One man's stand against complaining

2008-02-21 00:00

The Reverend Will Bowen never intended to launch a worldwide movement. He simply made a suggestion to his parishioners one Sunday about how they could improve their lives with the help of a wrist band. Today he’s sent out more than five million bands to 80 different countries — and has unleashed one of the biggest self-improvement crusades since Dale Carnegie.

Not that he’s complaining, mind you. And that’s precisely the point.

Bowen has given up complaining — well, mostly — and he wants the rest of the world, all 6,6 billion of us, to do the same. Bowen believes there is a direct correlation between an excess of global grousing and why the world is not the way we would like it to be.

He thinks that what the world needs most is for people to stop griping and start focusing on the way things should be. “I strongly believe that our thoughts create our lives,” Bowen says, sitting in his office at Christ Church Unity in Kansas City, Missouri, where he is the senior minister. “Our words indicate what we’re thinking.”

When Bowen first made his suggestion in that sermon in July 2006, he simply urged his congregation of 250 to shift their focus from lack to abundance by giving up complaining for 21 days. It’s the length of time, he said, that it takes to break a habit.

To reinforce his message, he handed out purple silicone bracelets stamped with the word “Spirit”. Those who accept the challenge wear the bracelet, moving it from wrist to wrist whenever they catch themselves complaining. Those who manage to keep their bracelet on the same wrist for three straight weeks are issued with a “certificate of happiness”.

Countless positive thinking techniques and self-help programmes have come and gone in the decades since Norman Vincent Peale launched a cottage industry in the fifties. Maybe it was the purple bracelet, which was Bowen’s own twist, that attracted millions around the world.

“The real magic of the idea is the switching — taking it off, going back and forth,” says Bowen.

The no-complaining idea struck a chord. Word of the initiative spread and the church began getting requests for bracelets from around the world. Bowen set up a non-profit group, A Complaint Free World, separate from the church, and recruited volunteers to fill orders. He started giving dozens of media interviews, appearing in ­People magazine and on TV. One day after Bowen appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show last March, he received orders for more than two million bracelets. Today, requests are steady at about 25 000 wristbands a week.

According to Bowen, the main reason people complain is to excuse themselves from taking action. People encounter things they don’t like and they complain because it’s easier than finding a solution. Or they complain as a way of bragging or showing their sophistication.

Bowen was the first of his congregation to go 21 days without complaining (gossiping and sarcasm are no-nos, too). It took him about 10 weeks, although he says it takes most people four to 10 months to make it for three straight weeks. “The average person complains 20 to 30 times a day and I was at the high end of that,” he says. “Now I may complain two or three times a month. But I catch myself.”

He cites Philippians 2:14, “Do everything without complaining”, as biblical imperative for his movement. But his book, A Complaint Free World: How to Stop Complaining and Start Enjoying the Life You Always Wanted, incorporates very little religion. Bowen wants the book to appeal to a wide audience and sees the movement as larger than any single church or religious denomination.

The movement’s slogan is a quote from poet Maya Angelou: “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain.”

Bowen’s crusade draws diverse reactions from ministers and psychologists. Some see positive-thinking programmes as beneficial, provided they’re rooted in deeper character reforms. Some, though, believe that venting can be constructive.

“Life is hard and it’s okay if you’re not happy all the time,” says Barbara Held, a psychology professor from Brunswick, Maine, who has written a book on “creative complaining”.

With interest increasing, Bowen is planning new initiatives — a school curriculum, a corporate seminar, a “complaint-free cruise”. For now, he has no plans for any more church giveaways, like the bracelets. Few members of his church are complaining. “Frankly,” Bowen says, “it’s become so huge, people in the church are joking, ‘If you have any more good ideas, keep them to yourself.’ ”

— The Christian Science Monitor.

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