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Book review: A Simple Act of Gratitude
By John Kralik

A Simple Act of Gratitude (previously 365 Thank Yous), by John Kralik A Simple Act of Gratitude
How Learning to Say Thank You Changed My Life
by John Kralik

Hyperion, 2010, 228 pages (paperback)

Previously published in hardback as:
365 Thank Yous
The Year a Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life

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We hear a lot about the links between gratitude, abundance and contentment, but can saying "thank you" really give your life a happiness makeover?
Mired in misery and depression, John Kralik decided to find out by setting himself the task of writing one thank you note a day for 12 months. A Simple Act of Gratitude / 365 Thank Yous is his record of this year of discovery.

Middle-aged, overweight and almost bankrupt, with two failed marriages behind him and business failure staring him in the face, there's precious little John Kralik can find to be thankful for at the start of 2008. He is tired of life and terrified of what the future may hold: a self-described 'loser'. That is until he is inspired to start writing thank you notes embarking on what author Addie Johnson, who wrote A Little Book of Thank Yous would approvingly call a 'gratitude binge'. And yes, little by little, writing these notes serves to change his attitudes, reconnect him with the people who matter to him, and ultimately transform his life for the better.

It is not, however, an easy journey. Achieving his target of 365 thank you notes takes longer than a year, and there are plenty of setbacks and challenges along the way. But it's both fascinating and inspiring to see how rediscovering a sense of gratitude gradually lifts Kralik from a state of almost total despair to a deep appreciation of, and even delight in, what he has. And he quickly discovers that the very act of writing the thank you notes makes him feel better, by forcing him to focus his attention on others, if only for a few moments. In fact, throughout the book he compares the writing of these notes with meditation.

Kralik's transformation occurs not so much in his material life (although that benefits too) but within himself. As he cultivates gratitude as a way of life, he discovers that there have been many blessings in his life all along he had simply closed himself off from them and failed to recognize them. He becomes, as he freely admits, "a different and much better person", overcoming his sense of disillusionment with himself and his profession (law), and slowly reuniting himself with his ideas.

Little by little he rediscovers meaning in his life and riches in his personal and professional relationships. In particular he starts to treasure and have fun with his young daughter. In the course of the year he learns to appreciate his family, makes peace with his ex, renews and strengthens many old friendships, saves his firm and runs a grueling marathon for charity. Not bad for a man who, early in the year, had pretty much given up on his life!

Despite sympathizing with Kralik's initial circumstances, I found his extreme self-pity and self-absorption in the early parts of the book a bit much to take. Having said that, as a dramatic device it sets the scene for the transformation to come, and Kralik certainly becomes a great deal more sympathetic and a lot more likeable as the book progresses.

While he is not shy of revealing his failings, I had the feeling throughout the book that his story has been 'airbrushed'. There is a fairy tale quality to the transformation he experiences, and whereas a certain amount of poetic license is understandable, given the very personal nature of the material, I found it detracted somewhat from the story. Fortunately the facts don't always have to ring quite true for Kralik to make his point loud and clear: "By being thankful for what I had, I realized that I had everything I needed."

Kralik claims that he never thought of his thank you note project as a 'self-help system'. Nevertheless it worked as one, lifting him from despair to contentment, and enabling him to achieve a number of cherished dreams and access some of the things he had always wanted. Basically his decision to write thank you notes made him a better person a better father, friend, employer and customer and from there on the rest of his life started to fitted into place.

Many of the notes he writes are, he wryly observes, ones that he should have been writing all along: thank yous for Christmas gifts, appreciation of favors and gratitude for lunches, for example. He argues, therefore, that his thank you project shouldn't be hard for the average person to emulate. "I think many Americans could easily write one hundred thank you notes per year", he states.

As a start he suggests replacing all your e-mail thank yous with proper thank you notes. A brief but useful appendix lays out some ideas and guidelines: he advocates 'short and to the point' notes, and makes a strong case for handwriting rather than typing. But his "one sure piece of advice" on writing thank you notes? "Write a lot of them".

I know I won't manage 365 notes this year, and even a hundred sounds ambitious. But Kralik's experiences stick in the mind, and you can be sure that I'll be trying to be more thankful this year... and putting a little extra effort into my thank you notes!

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