How to Be Thankful and Improve Your Life

On day one of my self-proclaimed Month of Gratitude, my five-year-old son woke up “bored” at 5:15 a.m., I spied a speeding ticket in my wife’s purse, and our water heater sputtered to its death as I was getting into the shower. Ordinarily, I would have started grousing and the day would’ve been off to an ugly start. But this day was different. How cute my child’s dimples are even at this ungodly hour. How fetching my wife’s taste for adventure. Only 29 days to go.

Just a week earlier, as I struggled with the feeling that I’d been put on this earth to load and unload the dishwasher, I’d decided it was time to end my reflexive complaining. But it wasn’t simply the little things that were gnawing at me. All of a sudden, my friends were dealing with bad news—cancer diagnoses, divorce, job loss. Shouldn’t I be celebrating my relative good fortune?

How to Be Thankful and Improve Your Life©2009 Jupiterimages Corporation

I’d heard about the feel-good benefits of a gratitude attitude. What was less clear was how to move from griping to gushing. Hoping for tips, I called Robert A. Emmons, a professor at the University of California, Davis, who pioneered research on the benefits of positive thinking. Emmons quoted new studies that indicated that even pretending to be thankful raises levels of the chemicals associated with pleasure and contentment: serotonin and dopamine. Live as if you feel gratitude, he said, and soon the real thing will come.

He recommended keeping a log of everything I’m grateful for in a given week or month. One major study showed that people who wrote down what they are grateful for felt 25 percent happier after ten weeks than those who did not. They even felt better about their jobs and exercised an hour and a half more per week.

I was sold, but my first attempts at keeping a gratitude list were pretty weak: 1. Coffee. 2. Naps. 3. Caffeine in general. As my list grew, I found more uplift: 114. Freshly picked blueberries. 115. The Beatles’ White Album. 116. That I’m not bald.

By day three, I was on a tear, thanking every grocery bagger and parent on the playground like I’d just won an Oscar and hanging Post-it notes to remind myself of the next day’s thank-you targets: the mailman, my son Sebastian’s pre-K teacher. But soon, the full-on approach started to burn me out. Researchers call it the Pledge of Allegiance effect. “If you overdo gratitude, it loses its meaning or, worse, becomes a chore,” Martin E. P. Seligman, the author of Authentic Happiness, told me when I mentioned my slump. Be selective, he advised, and focus on thanking the unsung heroes in your life.

Then Seligman suggested a “gratitude visit.” Think of a person who has made a major difference in your life and whom you’ve never properly thanked. Compose a detailed letter to him or her that expresses your appreciation in concrete terms, then read it aloud, face-to-face. “It’s very moving for the giver and the receiver,” Seligman told me. “Be prepared for tears.”

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