When I was in high school, matriculated students would routinely come to my choir class to visit with the teacher. It was easy to see that he was the kind of person who made an impact on people’s lives. He often sought out the kids who didn’t have good grades, might have problematic home lives, didn’t have great self-esteem, and didn’t have a lot of reason to come to school. He made them literally and figuratively sing. He wasn’t just a teacher. He was a healer. Through love and song, he created an award winning choir and gave kids something to belong to. He gave them a reason to feel good about themselves. And they returned to say thanks and show him that they made good in life.
Most people go through life never knowing the big and small ways that they positively impact others. You can let them know with a gratitude letter.
I started assigning writing a gratitude letter as homework years ago when I first heard about it as a form of practicing Positive Psychology. Positive Psychology is different in that it focuses on what makes a person happy and well vs. what makes them depressed and anxious. Expressing gratitude is one of the hallmarks of happy folks. You can’t be grateful unless you can see things in your life that you are thankful for. If you are thankful, there is less space for resentment, disappointment, and unhappiness. This not only positively impacts you. It positively impacts people around you as well as the environment.
Despite knowing this on an intellectual level, it wasn’t something that I did until years later. It wasn’t until I did it that I felt firsthand the impact of it.
I chose someone whom I had known for a very long time, but had never had this type of interaction with. I painstakingly chose a heartfelt card. Then I hand wrote a letter to accompany it. I included specific memories of how my life was made better by this person. I included how this person’s presence in my life made me feel. I then invited him to lunch to present it to him and watched him read it.
His face lit up. If his smile were any bigger, his face would have cracked. He was almost brought to tears. I got a tremendous boost from it too. Our relationship has been forever changed by this. It took very little time, yet it yielded such huge rewards. It was so dramatic that I made a habit of doing one once a month. It’s especially meaningful when I have to search for things that I am grateful for.
Gratitude is most powerful when it becomes a daily habit. Yet, there is something profoundly powerful in writing it down and sharing it with someone. If you are feeling down or just need a boost in your life, I recommend making gratitude a habit. Write a gratitude letter. Start with someone easy. Someone who has no expectations of you. Then just watch love happen.
Work your way up to the people who have disappointed you, the people who have hurt and wronged you. You may find that the thing they gave you makes it easier to forgive. Even if it’s a letter that can never be sent because the person is dead, it would be inappropriate to make contact, or you just have no way of reaching them, write it. As long as you do it for you, not for what it might do for your relationship, it will have a positive impact on you.
Here are some tips on how to write a gratitude letter.
- Write from your heart. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar. That’s not what this is about.
- Keep it to a single page. Focus on one or two incidents, not your whole relationship. This makes more of an impact.
- Make it concrete. Don’t just say, “You were so nice to me.” Be specific. When what is? What happened? How did you feel? How has this impacted you since then?
- Hand write it. You will feel the difference in this by doing it.
- If possible, make an effort to make it pretty. One client wrote a poem and framed it. It was absolutely gorgeous! You don’t have to make it that elaborate, but pretty paper or a card can make it more special.
- Present it in person. Emails, texts and phone calls can be impersonal. Presenting it in person gives it the importance it deserves.
- Stick only to gratitude! This is not the time to make apologies, accusations, or share blame. That will dilute the impact of the letter. Sticking to what you are thankful for may lay the groundwork for future conversations that can lead to apologies and healing, if they are required.
- Release any expectations for positive results. It’s not about what you get. It’s about what you give.