We’re all busy. Jam-packed schedules. Demanding jobs. Early mornings. Late nights. And we’re all tired, too, right?
So, when you think about adding another thing to your to-do list, you likely blurt out, “no thanks.”
But cultivating a gratitude practice is worth it—no matter how busy you are.
One powerful strategy?
Writing heartfelt thank-you letters.
In January 2016 Nancy Davis Kho sent her father a thank-you note, which he framed and kept in his office. That summer Kho sat in the same room at her father’s desk composing his eulogy.
She was grateful that her father knew exactly how much his love, support, presence, and wisdom meant to her.
“That letter created a moment of peace for me at a time when I badly needed it,” writes Kho in her beautiful, encouraging book The Thank-You Project: Cultivating Happiness One Letter of Gratitude at a Time.
A vast collection of research substantiates the power of gratitude. For example, Kho cites research published in 2015 in Frontiers in Psychology that “found that an ongoing practice of gratitude basically rewires our brains to reward us for the positive perceptions we have of the people around us.”
Sociologist Christine Carter, Ph.D, told Kho that positive emotions “reset the nervous system.” Gratitude, Carter notes, helps us to relax, feel safe, and feel connected to others.
Kho cites emerging research that suggests gratitude is effective at overriding negative thoughts. Studies also show that practicing gratitude can improve sleep, boost energy and self-esteem, reduce aches and pains, and bolster resilience.
According to Carter, “if you could sell gratitude as a pill, you’d be very wealthy.”
Still, gratitude, like other repeatedly recommended practices (think meditation), tends to get dismissed. We read about it so much that it becomes background noise during our already hectic days.
The year that Kho penned her letter to her father and composed his eulogy, she embarked on a project that would change her life and become her book: writing 50 thank-you letters to the people, places, and pastimes that shaped and inspired her.
If you’d like to start your own letter-writing practice, below are some helpful tips from The Thank-You Project:
- Identify the people you’ll write letters to. Kho suggested exploring these questions: Who has helped, shaped, or inspired you? This could be anyone: your parents, great aunt, or childhood friends; your teachers or your child’s teachers; nurses and doctors; your boss or employees; your AA sponsor; a priest or rabbi; a meditation teacher; a postal carrier; your favorite musicians, artists, and authors (living or not). For example, Kho penned a letter to her high school AP English teacher, who she credits with making her a writer. She wrote a thank-you letter to her obstetrician who safely delivered her daughters. She also wrote letters to Jane Austen, the late humor columnist Erma Bombeck, and music writer and memoirist Rob Sheffield. You can even write letters to places and pastimes. Kho wrote a letter to Oakland and one letter to all the bands she’s ever loved.
- Use a simple structure for each letter. Kho’s letters included: a short introductory paragraph; how she met the person; why she appreciates them; and a conclusion about spending time together or activities she’d like to do together.
- Answer these questions in your letter: How has this person helped you? How have they shaped or inspired you? What are the most memorable experiences you’ve shared? Have there been any lasting impacts on your life? “If you had a problem and were given one Phone-a-Friend Opportunity, for what kind of question, encouragement, or dilemma would you call this person?”
- Set a schedule. Kho penned one letter per week on late Friday afternoons. She’d also reflect on each week’s letter during her walks. She writes, “I sifted through memories, let my mind wander, and generally tried to think deeply, with that week’s letter recipient at the center of my thoughts. In some ways, the time I spent noodling over the person became its own prayer of thanksgiving, a meditation of gratitude.” What pace and time feels feasible for you?
- Make a copy of each letter so you can savor it. If you’re typing your letters, you can simply print them out and bind them. If you’re handwriting your letters, you can scan or photocopy each one. According to Kho, “I keep my Thank-You Letter book on the bottom shelf of my nightstand, and I pull it out to flip through at random times—in the middle of getting dressed, before going to bed, when I’m procrastinating instead of folding laundry.” Looking over your letters is a reminder of how many individuals have supported you in all sorts of vital ways.
Ultimately, do whatever works best for you. Do whatever feels easiest and most exciting. This might mean writing one letter each month. It might mean writing letters in your notebook, which you never send. (Research shows that the benefit is in writing your letters, not in sending them.) It might mean writing shorter notes. It might mean creating a ritual around your letter writing: Every morning, you listen to a guided meditation, set a timer for 20 minutes, and compose your note.
We all lead full, bustling lives. And, understandably, it’s stressful to add another task to your list. And yet writing gratitude letters can have profound physical and emotional benefits. It reminds us of the incredible blessings—big or small—that we have in our lives. And, if you do mail your letters, you pay your blessings forward.