How to Appreciate the Small Things

Gretchen RubinGretchen Rubin

In college, a friend told me about what he called the "Lost Wallet Syndrome." "No matter what's happening in your life," he explained, "if you lose your wallet, you think, How happy I would be if I could only find my wallet! I'd be happy forever! But when you find it, you're happy for about two minutes, and then you're right back where you started."

Far too often, it takes a catastrophe to make us appreciate what we had. For that reason, one of the central aims of my happiness project is to appreciate what I have, now, while I still have it. I've long been haunted by the words of the French writer Colette: "What a wonderful life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner." That quote is why I've been working hard at finding happiness in the small, ordinary details in life and appreciating the adventure of everyday existence.

Related: 50 Simple Acts of Kindness

Multiple studies have shown that gratitude is key to a happy life: People who cultivate gratitude get a boost in happiness and optimism, feel more connected to other people, are better liked and have more friends, and are more likely to give help to others. They even sleep better and get fewer headaches! Also, I've found that when I consider my reasons to be grateful, the positive feelings tend to crowd out negative emotions such as irritation and resentment.

I have so much to be grateful for that it seems utterly preposterous that I need to remind myself to be grateful - but I do. When things take their ordinary course, it's easy to take everyday life for granted.

Related: 15 Simple Ways to De-Stress

Though I wanted a sense of thankfulness to permeate the atmosphere of my home, I found it challenging to cultivate. It was too easy to fail to appreciate all the things I was grateful for - from pervasive, basic things, such as democratic government, air-conditioning, and diet soda to major personal aspects of my life, such as my family's good health and my children's happiness at school. It's all too easy to overlook seemingly minor but satisfying joys like a sunny morning or the fact that my husband has cleaned up the kitchen. In fact, studies show that married couples treat each other with less civility than they show to other people - and I do this with my husband, I know. So I've begun trying to make a conscious effort to voice my gratitude when he makes me happy, and not to speak in a snappish tone when something he's done has irritated me.

Keeping my thoughts at gratefulness level isn't a snap. I struggle to remember to stop at the drugstore to buy toothpaste, so it's a challenge to remember to cultivate a grateful spirit as part of my daily routine. To help, I've developed a few simple rituals. For instance, every time I sit down at my computer, I think, How happy I am to be back at my computer, doing the work I love. Now I've added a second part: How happy I am to be here, doing the work I love, on a computer that's working properly.

Related: The Power of Touch

I recently added another habit to remind me of my gratitude for my dear ordinary life: my "threshold ritual." In order to get into my apartment building, I have to turn off an alarm and unlock two doors, which takes a bit of time. Now, I use this action as a cue to remind me, How happy I am to be crossing this threshold and to be returning to this family and my cozy home.

Along the same lines, I have a gratitude ritual related to my physical health. Last year, for several months, I had persistent back trouble. It wasn't terrible, but it was constant, and it made any movement either uncomfortable or painful. Nowadays, whenever I go for a long walk or go to the gym, I think, How grateful I am to have a body that is healthy and pain-free. Bodies can be such a source of dissatisfaction; that backache made me much less critical of the imperfections of mine.

-By Gretchen Rubin

What small joys are you grateful for? Let me know in the comments!

More from Good Housekeeping: