Writing a gratitude letter may not seem like a huge deal, but thanks to brain imaging studies, we now know it’s a powerful exercise that produces a cascade of positive, long-lasting emotions — for both the recipient and the the letter writer.
But how you share the letter matters. (More on that in a bit!)
The benefits of gratitude, in general, are well-documented. That’s why happiness experts commonly recommend keeping a gratitude journal or reciting what you’re grateful for every morning.
It’s no surprise that practicing gratitude elicits feelings of, well, gratitude, but it also brings forward other positive emotions, as well. These include feelings of elevation and connectedness.
Researchers also note that gratitude:
- Reinforces new and existing relationships
- Predicts more committed, longer-lasting relationships
- Improves relationships and results in spending more time together
- Reduces the likelihood of experiencing envy, narcissism and cynicism
- Improves sleep and immune system health
- Can reduce inflammation
Gratitude is also part of new, cutting-edge research aimed at building resilience, something more important than ever today. According to an ongoing study, partaking in mindfulness and gratitude exercise as part of the “Strength-Focused and Meaning-Oriented Approach to Resilience and Transformation” program significantly helps people improve emotional emotional flexibility, coping skills and outlook.
What Is a Letter of Gratitude?
A gratitude letter is just as it seems: a letter of appreciation that you write to someone who has impacted you personally. As Michigan State University points out, writing a letter of gratitude is a great way to show appreciation for someone who made a difference in your life.
Sitting down to construct your letter, whether you handwrite it or type it out, allows you to reflect on how someone helped shape you into the person you are today.
Why Write One?
Figuring out how to write a gratitude letter may seem daunting, but it’s important to understand that your letter doesn’t have to be long, elaborate or fancy in order to be effective. In fact, keeping things simple and writing a heartfelt gratitude note can bring potent, long-lasting results.
“A gratitude letter is one of the most powerful tools for increasing happiness because it can forge social bonds and really change someone’s life,” explains Laurie Santos, Ph.D, professor of psychology and instructor of Yale’s Science of Wellbeing course.
In fact, we now know that writing a letter of gratitude can actually change your brain for the better. In 2015, Indiana University researchers published a study showing that people who participated in gratitude letter writing experienced more gratitude themselves and “significantly greater neural modulation by gratitude in the medial prefrontal cortex three months later.”
Also of importance is the fact that writing a gratitude letter is accessible — it’s virtually free or very low-cost. One study found that a single “gratitude letter–writing intervention appears to be a promising low-cost, brief and meaningful tool” to improve well-being.
In the Science of Well-Being course, Santos outlines research by positive psychology pioneer Martin Seligman and stresses that the biggest happiness benefits for the letter writer and recipient take place when you deliver your letter in person and read it to the recipient. (Over the phone or video chat is OK, too, but in-person is best.)
“However you meet up, you should read the letter aloud,” the Yale outlines. “We also recommend that you both have some tissues handy for this one.”
How to Write a Gratitude Letter
The gratitude letter is a key positive psychology exercise. To stress the above findings again, we know that a letter of gratitude and appreciation is most effective when delivered in-person during a “gratitude visit” and when you read it out loud to the recipient.
If you take Yale’s free, online Science of Well-Being course, writing a gratitude letter and conducting a gratitude visit is a key assignment.
Whether it’s a letter of gratitude to a boss, a letter of gratitude to a teacher or someone else who made a difference in your life, the idea is to write to someone living, someone you genuinely care about — and someone you haven’t properly thanked yet.
Then, Santos recommends:
- Finding a quiet spot when you have a half-hour free.
- Writing a heartfelt letter to that person explaining how she or he touched your life and why that person is meaningful to you.
- Making the letter as long as you like, but aiming for at least 300 words, which is about a page.
- When you schedule your visit, don’t tell the person you’ll be reading him or her your letter.
- Do, however, make sure you allow at least 30 minutes for your gratitude visit, so you’ll have time to bond and discuss any emotions the reading bubbles up for you and your recipient.
Still need a little direction? Not sure whom to write to?
Maybe one of these suggestions will feel right. Just make sure it’s someone you never properly thanked:
- A coach or instructor who mentored you
- A teacher who opened up your horizons
- An aunt, uncle or other relative
- A colleague or friend
- A health care worker who saved or otherwise positively changed your life
Note: It’s OK, and can actually be beneficial, if you choose someone you haven’t spoken to or thought about in a while.
The University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center also offers some great tips. In fact, a gratitude letter is also part of its free, weight-week Science of Happiness course, too.
When it comes to writing a letter of gratitude, it suggests:
- Write as though you are addressing this person directly (“Dear ______”)
- Don’t worry about grammar or spelling
- Be specific in describing what this person did, why you are grateful for that person and how that person’s behavior affected your life
- Describe what you are doing in your life now and how you often remember her or his efforts
Delivering Your Gratitude Letter
- Upon arrival, tell the person you’re grateful for her, and share that you’d like to read a letter you wrote outlining that gratitude.
- Politely ask that he waits to comment until you finish reading.
- Don’t rush through your reading, which can often happen when you’re nervous. Take a deep breath, and savor each word.
- Be sure to pause to notice the feelings arising in yourself.
- Make contact, and notice your recipient’s reactions, too.
- After you have read the letter, be receptive to the reaction and discuss your feelings together.
- Don’t forget to give the letter to the person you’re honoring before you leave!
- Gratitude is shown to elicit feelings of happiness and connectedness. It can also improve your relationships and outlook.
- Practicing gratitude can even reduce inflammation and improve your immune system.
- Writing a gratitude letter to show someone that you’re thankful for her impact on your life — and then reading that letter to her in person — is one of the most powerful ways to practice gratitude.
- The reader and the recipient can both receive a mental health boost. For the person writing and reading the letter, the positive impact cast last for at least three months, according to brain scans.
- A letter of gratitude doesn’t have to be long or fancy. Shoot for at least 300 words, and don’t stress about perfect grammar. Just be authentic.
- Sharing specific examples of what a person did or said to help you along the way is an effective strategy for gratitude letter writing.