July 3, 2000 -- We often think of gratitude as a spontaneous feeling that spreads over us during, say, a dream vacation. But psychologists studying the effects of positive emotions say gratitude can improve our sense of happiness if we turn it into a conscious and regular practice. Feeling gratitude, they say, is something you do versus something you wait for.
The basics are simple: Every day, write down five things that you're grateful for. Here are six fine-tuning suggestions from Timothy Miller's book How to Want What You Have.
1. Don't force it. Gratitude is a "shy bird" that cannot be forced or chased. Try too hard to feel thankful and you'll thwart your intention -- like straining to fall asleep. The idea is to build a place in your life for gratitude through repeated practice.
2. Don't expect fireworks. Along with being shy, gratitude can be -- on first glance -- subtle. Don't wait to be moved by thunderbolts of gratitude. Seek out mild pleasures and savor them.
3. Avoid cynicism. If you're feeling lousy and sarcastic, you may generate lists that read like this: "I'm grateful I'm not homeless." "I'm grateful I don't have poison oak in my armpits." Miller says this tactic doesn't work. Resist it.
4. Play the gratitude game. Find an unremarkable object in your surroundings and muse on it until you find a way to evoke gratitude. Think of earthworms in your backyard, an old office chair where you sit, the power lines outside your window (they're ugly but they keep your family cool and comfortable).
5. Don't wait for a good day. The power of a gratitude list is greatest on downer days. It takes added effort to evoke gratitude when you're feeling wretched, but the attempt may actually help undo those bad feelings.
6. Get help when you're stuck. If you just can't think of anything to be grateful for, try taking a look at the wealth of gratitude journals posted online. Other folks' heartfelt gratitude may jump-start your own.
Ann Japenga is a freelance writer who covers emotional wellness and health issues for WebMD and Health magazine.
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