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Cultivating Compassion, Attention, and Gratitude

Practicing these three attitudes can greatly increase your wellbeing.

Key points

  • Evidence indicates that cognitive therapies, which involve learning to change thoughts, are among the most effective therapies available.
  • Dr. Timothy Miller, a cognitive therapist, has explained how cultivating compassion, attention, and gratitude improves wellbeing.
  • Compassion, attention, and gratitude do not arise naturally but can be learned and practiced to improve wellbeing.

"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."—Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2, lines 265-266.

Long before I ever thought about becoming a psychologist, this line from Shakespeare's Hamlet struck me as incredibly insightful. While it seems that other people and situations may bother us, much or even all of the bother comes from the way we think about what is happening.

Evidence indicates that learning how to change our thinking when we are unhappy can decrease our unhappiness and increase our psychological wellbeing. In fact, cognitive therapies, which are based on learning to change our thinking, have been found to be one of the most effective forms of psychotherapy.

Now, if you have a serious problem with depression, anxiety, or other psychological issues, you should certainly seek the help of a licensed professional. But if you are generally okay and just want to improve your psychological wellbeing, the principles of cognitive therapy are simple enough that you can learn them and apply them without ever talking to a professional psychologist.

If you would like to try this, a good place to start is a book by Dr. Timothy Miller, How to Want What You Have. Dr. Miller is a cognitive therapist who identified three forms of thought, Compassion, Attention, and Gratitude, that can greatly increase psychological wellbeing when properly cultivated.

How to apply compassion, attention, and gratitude

The trick is understanding the three forms of thought and how to apply them. Dr. Miller purposely capitalized Compassion, Attention, and Gratitude to distinguish them from what we might call ordinary compassion, attention, and gratitude. There is nothing wrong with those ordinary forms of positive thinking, which tend to come naturally to us and do contribute to our wellbeing. We naturally feel compassionate toward those who are less well-off than us, and we derive satisfaction from helping them. We are naturally attentive to those things that interest us. And we naturally feel grateful for the thoughtful gifts that we receive.

But can you feel compassion for someone who is mean to you? Or be attentive to situations that seem boring? Or be grateful when things didn't turn out the way you wanted them to? Obviously, these are not natural reactions for most of us.

Dr. Miller explains how to cultivate Compassion toward those who do not treat you well (which, by the way, does not mean allowing them to abuse you). The key is to think about what you have in common with the person and how you might behave in a similar way if you were in that person's shoes. Cultivating Attention for situations that are not naturally interesting is a skill that can be developed with practice, and Dr. Miller explains how to do this. The same is true for Gratitude.

This short post is not meant to explain Timothy Miller's techniques in sufficient detail to put them into practice. But I hope that you might be intrigued enough by these ideas to take a look at his book.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Miller, T. (1995). How to Want What You Have: Discovering the Magic and Grandeur of Ordinary Existence. NY: Harper-Collins.

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