Quieting the Complaining Mind

Between the hours of two and four in the morning, my mind enters the Fret Zone. I worry, complain, argue and fight about the weirdest things. It is as if all the frustration from the day comes tumbling into one pile of yuckiness. And if I am awake, those thoughts try to convince me that they are right.

Do you ever have one of those worst-case-scenario daydreams? It creeps up from behind when you least expect it. Then bam! You are rattled by a catastrophic thought.

Watching the evening news only reinforces the anxiety that the world is going down the tubes. I recently had to walk away from the television because every single story had a negative ending.

Clifford Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University and co-author of the book The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships (Penguin 2010) suggests that negative and positive emotions are handled in different hemispheres of the brain. Negative emotions, he suggests, generally involve more thinking so the negative information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones. As a result, we tend to dwell on unpleasant experiences and use stronger words to depict what they felt like than happy ones.

An experiment conducted by Roy F. Baumeister, a professor of social psychology at Florida State University and co-author of a Review of General Psychology journal article “Bad Is Stronger Than Good” (2001) reveals how the same experience in reverse offers different intensities of emotion. The loss of $50, for instance, resulted in a stronger negative reaction than the happiness stemming from gaining the same amount. 

Of course it comes down to survival. Those who anticipate bad events tend to be better prepared for them. Back in the Cro-Magnon days, it was important to be a little pessimistic about the future. Your cognitive functions were necessarily on high alert so as not to slide into a false state of security. Any Mammoth hunter knows you need to get it before it gets you.

But today? Do we really need to be plagued by all those negative thoughts? In our relatively safe environment (and I speak only for myself – I am aware that someone in Syria certainly may not feel this way at present), we have a lot to be thankful for.

Therein lies the solution. I have found there is no room in my brain for the complaining mind to voice its opinion when I am feeling grateful. A state of gratitude is easily come by. All you need is to look at what you have, say a prayer of thanks and recognize the abundance around you.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, recently said in an interview that she has long practiced daily gratitude by writing down the best thing that happened to her that day and dropping it in her so-called “Joy Jar”. Whenever she’s feeling blue, she picks out one of the pieces of paper and reminds herself that good things do come her way (I mean, Julia Roberts played her in the movie version of her book. I’d ride on that one for a couple of months, wouldn’t you?).

So the next time you’re up at 3 a.m. wondering why the world can be so mean, remember the good things. Think about them hard. Revisit your jar of joy – in whatever form it takes — and remind yourself that Universal Goodness does indeed exist.

How can you get your daily dose of joy? Well, my friend, as with all things – large and small — it starts with you.

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