When I sat down to write my first “official” gratitude letter in January 2016, I considered it a bit of karmic good housekeeping. I was going to celebrate a milestone birthday that year and felt the time was right to express proper thanks to the people who had helped, shaped and inspired me up to that point in my life. In what I would come to call my Thank-You Project, I planned to write a letter each week to acknowledge all I had been given by the people around me over the years. Nothing fancy. Just a thank-you note.
What I never expected was how profoundly and deeply my thank-you letter writing practice would impact me, permanently changing the way I moved through the world and deepening my relationships with the recipients of the letters. Given that my Thank-You Project took place against the backdrop of the last presidential election, the letters also gave me a weekly dose of reassurance that the divisiveness and angry rhetoric around me was counterbalanced by all the kindness I’d been shown in my life.
I started off writing to family and friends, letting them know the specific ways they had influenced me. In my mom’s case, for instance, she had inculcated me with a love of reading and British costume drama; Dad was my personal chauffeur for the back-and-forth drives to college in the ’80s, during which we blasted the Blasters and talked about life.
My dad was so delighted with his letter, he framed it and hung it over his desk. And it was underneath that framed letter that I sat, six months later, writing his eulogy. At age 81, Dad had been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, and was gone six weeks later. The solace I took from knowing that he had read my letter before we lost him, and that he knew exactly what he meant to me, was considerable balm for my grief.
It also lent an urgency to my writing; why would you wait to let the people you appreciate the most know that you are grateful for them? Some of my favorite letters to write were to loved ones I see daily: my husband, my two daughters, my closest friends. And while I told myself at the outset that I was not allowed to expect any kind of response to any of the letters I wrote — after all, no one had asked me to write them — the delighted reactions with which my letters were uniformly received made me want to keep putting words on paper.
As the stack of letters piled up, I realized that my weekly thank-you letter writing sessions worked better at managing my stress than antianxiety meds or a crisp double IPA. My shoulders would creep up to my ears from fear or worry or grief, and I would think, “Aha! Time to write another letter.”
I would spend 30 minutes or an hour awash in memories — of how my high school best friend pumped up my ever-deflating ego in our daily therapy sessions in the second-floor girls’ bathroom, or how my physical therapist unfroze my frozen shoulder so I could once again fasten my own bra strap — and come away with a feeling of restoration and calm. I later learned that neuroscientists consider an authentic expression of gratitude to be one of the most effective ways to reset the parasympathetic nervous system; studies say it improves the quality of sleep, decreases blood pressure and can even improve asthma control.
Partway through my year of writing, it dawned on me that the boost in happiness came as I wrote the letters, not as I mailed them. So if I could write letters but not mail them … that opened whole new swaths of recipients who had influenced my life in some formative way but with whom, by choice, I was no longer in touch: ex-loves and former friends and lousy bosses who taught me to raise my standards.
And why stop there? The more gratitude I expressed, the more I saw what I had to be grateful for (something happiness researchers term “positive recall bias”). The repetitive act of paying attention to positive things so that I could include them in my next thank-you letter was like a workout for my gratitude “muscle.” Each finished letter, whether mailed or not, made it easier to figure out whose name belonged after “Dear …” the next time I started to write.
There were long-dead authors whose books I reread every year, musicians whose concerts keep me buoyant, a top-notch bagel shop that puts a smile on my face each time I sink my teeth into its sesame-with-schmear. Beyond that, the cities I have lived in certainly shaped who I am. Oakland may not be perfect, but documenting all that I’ve gained in my 22 years living here makes it much easier to keep my cool when I clonk over a tire-swallowing pothole or receive another plea from Oakland Unified School District to send in printer paper and Kleenex for the classroom.
Even though my big birthday year officially ended in 2016, the power of those gratitude letters endures. I kept copies of each as I wrote and bound them together at the end; that book sits on my nightstand and I flip it open to reread a letter or two whenever I need a reminder that I’m not alone, that there are kind people everywhere. I imagine with the next presidential election gaining steam, it will be dog-eared by November 2020.
That January four years ago, I thought I was just going to write a few thank-you letters. Instead, using just a pen and paper, I stumbled onto the scientifically proven formula for creating increased resiliency, happiness and hope.
Nancy Davis Kho is the author of “The Thank-You Project” (Running Press). Email: [email protected]
Three steps to gratitude
See Notice how the people around you impact your life and the specific ways people you’ve known for years have helped you become who you are today.
Say Share your observations in writing or conversation. Let people know that they’ve had a role in making your life better and that you appreciate it.
Savor If you write thank-you letters, keep copies. This will create a record of the ways you’ve been helped and the people who have had your back — reassuring proof of the strength and depth of your “home team.”
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