From grouching to gratitude

Oscar the Grouch - grumbling vs. gratitude

If you’re like me, as you begin to make changes in your diet and other health habits, you’re bound to encounter some thoughts like these (thoughts I may or may not have had at some point):

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.

These complaints may seem harmless, and we think we’re just “letting off steam,” but you might be surprised at just how destructive these kinds of thoughts are.

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, in fact, that we often do it without thinking. I’ve seen estimates that the average person complains 20 to 40 times a day.

Complaints - Gratitude

Some complaints can be purposeful and productive. If you’re complaining to the company who made your dishwasher that 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 stick with our dishwasher analogy, maybe you’re trying to weigh out the pros and cons of replacing the dishwasher vs. putting up with it for a few more years.

If you’re “venting” how you feel about something with a wise, 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.

So complaining that’s an overture to solving a problem, or expressing how you feel so you can process it and move forward: both of these can be productive if done with boundaries, in the right way in the right setting.

But complaining just to complain? Just to establish how much everyone in our hearing should feel sorry for us?

Not. Really. Helping. In fact, grumbling be making us more miserable.

Grumbling gets you down

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

Dr. Travis Bradberry suggests there are at least three ways in which 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, part of the brain that’s critical for problem solving. (Also one of the primary areas affected by Alzheimer’s.)
  • It releases the hormone cortisol in your body, raising your blood pressure and blood sugar – with all the downstream 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 really 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.


Gratitude turns what you have into what you want.


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 that 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 that 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?

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

To make it more effective, tell a few people close to you that you’re doing it, for accountability and support. If you’re really brave, ask whoever you live with and/or work with to call you out whenever 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.

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?

saying grace, 1942
Photo by Marjory Collins. Farm Security Administration – via Wikimedia

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 whose guarantee was largely out of his hands. Weather or pests could decimate a crop or a herd, leaving a family or a community hungry for weeks or months. Our 24/7 grocery stores and restaurants have separated us from the awareness that all our food ultimately comes from God’s providence. If it’s already your habit, 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, just 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 still moments can load your mind with those things to be thankful for when you do catch yourself complaining. Brainstorm some different ways to think about the things you usually complain about:

  • Instead of “Why can’t I eat whatever I want?”, tell yourself, “Wow! I’m really lucky/blessed to live in a place with so many food choices! And I’m proud of myself for making these good choices.”
  • Instead of “Ugh, I don’t want to work out today,” tell yourself, “It’s so awesome that I’m healthy enough to move on my own! And a month from now, this is going to be easier and I’m going to feel better.”

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 practice 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, when doubts or 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 what I have to be thankful for.

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!

Gratitude board

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!

As you persistently work at giving up your grumbling, and learn to pre-empt it with gratitude, in time you’ll learn to look for the good in everything. both lifting your mood, and helping you break out of the feel miserable > make unhealthy choices > feel miserable cycle. You can replace the dopamine of quick carbs with the dopamine of gratefulness and joy!



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