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 spluttered to its death as I was getting into the shower. Ordinarily, I would have started complaining and the day would've been off to an ugly start. But this day was different. How cute my child's dimples (酒窝) are. 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 annoying 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. Hoping for tips,I called professor Emmons, 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. He recommended keeping a log of everything I'm grateful for in a given week or month.
I followed his suggestions, but my first attempts at keeping a gratitude list were pretty weak: coffee, naps, caffeine in general. As my list grew, I found more uplift: freshly picked blueberries; the Beatles' White Album; 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's math teacher. But soon, the full-on approach started to bum me out. Researchers call it the Pledge of Allegiance effect. "If you overdo gratitude, it loses its meaning or, worse, becomes a chore," professor Emmons told me when I mentioned my slump. Be selective, he advised, and focus on thanking the unsung heroes in your life.
Then professor Emmons 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.
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. To this day, I am guided by her advice ("Never be boring"). I booked plane tickets to my hometown, Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Miss Riggi was shorter than I remember, though unmistakable with her still long, 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." 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, my feeling of peace and joy remained long after I returned home.