Meet Dave. Dave is very clever, and likes to show how clever he is by poking holes in other people’s ideas or opinions. He’ll point out why your idea will never work, or share an example of some other “idiot” who tried what you’re attempting and failed miserably. Dave is always quick to remind you that politicians lie, that companies only support charitable causes to get positive publicity, and that your recycling efforts have little effect in the grand scheme of things.

Dave is what’s commonly known as a “miserable b*stard.” He lives in a world of negative thoughts, and seems to think the rest of us want to join him in that world of negativity.

We all know someone like Dave.

Maybe they, like Dave, think they’re being clever by pointing out the worst case scenario. Or maybe they’re the type of miserable b*stard whose negativity is expressed as gossip, speculating about ulterior motives and taking joy in tearing apart people and situations by assuming the worst.

I have a former boss who is still to this day (despite some hefty competition) the most negative human being I’ve ever met. At the time we met, I was young and impressionable, working with her at an embassy overseas. I’m going to call her Negative Nelly.

Whenever a backpacker came to the office saying they’d been pick-pocketed and asking for help, Negative Nelly told me they were probably lying to get money.

When I organised a film festival that played to a full house at every screening and generated stacks of positive publicity for us, Negative Nelly complained about the overtime owing to staff who helped at the doors.

When a highly motivated (and underutilised) colleague showed initiative and contributed above and beyond what was in her job description, Negative Nelly complained that the staffer was overstepping her role and trying to cause trouble.

For some reason, I was always Negative Nelly’s sounding board. She’d call me into her office, spray me with negativity, and expect me to nod along and sympathise. As I said, I was young and impressionable and keen to learn from this well-respected woman, so I went along for a while.

But by gosh it wore me down.

I realised I’d just about hit my limit when Negative Nelly complained that her upscale serviced apartment (in which she was living rent-free) wasn’t as large or luxurious as her previous rent-free luxury apartment had been. The final straw, however, was what happened after I found out that she’d had a lottery win.

Negative Nelly and her siblings had formed a lottery syndicate in Australia, and someone else in the office told me that Nelly had won $8,000. Lucky or what?!

“At long last,” I thought, “some good news that is impossible to place a negative spin on.”

Partly to prove to myself that I’d finally found a situation that even Negative Nelly wouldn’t be able to complain about, I went to see her and offer my congratulations on the lottery win. And do you know what she said?

“With taxes these days it’s hardly worth it.”

I couldn’t believe it. How on earth could this woman extract negativity from something as purely joyful as a lottery win? How was it even possible to contort one’s brain enough to invent a negative angle to winning a free cash prize?*

* Side note: As far as I’m aware, lottery winnings aren’t even taxed. So I assume her point must have been something to do with her share of the $8,000 being such a small fraction of the amount she paid on her tax bill each year as to be comparatively nothing. I mean, really? To be honest I still have no idea what she meant. 15 years later I’m still flabbergasted.

It’s only now that I’m starting to understand the reasons behind this mind-boggling ability to see a downside to winning free money. The fact is that years and years of continuous complaining had literally changed the structure of Negative Nelly’s brain.

Her brain was physically rewired to come up with negative thoughts.

Your amazing brain

Our brains are fascinating blobs of awesomeness. The cells in our brain are called neurons, and what we think of as “thinking” is, in very simplified terms (don’t yell at me, scientists), just the exchange of information between these brain cells. The way a message gets from one neuron to another is by riding across on an electrical current. How do they do that? Well, each cell has sticking-out bits (called synapses) that either shoot the electrical current across to its neighbour, or receive the signal sent back. Kind of like bridges, but they don’t quite join up.

As you repeat a behaviour, however, the neurons responsible for that behaviour grow closer together, and the synapses bridging between them become stronger. This is why repeated practice of something, like playing chords on a guitar or driving a car, becomes easier over time. The brain literally reorganises itself so that the bits needed to perform that activity get closer together, making it easier and in some cases completely automatic.

It makes sense, don’t you think? I mean, if you find yourself writing notes in your fancy journal a couple of times each day, you don’t store it up on a high shelf in the spare room where it’s a pain to go retrieve. Even if it started out being kept up in the spare room, once you realise you’re going to get it every single day you’ll move it somewhere that’s more convenient to access. It’s a similar thing with your brain.

Remember how difficult and confusing it was the first time you ever tried to drive a car? Your conscious mind had to remember to check the mirrors, use the indicator, push in the clutch while you changed gears. You had to concentrate and devote brainpower to thinking about each separate step. Once you’ve been driving a while, though, you barely need to think about it at all. The pathways in your brain have been strengthened so much through repeated use that the behaviour runs along them automatically.

