When the crocuses and tulips appear on Washington's streets, so does that ritual of spring fever: flirting.

Flirting, while often practiced, is often misunderstood. Rather than an attempt at sexual conquest, flirting is a tool for overcoming loneliness and insecurity, a step on the way to intimate relationships, a safe outlet for fantasy and a quick fix for feeling good.

Although the insecure misinterpret it, and the shy avoid it, flirting can be good for your mental health.

"Flirting can help you to start connecting with other people," says David Burns, a Philadelphia psychiatrist, who advocates flirting in his book Intimate Connections (William Morrow, $15.95) for lonely people seeking relationships.

"Most lonely people are trying to get love. It's easier to start by making a connection. People appreciate a little flattery, lightheartedness and game-playing. That is a phase of courtship for people just as it is for two birds."

The playfulness, sparkle and good will attract other people, says Burns, 42, who learned to flirt in medical school.

"There was this secretary in the department of medicine that had a reputation for being extremely nasty. As an insecure medical student, that made me more insecure. But one day I walked by her desk and I told her a corny compliment about how nice she looked, and she just seemed to melt in my hands."

Burns not only established a good working relationship, but discovered a lifelong social tool.

"Flirting," he says, "can be a desirable step on the way to intimate connections. But some people are too afraid of flirting. They take the rather childish position of saying 'I want what I want, but I do not want to go through the steps to get it because I'm afraid of rejection.' "

For the neophyte flirter, Burns recommends smiling, saying "Hello" and perhaps giving compliments. He may even assign lonely clients the task of giving out 10 compliments a week.

The power of compliments converted Susan Shannon, 33, formerly of Wheaton, Md., and now a Nashua, N.H., title examiner, to flirting. As a single in her twenties, she taught herself to flirt by modeling her behavior after a coworker.

"She was a warmhearted person who complimented everyone. We ran a temporary agency, and one day this guy comes in looking really depressed. She turned to him and said, 'Oh, my God, you're adorable.' It made his day. After watching that, I started to flirt, too.

"Before that, I used to think flirting was a bad thing. But flirting gave me confidence to deal with men."

To overcome the fear of rejection, Burns advises practice. "People need to learn that the world doesn't come to an end if they are rejected."

And among the multitude of courting behaviors, flirting probably carries the least risk.

"Flirting is an excellent kind of multichannel communication," says D.C. psychologist Isaiah Zimmerman. "It allows you to take risks without taking too much of a risk. You can show off your sexuality and attractiveness, but you can pull back, you can deny it. It's almost a way of getting something for nothing."

For married people, says Zimmerman, 56, "flirting allows you a lot of vicarious and harmless fantasy, but you do not have pangs of conscience."

Although married, Shannon still flirts. "I flirt because I enjoy the ego boost. It's shallow, but it's also simple, direct and easy. If you are unattractive to someone, it's not a heavy rejection because it is so shallow."

"The goal of flirting is not to go to bed with someone," reminds University of Maryland psychologist Stan Hunt, 44, "but to feel better and more of oneself at the moment. A lot of people like to flirt because it feels good, it's arousing and you get pleasant feedback from other people."

Says Washington movement reeducation specialist Ann Darby Hutchinson, 36: "Flirting is a way of being effervescent. What you are feeling inside will show in your movement."

She even sees flirting motions as incorporating circles and diagonals, "rounded, indirect figure-eight patterns. Eye contact tends to be made gradually from the side. A side-long glance is flirtatious. Often, the head tilts upward, the voice lightens. The movement starts in the head, then travels in the body in an undulating way.

"A sitting flirtatious posture is on the diagonal and slightly reclined. The more sexual, the more diagonal."

Some of the best flirts, says Hutchinson, are babies. "Peek-a-boo with a child is a very exciting kind of flirting. Babies are marvelous flirts. They naturally go out to someone who is open to them." Their infectious giggles and grins make themself and the other person feel good.

With flirting, says D.C. psychologist Martha Gross, "You get attention, electricity, a spark. It's fun and it can be elevated to an art form. It's a courtship dance that's as old as time."