Antidote to Complaining: Santosha

I recently read a statistic that made me pause and think: research shows that most people complain once a minute during a typical conversation. Once a minute?? That’s a lot of complaining! Not only does that affect our relationships with one another, it shapes our world view and can have a negative effect on our brains. 

Yes, complaining changes our brains and affects our nervous system. According research done at Stanford University, half an hour of complaining every day physically damages the brain in these ways—

  • Negativity peals back neurons in hippocampus (the part of the brain used for problem solving and cognitive function) while forming stronger neural connections to make behavior (i.e.: complaining) more permanent. In other words, we have less problem solving ability and are more prone to complaining. Also noteworthy is the fact that the hippocampus is one of the primary brain areas destroyed by Alzheimer’s. 
  • When we complain, our bodies release the hormone cortisol, the hormone which shifts us into “fight or flight” mode. When we are in this mode, our heart rate, respiration and blood sugar increase. 
  • Over time, extra the cortisol in our system impairs our immune system, making us more susceptible to high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, obesity and stroke.

Now, it is common knowledge that what we practice or repeat becomes a habit. Neuroscientists have learned that neurons in the brain that “fire together” (meaning are stimulated at the same time) tend to “wire together” to form stronger pathways. It becomes a kind of “snowball effect” that increases our tendency to complain with all the negative biological implications. Chronic complaining sets us up so that rather than seeing solutions to problems, we develop a negative attitude which leads to a greater sense of hopelessness.

What can we do? Well the yogic remedy to complaining is to learn to cultivate santosha, or contentment. Santosha can be translated as “an attitude of contentment, one of understanding and accepting oneself and one’s environment and circumstances as they are, a spiritual state necessary for optimism and effort to change the future.”1 Santosha does not come from outside us, but instead is a state of inner peace that we derive from acceptance of our circumstances and of ourselves. When we experience santosha, we are content with what we have, not taking more than we need, and satisfied with who we are. 

But as we all know, this isn’t always easy to do. Here are some ideas to get you started on the path to cultivating contentment—

Express gratitude. The best way I know to counter my tendency to complain is to express gratitude and thankfulness for the good in my life. Focusing on the blessings helps put the things we’re apt to complain about in perspective. So say thank you, start a gratitude journal, or tell someone close to you how much you appreciate them 

Replace negative thoughts and words with uplifting ones. Remember that neurons that fire together, wire together, so wire your brain for contentment by focusing on the good. When tempted to complain about how your boss overworks you, think about how fortunate you are to have a job, even one you dislike. The same is true for your unruly children or curly hair that frizzes up each time it rains—think instead of how your children make you laugh and that your curly hair is a legacy from your beloved grandmother. Reframing our thoughts can do wonders to our sense of contentment. 

Release expectations. So often the things we complain about are tied to how we wish they were. There is a lot we can’t control. Allowing ourselves to be present in the moment, instead of painting mental pictures of how we wish life was, opens us to the joy of the unexpected. And when we do, the universe often gifts us with experiences we never dreamed possible. So let go and be open to being surprised. 

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santosha

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