Unfortunately, the same thing happens when the behaviour you’re repeating is complaining. If you’re regularly grumbling and looking for the negative angle in a situation – whether it’s to make yourself feel clever, to fit in with those around you, or just because you’re in a bad mood and want to wallow a little bit longer (don’t judge, we all do it) – your brain will start to strengthen those neural pathways.

Do this enough, and it means that whenever any new situation arises in your life, your brain will find it easier to zip along the well-established, easy-access, negativity pathways than to put in the effort to build a bridge to a positive interpretation. Negative thoughts become the path of least resistance, and become your automatic response. Even with something as inarguably positive as a lottery win.

This, obviously, sucks.

Every time you give in to having a bit of a moan or complaining, which might feel good in the moment, you’re actually rewiring your brain so that it becomes easier to produce these negative thoughts in the future. Or, to put it another way, you’re making it more difficult for your brain to see the positive side.

And do you really want to be “that” person? The one known for being a downer, a Negative Nelly?

But it’s not just social exclusion that negative thinkers should be wary of, there’s even evidence that complaining physically damages your brain by shrinking the hippocampus. This is the same area that’s damaged by Alzheimer’s disease. Call me crazy, but I can’t imagine that this is a good thing.

If you look at the big picture, it’s clear that letting yourself indulge in negative thoughts is just not worth it.

But the million-dollar question is, what can you do about it? Well, I’m glad you asked. I’m going to share with you a simple technique that you can use to significantly reduce your tendency towards negative thinking in just seven days.

Before we start, though, I want you to understand that it’s going to take some effort on your behalf to retrain your brain. This is not just about willpower – if you’re someone who finds yourself complaining regularly, then your brain has literally rewired itself to help you grumble.

Your Life-is-Sucky synapses (technical term) have grown stronger and closer together. It’s not permanent, but it is going to require some effort to knock down those negativity bridges bonding them together and build new ones that support happier thoughts and interpretations. Are you up for it? Good! Let’s go!

7 days to a more positive outlook

Equipment needed: One plastic wristband (or hair tie, or rubber band) to be worn around your wrist for the entire week

Step One: Awareness

First we’re going to work on awareness. If complaining has become automatic for you, you may not even realise how often you’re doing it. So first we’re going to force your brain to recognise when it’s being negative.

What do to:

Place the plastic wristband (or hair tie or rubber band) around your wrist. For the next 7 days, every time you say or think something negative, you’re going to pull back the band and let it go with a snap.

Yes, you’re going to snap your wrist.

No, it won’t hurt (much).

It may be that negativity is so habitual that you don’t even recognise when it’s happening. You’ll have to be the guardian of your own thoughts, but you might want to recruit some outside assistance to point out when you say something negative. Get a partner, friend or workmate on the case, and encourage this helpful observer to point out every time you complain or say something negative.

And snap yourself every time you catch yourself being negative.

Every time.

I rarely say this, but…DON’T be kind on yourself.

But…why?

There are a couple of reasons that this works. First, it’s a pattern interrupter that breaks the smooth flow of information across the negativity bridge in your brain. The reason that negativity has become habitual for you is that it has become automatic. Doing this breaks that smooth flow, which is what we want.

Second, it becomes annoying to snap yourself on the wrist. Like, really annoying. If you’re committed to retraining your brain then you know that the only way to stop this annoying snapping is to reduce the number of negative thoughts and verbal complaints that you’re making. So there’s your immediate, short-term incentive for change.

Step Two: Improvement

Step one disrupts traffic across the “negativity bridges” you’ve built in your brain. In step two, you learn to redirect the traffic somewhere positive. And the more thoughts you send across this new, positive path, the stronger and more automatic it will become.

The snap on your wrist will pull you away from the automatic behaviour (thinking negative thoughts) and give you a chance to exert some conscious influence on the direction your thoughts are going.

What to do:

After the snap, replace the negative thought or impression with a positive one.

You might have to dig around for a while to think up a positive angle to whatever you’re complaining about, but every time you do you’ll be building and strengthening some new, positive pathways in your brain. And the more you practice, the easier it will become.

Try this for 7 days, and I guarantee you’ll notice a visible change in your thinking patterns.

Towards the end of the 7 days, you’ll be snapping your wrist less often and you’ll find yourself automatically correcting negative thoughts and replacing them with positive ones. Even if there are occasions where you do choose to express a negative thought, it will be as a result of a conscious decision and not a reflex reaction.

And the best thing is you no longer need to find yourself sucked down into that rabbit hole of whinging and complaining and moaning for moaning’s sake. You don’t need to fear turning into a friendless, joyless Negative Nelly.

We only have one life, let’s make living it enjoyable!

If you’ve taken the 7 day positivity challenge, drop a note in the comments below and let me know how it went.

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