Why a Gratitude Letter Is the Excellent Technique to Rejoice Thanksgiving This 12 months
Whatever you’re doing for Thanksgiving this year, try adding a thank you note to the mix. Not only do you feel closer to someone you can’t physically be with this year. Research from Indiana University shows that this can have long-term benefits for your own wellbeing as well. It can even improve your brain function.
Thanksgiving doesn’t feel quite like Thanksgiving this year. With the increase in Covid-19 cases nationwide, many people are scrapping plans for a large gathering and limiting Thanksgiving dinner to their immediate family or household members. Some grieve for a lost family member or friend, or worry because someone they love is sick. Your employees may be concerned about their loved ones or their future, and you may be concerned about your company. The economy is struggling and the prospects for a new economic program remain bleak. It is a difficult time to feel grateful.
Yet, when times are uncertain and you face a difficult future, gratitude is one of the few things you can do to help. That’s why I was so excited to learn about research from Indiana University. It shows the amazingly powerful effects of writing a thank you letter, a simple act of gratitude that only takes pen and paper (or smartphone) and about 15 minutes of your time.
The researchers discovered the amazing power of this practice when they asked 293 students seeking psychological counseling to take part in an experiment. Some were advised as they definitely would have. Some were advised but also asked to write about their thoughts and feelings associated with negative experiences they had had. A third group was asked to write a thank you letter saying thank you to someone in their life once a week for three weeks. Sending the letter or not was left to the participants.
“Significantly better mental health.”
Most of the students who wrote thank you letters chose not to send them. Even so, they experienced surprising benefits from just writing them. “Compared to those who wrote about negative experiences or just received advice, those who wrote thank you letters reported significantly better mental health four weeks and 12 weeks after completing their writing exercise,” wrote Joel Wong and Joshua Brown, two faculty members Indiana University worked on the research.
Even more surprisingly, the writing of the letters seemed to have long-lasting effects. Three months after the experiment ended, the researchers tracked some subjects with an fMRI scanner to map gratitude in the brain and compare the brains of those who wrote the letters with those who had only received counseling. The brain activity of the letter writers indicated that they continued to feel more gratitude in everyday life than the control group who did not write letters. “This suggests that simply expressing gratitude can have lasting effects on the brain,” the researchers wrote. While the study is inconclusive, it suggests that practicing gratitude might make you feel grateful more easily in the future. “This could help improve mental health over time,” they wrote.
Are you ready to write your own thank you letter? Pick someone in your life, near or far, living or dead. Then take a pen and paper and write a letter. You can also type it in on a computer or smartphone, speak your message with a video or voice recorder, or even create a piece of art to tell that person how you are feeling. Try to limit your letter to one page (about 300 words) or about two minutes as you record it.
You will get maximum benefit, researchers say, if you share the letter with the person for whom you wrote it. I know this may not be easy – giving someone a heartfelt thank you message takes real courage and a willingness to be vulnerable. But it will also be a very powerful experience no matter how you react. So email or email it or better yet, read or play your message to the other person over the phone or through zoom. If you can honestly tell someone how grateful you are, suddenly you will find that it feels like Thanksgiving.
The opinions expressed by Inc.com columnists here are their own, not those of Inc.com.