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?
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.”
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.