How to Be Thankful and Improve Your Life

Life gets better when you adopt a gratitude attitude. David Hochman tries it out.

By David Hochman from Reader's Digest | November 2009

I immediately flashed on Miss Riggi, my eighth-grade English teacher. She was the first one to open my eyes to Hemingway, Faulkner, and other literary giants. She was the first to encourage me to write. To this day, I am guided by her advice (“Never be boring”). But had I ever thanked her? Had anyone? I made some quick calls and discovered she was still teaching in the same school district, after nearly 40 years. I booked plane tickets to my hometown, Scranton, Pennsylvania, for Sebastian and me.

I had a week before the trip to Scranton, so I continued to flex my growing gratitude muscle. The author of The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, recommended “taking time off from some- thing you love but take for granted.”

It was easier to love the car after spending a day riding public transportation—and racing ten sweaty blocks to Sebastian’s gymnastics class when the bus was 35 minutes late. For a week, my wife and I gave up TV, our cell phones, even sugar. I gave up coffee—briefly.

The short-term exercises woke us up to the value of the little things. But caffeine withdrawal is one thing. How would a gratitude attitude help my friends with cancer? Or the couple who’d announced their divorce? Or the father of three who’d told me he couldn’t find a job?

“Gratitude is never so important as during those times when everything appears to be lost,” Emmons said. Finding something to appreciate, he said, can save us from absolute despair—in a way that abject complaining cannot. I discovered that truth when I began driving my friend with lymphoma to the hospital for his chemotherapy treatments.

Despite his suffering (or perhaps because of it), our connection grew more meaningful. “I realized when I got sick that I’d spent years worrying about things that mean absolutely nothing,” he told me. Celebrating life while it’s here, he said, was most important now.

I thought about his words on the plane to Pennsylvania, as I wrote draft after draft of my letter to Miss Riggi. I thought I’d nailed it, but as I walked into her classroom, with Sebastian clinging to my leg, I was more anxious than I’d been in years.

Miss Riggi was shorter than I remember, though unmistakable with her still-long, still-black hair and bright, intelligent eyes. After a slightly awkward hug and small talk, we settled in. I took a deep breath and read.

“I want to thank you in person for the impact you’ve had on my life,” I began. “Nearly 30 years ago, you introduced my eighth-grade class to the wonders of the written word. Your passion for stories and characters and your enthusiasm for words made me realize there was a world out there that made sense to me. What a great life, I thought, to be able to share stories with people.”

Just a couple of lines more into the letter, it happened. Sitting there with my first mentor listening contentedly and my son on my lap, emotion welled up inside me. Decades peeled away, and nothing mattered more than this simple act of sharing. I felt like I was speaking for generations of students when I told Miss Riggi, “Time passes quickly. Memories blur and fade. But I will never forget the excitement of arriving each day at your class.”

Professor Seligman was right about the tears. They did come, for both of us. And whether it was Miss Riggi’s enormous smile when I finished the letter, or the way she held it close as we said goodbye, or the simple relief of sharing what had long been in my heart, my feeling of peace and joy remained long after Sebastian and I returned home.

Since then, I have written several more gratitude letters, and my wife and I both summon our “training” when we feel saddled by life. The aggravations are still there, but appreciation, I’ve learned, has an echo—and it’s loud enough to drown out the grumbling of one man emptying the dishwasher.

Anatomy of a Great Thank-You Note We all have to write ’em. Why not do it well? Robert A. Emmons of UC Davis explains what President George H. W. Bush does right in thanking Goldie Hawn for her company at a dinner.

1. His self-deprecating humor deflects attention from himself. 2. Bush puts the focus where it rightly belongs, on the source of his gratitude. 3. The president mentions specific benefits that Hawn provided, avoiding the all-too-common “thanks for everything” approach. From All The Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings, Copyright 1999 by George H.W. Bush, published by Lisa Drew Books/Scribner, New York.

3 Easy Ways to Tune Up Your ’Tude

1. Visualize It Create a collage of what you are grate­ful for, and display it in a prominent place in your home. One technique that works especially well with children, Emmons says, is creating a thank-you “tree” on a refrigerator or wall and adding Post-it note “leaves” every day to acknowledge everything from a new sibling to a walk with the dog.

2. Ask These Questions Choose someone close to you, and ask yourself the following: • What have I received from her? • What have I given her? • What trouble have I caused her? Says Emmons, “This may lead to discovering you owe others more than you thought.”

3. Go Weekly Focusing on gratitude once a week is often more effective than doing it more frequently, according to Lyubomirsky. She compared subjects who kept gratitude journals three times a week with others who did so only once a week. The result: The once-a-week crowd became happier over time. “But choose what fits you personally,” she says.