The Gratitude Letter: A Simple Gratitude Exercise with a Big Impact

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Looking for a gratitude exercise that makes a big impact? Write a gratitude letter to someone you appreciate letting them know why they matter to you. This letter of gratitude will boost your happiness and make your letter’s recipient happy as well.

Many years ago, my father decided he would write eulogies for his sisters and other loved ones who were still living. This was a decision based primarily on hubris; he had recently performed a eulogy for a beloved brother-in-law that my father thought was so touching and beautiful he really wished my uncle could have been around to hear it. He wrote a eulogy for his still-living sister and gave it to her with great fanfare, which included making Xerox copies for all the cousins.

I don’t know exactly how my aunt responded to the eulogy, but I do know my father never wrote another. I can only imagine receiving a document that anticipates your death is a bit unsettling, to say the least, and that my father didn’t get the grateful and adoring response he anticipated.

However misguided his attempt, though, my father was onto something with his idea. Showing gratitude to the important people in your life can significantly boost your own happiness. Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, describes a simple gratitude exercise in his book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, – the “Gratitude Letter.”

Two women reading a gratitude letter

What is a Gratitude Letter?

The Gratitude Letter is quite simple. Think of someone you know who did or said something that changed your life for the better. Someone who you’ve never properly thanked, who may not even know how they’ve impacted your life. I’ll let Seligman tell you what you need to do next:

Your task is to write a letter of gratitude to this individual and deliver it in person. The letter should be concrete and about three hundred words: be specific about what she did for you and how it affected your life. Let her know what you are doing now, and mention how you often remember what she did. Make it sing! Once you have written the testimonial, call the person and tell her you’d like to visit her, but be vague about the purpose of the meeting; this exercise is much more fun when it is a surprise. When you meet her, take your time reading your letter.

The Benefits of The Gratitude Letter

According to Seligman, his students who participated in this exercise were significantly happier and suffered less depression even a month later. Even more impressive, the students who wrote and delivered the gratitude letter, still felt measurably happy one month later. I can only imagine the happiness the recipient of the letter would feel.

Grandmother and Daughter - the Benefits of a gratitude letter

Who Should You Write Your Gratitude Letter To?

The recipient of your gratitude letter could be anyone, really. A teacher who saw your potential. An uncle who always really wanted to know how you are. Your Mom or Dad, who have sacrificed so much for you. Even the security guard at your office, who always brightens your day with his smile and cheery banter.

Choose someone who has contributed something to your life. Perhaps they gave financial support when you needed money or emotional support during a tough time of your life. Try to choose someone who you feel you haven’t fully thanked or who may not know how much they mean to you.

How to Write a Gratitude Letter

Start by making a list of the ways your recipient has helped you. Include concrete examples of exactly what they have done and how this made you feel. Be sure to include these examples in your final letter.

You might find it difficult to come up with specific examples or put into words your appreciation. That’s ok. Take as long as you need to write a letter that you’re happy with.

Your gratitude letter doesn’t need to be long. One page or one and a half pages is the perfect length.

Writing a gratitude letter

How to Deliver Your Gratitude Letter

Your gratitude letter has the most impact on both you and your recipient if you can deliver it in person and read it out loud. Once you’ve written your letter, get in touch with your recipient and arrange to meet. Seligman suggests that you be vague about the reason for the meeting in order to make the most impact.

Once you’ve met with your recipient, read the letter out loud to them. Take time to let them react to what you’re saying. Also, be sure and notice how reading the letter makes you feel.

After you’ve read the letter, spend some time talking it over with your recipient in order to really process this meeting.

Don’t let the difficulty of getting together in person stop you from writing your letter of appreciation. If you think of someone you would like to thank who lives too far away to visit in person, go ahead and send the letter in the mail. I’m sure the person who receives your letter will reach out when they receive it.

Grandmother and Granddaughter reading a gratitude letter.

Thanksgiving is the Perfect Time to Send a Gratitude Letter

You can send a gratitude letter at any time of year, of course, but Thanksgiving is the perfect time to deliver your letter. You may be coming in contact with friends and relatives who mean so much to you, but that you can’t see as often as you like. Why not let them know how much you value them this Thanksgiving?

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5 thoughts on “The Gratitude Letter: A Simple Gratitude Exercise with a Big Impact”

  1. thanks for the fabulous idea Katy. I am Canadian and our Thanksgiving is past but I am pretty sure we can do this year round. I am passing this lovely thought around. With challenges in my life right now this is a great idea and I am looking forward to it.

  2. What a lovely idea! I think your father’s idea was actually good too. I think obituaries are wasted on the dead. Much better to know how you are treasured while still alive. Happy Thanksgiving Katy.


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