A Complaint Free World by Will Bowen

A Complaint Free World claims it can change readers’ lives and make the world a better place. And maybe to some extent it can and it has. But I’ve heard this kind of claim before. Every other self-help book takes its mission just as seriously. No matter how successful any one book is, or even how much I agree with a book’s message, the claim always sounds overblown.

I guess the thing to keep in mind is that the real value of a self-help book is not just in the core ideas it contains but in the way those ideas are explained and embedded in a compelling story that speaks to you.

Did this book speak to me? In a word, no. It does have a couple of good ideas, but there were a lot of bad ideas in there, too. Read below to find out what parts of the book I saw as valuable and what parts were not suited to my taste.

Views on A Complaint Free World

A Complaint Free World, like many self-help books, has a warm, folksy tone. It parenthetically explains ‘difficult’ individual words like ‘benign’ and ‘indifferent’. It spends many pages trying to sell itself and prove its worth. There are a lot of anecdotes, some that were worn thin with use and some that were presumably unique since they were presented as autobiographical. There’s a lot of advice sentences in the second person. There are a lot of inspirational quotes. There are a lot of name-dropping appeals to authority as well as to The Authority.

In short, this book is a veritable paragon of self-help books, and it rubbed me the wrong way from start to finish.

Worse, the author believes in the law of attraction, which brings to mind books like The Power of Positive Thinking and The Secret. If you think about something (goes the theory), that is what you will get, good or bad, because of the “vibrations” that you send out to the universe.

And yet.

There is a solid core idea here. Two, actually:

  1. If you complain less, you and people around you will be happier.
  2. A major step towards improving your behavior is to raise your awareness of it.

The method described in this book is, essentially, to switch a silicone bracelet from one wrist to the other when you notice that you are complaining.

It’s worth a try.

Points of Disagreement

Below, I will complain about this book share more on what I disagree with, in the spirit of education. I think it’s important to spread good ideas and prevent harm from bad ones.

High standards. In at least two places in the book the author conflates the idea of flaunting your high standards with the idea of even having high standards in the first place. I think there’s a meaningful difference: having high standards is fine, whereas purposely making other people feel inferior is (obviously) not.

“Anything you desire, you deserve.” This statement seems like it needs a lot of clarification, which the author doesn’t really provide. The sentence makes sense if it means all people should feel entitled to live the best lives they can create for themselves, free of guilt about their happiness, but it does not make sense if it means all people who want the latest model BMW should feel injured by the universe every day they wake up and there isn’t one parked out front.

Analogies. Analogies can be useful, but should be used with caution. The slingshot analogy in A Complaint Free World is a dangerous oversimplification. It equates a person’s path to success with the path of a rock through the air, even though one path is the unpredictable result of a complex mix of factors while the other is mathematically determined by the rules of Newtonian physics.

Positive mindset vs. the Law of Attraction. Positive mindset explains how your beliefs influence your behavior so that your actions are more beneficial to you. There is a real-world mechanism that translates your thoughts to your actions to practical results. The law of attraction obscures the mechanism by referring to some kind of “vibrations” and promises that your thoughts will influence everything that happens to you, whether through your own actions, the actions of others who know you, the actions of people who have never met you, or chance events, such as rain. (To observe both the mystical and the non-mystical mechanisms in action, watch the comedy television show My Name Is Earl.)

Integrity. While reading this book, I noticed that the word ‘integrity’ was being used in an unfamiliar way. A person’s speech and behavior was characterized as being “in integrity” or “out of integrity” according to whether he was acting in accordance with or against his explicit morals. In my experience, the most relevant preposition to use with the word ‘integrity’ is ‘with’. A person can speak or act ‘with integrity’ or ‘without integrity’. If you ask me, it’s an abstract substance, not an abstract place.

When and why I read it

Saw it in an airport bookshop, thought it looked interesting. Many months later, snapped it up enthusiastically when I saw it for sale cheap at the Praisehaven Salvation Army Store.

This hardcover edition is really nice, design-wise. Cute size, good typesetting and design, good paper. It feels like a serious book. This copy has some pencil underlining, a remainder mark and a plastic dust-jacket cover.

Genre: Non-fiction (self-improvement, spirituality)
Date started / date finished:  02-May-16 to 04-May-16
Length: 176 pages
ISBN: 9780385524582 (hardcover)
Originally published in: 2007
Amazon link: A Complaint Free World

Related books


  • The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman
  • Help by Oliver Burkeman
  • Mindset by Carol S. Dweck
  • How to Talk so Kids Can Learn by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
  • Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
  • Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson
  • The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

Not Recommended

  • The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale
    This book asks you to tell yourself things you don’t think are true until you believe them. Doesn’t seem likely to work for anyone who’s not living in the world of George Orwell’s 1984. In fact, it seems likely to backfire.
  • Learned Optimism by Martin E.P. Seligman
    This book describes optimism in detail, but failed to fully convince me that optimism is achievable or even legitimately desirable in preference to realism.
  • The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor
    The entire book talks about why it’s better to be happy, as if people needed to be convinced that happiness has value. It does not have much advice on how to become happier.