The Rev. Will Bowen never intended to launch a worldwide movement. He simply made a suggestion to his parisioners one Sunday about how they could improve their lives with the help of a wrist band. Today he's sent out more than 5 million of them to 80 different countries – and has unwittingly unleashed one of the biggest self-improvement crusades since Dale Carnegie.
Not that he's complaining, mind you. And that's precisely the point. Mr. 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 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 tidy office at Christ Church Unity in Kansas City, Mo., where he is the senior minister. "Our words indicate what we're thinking."
When Bowen first made his suggestion in that now-serendipitous 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 bracelets on the same wrist for three straight weeks are issued a "certificate of happiness."
Countless positive thinking techniques and self-help programs have come and gone in the decades since Norman Vincent Peale launched a cottage industry in the 1950s. 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. "Complaining is like bad breath. You notice it when it comes out of somebody else's mouth, but not when it comes out of your own."
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 nonprofit 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 hobnobbing with Matt Lauer on national TV. One day after Bowen appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show last March, he received orders for more than 2 million bracelets. Today, requests are holding steady at about 25,000 wristbands a week.
• • •
A native of South Carolina, Bowen worked in various sales jobs – radio, Yellow Pages, insurance – for 15 years after graduating from the University of South Carolina with a degree in broadcast journalism. But he always felt drawn to the ministry. He combines a warm and outgoing personality with, by his own admission, a touch of ham. He was in his 30s when he finally answered the "undeniable call" and moved to Lee's Summit, Mo., to attend ministerial school at the world headquarters of Unity. He was ordained in 2003 and has been senior minister of Christ Church Unity since 2005.
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, which is pretty fast. 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," intentionally 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. Indeed, schools, which cannot get into religion, order the most bracelets. His book includes quotes from a broad range of writers and historical figures, from Aristotle to Stephen Hawking to Lily Tomlin. 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 programs as beneficial, provided they're rooted in deeper character reforms. "In so far as a bracelet on your wrist is a tool to bring mindfulness to your daily modes of communication, I think that's wonderful," says the Rev. Canon Susan Sommer of Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, a big Episcopal church in Kansas City. "It's not a panacea. But in the final analysis, transformation is hard work. We want the perfect diet where we can lose 20 pounds effortlessly, without really changing our eating habits."
Others agree. "I say don't put on rose-colored glasses and refuse to look at the bad things in life, but make a special effort to cultivate a more positive spirit," says Richard Mauw, president of the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. "It's not healthy to be constantly complaining, constantly feeling put upon or mistreated."
Some, though, believe that venting can be constructive. "Life is hard and it's OK if you're not happy all the time," says Barbara Held, a psychology professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, who has written a book on "creative complaining." "I'm not against posttive thinking, and I don't question [the] Rev. Bowen's motives. What I'm against is the pressure to be the same. One size does not fit all."
• • •
At 10 a.m. on a Saturday, volunteers gather in the basement of Christ Church Unity to begin filling hundreds of orders. The bracelets are no longer free, but the fees only go for shipping. The effort survives primarily on donations: The church makes no money on the sales.
Last year, Bowen appointed Tom Alyea, a church member and management consultant, to oversee the activity. With a new ordering system in place, requests are now filled in about a week. Smaller orders are packed by a group of disabled workers through a local workshop. By noon, the dozen volunteers have finished packing 25,000 bracelets as well as dozens of T-shirts and autographed copies of Bowen's book.
Mr. Alyea has taken the 21-day challenge and made it in 4-1/2 months. A husband and father of three teens, he notices a big difference in his life. "The best thing is when we have dinner now – it's relaxing," he says. "It's fun. I'm not sitting there complaining about grades or their rooms or how fast they drive."
It took Rick Silvey, a college math professor, nearly a year to go three weeks without complaining. But, he says, it was worth it. "It's not about being a Pollyanna," he says. "It's about your approach and how you express yourself in different situations. I've seen an increase in respect and peace of mind in my relationships."
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. Naturally, few members of his church are complaining. "Frankly," Bowen says with a laugh, "it's become so huge, people in the church are joking, 'If you have anymore good ideas, keep them to yourself.' "