The Science-Backed Reason to Write a Gratitude Letter Today
Advising someone to celebrate Thanksgiving 2020 by writing a gratitude letter seems borderline cruel. We've watched COVID-19 death tolls and case counts rise while the economy tanks, against the backdrop of reckoning in racial justice made more painful by its very delay, during an election season that felt like an impromptu colonoscopy, and we're supposed to write a thank-you note about it?
But before you head out to buy that can of whipped cream to spray down your gullet as a chaser, consider this: scientists who study the effects of gratitude on the human brain have found conclusive proof that taking a moment to actively appreciate someone or something good in our lives helps us weather tough times better, by enhancing our tendency to keep a positive focus. In other words, writing down the reasons we are grateful for someone we know and sharing it with them in a letter can actually help us better withstand this Thanksgiving's cornucopia of chaos.
To be clear: a gratitude letter isn't your typical "thank you for the socks, they are so cozy, I wear them all the time," note (though I'll go to my grave defending the role such missives play in civil society.) The process of writing a gratitude letter starts by thinking selfishly: how has the intended recipient has made your life better, in ways large or small? Why are you better off, because of the people you have known? Whether with a loan to cover the rent, a well-timed joke, or a strong suggestion to let those new pandemic bangs grow out, we are each the product of people who have cared enough for us to stick out their collective necks on our behalf. A gratitude letter becomes an invitation to meditate on whom we are thankful for, in a year when the gathered crowd at our Thanksgiving tables may be small or nonexistent.
In this way and over time, the gratitude letters we write become a catalog of our resilience, written proof that we have overcome hard things before. Think of them as an inventory of our individual our hype squads. That's a helpful reminder at any time in our lives, but particularly Thanksgiving 2020.
The science linking gratitude with better health and higher happiness levels is extensive and encouraging. A deliberate expression of gratitude – whether by writing a thank-you letter, keeping a gratitude journal, or just starting each day by thinking of three things for which to be grateful - has been found to lower blood pressure, improve sleep quality, and encourage pro-social behaviors that keep us connected in a way that benefits our physical and psychological health.
And that's just for the writer.
So many of us are isolated right now, and we face long dark winter days of more of the same. Imagine the existential boost of receiving a surprise letter in the mailbox extolling our virtues, a document to keep close and reread whenever we feel low. The mood-lifting effects of a thank-you letter last far beyond the turkey-induced tryptophan torpor.
Getting started with thank-you letters is as easy as brainstorming a quick list of people who have enriched our lives. Family, friends, co-workers, favorite authors and performers, even the barista at your corner coffee shop who smiles at you from under her mask: simply jotting down a list of these names may already improve your outlook.
From here, there are three easy steps to getting the letter underway: see, say, and savor.
See: Take some time to think deeply about the specific ways the person has helped you. Did they teach you to play a musical instrument that brings temporary relief from your worries? Have they made a point of checking in with a weekly phone call over the past months? Is this someone whose efforts in support of equal justice have prodded you to be more active in the cause? The mere act of thinking about how your life has changed because you crossed paths with your letter recipient strengthens the neural connections that help you focus on what is going right in your life, rather than what isn't.
Say: Start writing down your thoughts to share with the recipient, saying all the ways they have made your life better. I am a firm believer that the durability of a letter matters. Whether you handwrite or type them, the point is to create a tangible object to be treasured and saved. In a world where texts, Snapchats, and even emails disappear with a single click, a physical letter lasts.
Savor: Make a copy of each letter you write and keep your copies together. On the days life hits hardest, you can go back and re-read the letter you wrote to that friend who helped you update your resume when you were laid off, or a sibling who listens when you need to vent fears and frustrations, or a medical professional whose care helped you through a difficult time. It is an instant reminder that you are not alone.
No one says you must bow your head on Thursday and give thanks for 2020. But it might be the perfect time to express your appreciation to the people who helped you garner the grit to endure it.
Nancy Davis Kho is a speaker, author, and podcaster whose book, THE THANK-YOU PROJECT: Cultivating Happiness One Letter of Gratitude at a Time was published by Running Press in December 2019. Nancy covers "the years between being hip and breaking one" at MidlifeMixtape.com and on the Midlife Mixtape Podcast, available on all major podcast platforms. More at www.DavisKho.com.
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