By the end of 2007, John Kralik had hit the lowest point in his life. He was going through a second, drawn-out divorce, had gained 40 pounds and had lost touch with his two sons. His new girlfriend had just ended their relationship and he was broke, with his law firm operating in the red and about to lose its lease.
"Things looked pretty grim," recalls Kralik, 56, author of 365 Thank Yous: The Year a Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life.
Too depressed to enjoy the New Year's Day Tournament of Roses Parade near his Pasadena, Calif., apartment, he set out alone on a hike through the mountains. While he was walking, an inner voice spoke to him: "Until you learn to be grateful for the things you have, you will not receive the things you want."
By the time he stepped off the trail, Kralik had decided to write one personalized thank-you note every day for a year. He began by thanking his son for the Christmas gift of a coffeemaker. He thanked his parents, his siblings, his friends for their kindnesses over the years. He thanked his employees for sticking with him during tough times, fellow attorneys for sending him clients, his high school English teacher for inspiring him to write, and a doctor for saving his life.
"The exercise took the focus off of me and my problems and put it on the blessings in my life and the things that people were doing for me," Kralik says.
Within a year, something miraculous happened: He lost weight, turned his law firm around and reconnected with old friends and estranged relatives. Now, "I have a peace inside because I recognize that whatever my momentary difficulties are, I have a good life," says Kralik, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge since 2009.
'Tis better to give
Gratitude, experts say, is a powerful emotion that makes us feel more connected to the people we love. It boosts our spirits and helps us maintain a positive outlook. And as Kralik's experience illustrates, it can transform lives.
"[People] frequently make the mistake of thinking of gratitude as a one-time event that they need to put on their to-do list. This leads to the experience of gratitude as an obligation," says Richard Nicastro, 48, a psychologist in Las Cruces, N.M. "I encourage people to think of gratitude as a mindset, a way of being and a way of viewing the world rather than an isolated event."
But it isn't enough to feel grateful. You have to show it.
Nate Lambert, 31, a professor of family sciences at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, began studying gratitude more than five years ago when he realized that his wife's thankful disposition made a big difference in their marriage. Unlike most researchers, he focused on how expressing gratitude helps the giver, not the receiver.
In a 2010 research project, Lambert studied 137 college students, instructing some to express grateful thoughts to their partners twice a week. Four weeks later, those participants showed a higher regard for the other person and were more willing to resolve problems in the relationship than those who simply conjured up grateful thoughts or positive memories.
"Gratitude works because it takes the focus off the self," Lambert says. "All of a sudden you start focusing on what's good about the person and how that works well with you and suddenly you have a different mindset and a different approach to your relationship." And, he points out, "Helping someone else feel valued makes you feel more valued."
The grateful rabbi
As a religious person, Rabbi Henry Glazer always sensed that something was missing in his personal relationship with God. One day in 1998 while lifting his prayer shawl over his head at a Jewish retreat, he began sobbing uncontrollably.
A few minutes later, "I felt the need to say to God, the world, the universe, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you,'" recalls Glazer, 71, of Fort Lee, N.J. "I wanted to say thank you for just being alive."
He dubbed himself "The Grateful Rabbi," launched an online blog about gratitude, and self-published a book titled I Thank Therefore I Am: Gateways to Gratefulness. "I complain much, much less now," Glazer says. "Being more grateful has imposed on my life a greater calm, a greater sense of security and optimism and hopefulness."
Thankfulness, Glazer concedes, can be difficult to muster in a world obsessed with tragic events and negative messages. "It's much easier to sink into your despair," he says, noting that a cheerful fellow once told him, "I'm really happy I pay taxes."
"I looked at him and said, 'Are you crazy?'" Glazer recalls. "And he said, 'Stop and think for a second. If you don't pay taxes, it means you aren't employed. And if you're unemployed, your situation would not be very good.'"
"Gratitude allows you to say, '[Life] is a gift,'" Glazer says. "When you feel grateful, you feel worthwhile."
Thanks for everything
As a teen, Leah Dieterich hated when her mom nagged her to write thank-you notes. But as an adult, she noticed that when she felt grateful, she felt more at peace. So she started scribbling notes of gratitude to inanimate objects-$2 bills, the ocean, a headache-and saving them in a box.
"Dear air," she wrote. "Thank you for smelling like cookies right now." To a lip numbed by Novocain, she wrote, "Thank you
for not looking like what you feel like you look."
In 2009, when her longtime boyfriend moved to New York City, she started a thankfulness blog "as a way to hold on to some little thing that could make me feel good every day."
Thanking a car or burnt toast is gratitude in the purist form, says Dieterich, 31, an advertising copy writer in Los Angeles and author of thxthxthx: thank goodness for everything.
"Sometimes when you write a thank-you note you are thinking about how that person's gonna feel. It's different when you're thanking an inanimate object because you know it's not gonna thank you back," she says.
Still, in this era of emails and tweets, nothing compares to a handwritten note from a real person to a real person. It's not just a sign of good etiquette; it's a way to bond.
"A handwritten note gives you greater focus on the other person," says Kralik, who has penned thank-you letters to more than 700 people during the last four years. "It's almost like a piece of you is in the room with them when they read it."