How Writing Gratitude Letters Can Improve Your Life And Career
A few years ago, Gina Hamadey, a former magazine editor in New York, needed to write 31 thank you notes to fundraiser donors. She decided to fit it in while commuting by train to a consulting gig, rather than scrolling social media feeds and emails. To her surprise, the writing process gave her a sense of calm and focus that felt remarkably positive.
The experience inspired her to embark on a year of handwriting 365 letters, as chronicled in her new book, I Want to Thank You. Each chapter is devoted to a different theme of recipients, including career mentors, neighbours, health workers, local shopkeepers and favourite writers.
Unlike a thank you note—an often obligatory and time-sensitive acknowledgement of a gift—Hamadey’s gratitude letters offered appreciation for something done or said, in some cases, many years ago.
In writing the book, Hamadey consulted with experts and read many studies on gratitude, including research led by Indiana University that found gratitude-letter writing significantly improved the mental health of patients receiving psychotherapy.
“Gratitude is the most powerful tool we have as far as increasing our own happiness,” says Hamadey. “Writing notes means you’re taking those grateful feelings and sharing them with the people responsible. People do respond, and that acts as an incentive to write more.”
While she admits to taking time off after her year-long mission, she’s back at it again: “I just sent out 12 notes to people who made my book launch great.”
Here’s what Hamadey has learned about the benefits of making gratitude letters a habit.
A feel-good exercise in self-care
Sitting with a sheet of paper and a pen and positive, warm, grateful thoughts about someone feels incredibly good. When I do this, I can feel my shoulders relax and my breathing slow. So just the act of writing the notes is incredibly beneficial. It's an immediate mood lifter.
Think about the person and the memory for a minute or two. Then start writing. Don't get caught up in writing beautiful language in beautiful handwriting. Try to write the way you speak. If you make a mistake, cross it out. If you meander, that's fine. Just write from the heart, even if it takes some bravery. Someone may remember the favour you're referring to, but they don't know how it made you feel.
There’s a misconception that gratitude acts as a blanket to other emotions; that being grateful means smiling through the pain and not allowing yourself to feel sad or angry. It's not that at all. Gratitude means feeling all those emotions, and then more easily coming back to a place of warmth and positivity—when you're ready.
Expressing gratitude, instead of writing it down in a journal, is really where the magic happens. Because you are sending those good feelings into the world
A meaningful approach to networking
I wrote 30 letters to career mentors, thanking them for the lessons they taught me and the ways in which they impacted my career. I found this to be an incredibly authentic way to network. The letters led to catch-up calls and lunches and dinners, and a few people even suggested that the project turn into a book, which made me take that idea seriously.
You might begin your own letter with a reason for writing, such as: "I've been looking back on the stages of my career and thinking of people who made an impact. You are high on the list. Here are a few times your advice made a difference."
See also: 19 Expert Tips On How To Make Mentorship Work For You
An opportunity to process complicated feelings
One of the hardest notes I wrote was to the woman who laid me off from my last magazine job: Dana Cowin at Food & Wine. Ultimately, it gave me a sense of closure and rekindled our friendship. Another example was writing to the doctors who took care of my dad after his heart attack, which helped me process the trauma I still felt around that.
A way to strengthen personal connections
With family members that I see regularly, it showed me how many ways they support me. I'm thinking of my parents and in-laws and husband, each of whom received many cards throughout the year. And for them, it felt great to be recognised in that way. I interviewed my mother-in-law in the book, talking about how it felt for her to receive eight throughout the year. It was very impactful and changed the dynamic of our relationship.
With friends, those notes—which were written on the backs of old photographs—acted like bookmarks, holding our friendship in place until we are able to sit down together again. I got a lot of texts and voicemails saying these cards "made their day". And it got me back in touch with a few estranged friends; there’s one in particular whose friendship I now (again) treasure. The note was a first step towards fixing our relationship.
With acquaintances, thanking neighbours A) upgraded our relationships, forcing me to learn their names and them to learn mine. And B) showed me how important these weak ties are. They are more than friendly faces; they really add to my quality of life.
See more Live Better content from Gen.T.