaining is like bad breath. You notice it when it comes out of somebody else’s mouth, but not when it comes out of your own.”

Bowen came up with the Complaint Free Challenge, which gives participants tools and a goal of going 21 days in a row without complaining. 

To help participants, Bowen gave everyone at the annual meeting a purple bracelet and instructed them to switch the bracelet between their wrists each time they hear a complaint escape their mouth.

“This is a mindfulness tool. I don’t want you to snap yourself with it, just switch wrists. Don’t do violence to yourself to improve yourself,” Bowen stressed.

Why 21 days? According to Bowen, habits take about 21 days to form. If one can go three weeks without complaining, that will go a long way toward making the change permanent.

15 years of success

The idea to help people complain less came out of workshops Bowen led in 2006 while living in Kansas City. He found that those around him who were most successful, and arguably happiest, were also those who spent less time complaining and more time doing.

“If you think of anyone you really respect — in most cases, they’re not really big complainers,” he said. “They’re so busy accomplishing something that they’re not putting their creative energy behind looking at what’s wrong.”

Bowen said the opposite of complaining is gratitude. 

“They are polar opposites. Complaining is always about what is wrong and what is missing. Gratitude is always about what is present and what is working.”

He emphasized that beyond the physical, social and professional value of not complaining, it also helps people to find happiness despite their circumstances — and perhaps find creative ways to make their situation better.

“People will say to me, ‘I’m happy now just from taking this challenge because my focus is no longer on what’s wrong and what’s missing — I’m focusing on what’s good and what’s working.’”

Enduring hard times

There are a number of reasons people complain, Bowen said. Sometimes they are unhappy with their situation and want others to experience some of their pain. It can also form bonds within groups if everyone is dissatisfied with a particular issue — think political parties and organizations.

“Seeking attention from others is a human need, not a want,” he said. “We need connections to other people.”

But, Bowen said, there are better ways to connect than what’s wrong with your life or the world around you.

“I don’t remember who said it, but it helps to remember that there have always been times like these,” Bowen said. 

The struggles and challenges of today have echoes throughout history and are part of the ebb and flow of life, he said.

“Complaining to and with your fellow farmers … doesn’t improve the situation,” he said.

Instead, try steering the conversation to a positive place, Bowen advised. Ask questions like, “Do you recall a time when things were this bad?” or “Do you remember how great it felt when it was over?”

When in a situation where others are dwelling on complaints, “Try not to throw mud on top of a mud pile. It doesn’t really help make that pile any smaller,” Bowen said.