Gratitude Letters and Visits
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What is gratitude? According to Robert Emmons, Gratitude is affirming the goodness in one's life and recognizing that its source lies outside the self, such as with the good intentions of another person.
This is a pretty positive way to think!
Learn about health benefits of gratitude and gratitude journaling.
Gratitude isn't just a feeling but something you cultivate, it's a disposition that can help shield you against depression. Gratitude is about remembering the things that you have in your life that are good and remembering the good that has been offered to you.
Depression, on the other hand, strips you of your ability to see the good in life. It causes you to forget what happiness is, that the universe can be open and kind, and that there are people who support and assist you.
Most of us are not naturally grateful. Sometimes, we might be, if a tragedy or crisis reminds us of what we have. We can be prompted to feel grateful temporarily, but we soon forget that feeling and return to where we were before. If this describes you, don't worry, you are just like most of us.
It's very difficult to remember to pay attention to what is right in our lives. Instead, we automatically pay attention to what is wrong. This is residual from the days when we needed to constantly scan our environment for danger. It's not an adaptive trait any longer, but it sticks around. We call this our negative bias. Thankfully, because of neuroplasticity, we can change our brain.
When the doctor suggested surgery
and a brace for all my youngest years,
my parents scrambled to take me
to massage therapy, deep tissue work,
osteopathy, and soon my crooked spine
unspooled a bit, I could breathe again,
and move more in a body unclouded
by pain. My mom would tell me to sing
songs to her the whole forty-five minute
drive to Middle Two Rock Road and forty-
five minutes back from physical therapy.
She’d say, even my voice sounded unfettered
by my spine afterward. So I sang and sang,
because I thought she liked it. I never
asked her what she gave up to drive me,
or how her day was before this chore. Today,
at her age, I was driving myself home from yet
another spine appointment, singing along
to some maudlin but solid song on the radio,
and I saw a mom take her raincoat off
and give it to her young daughter when
a storm took over the afternoon. My god,
I thought, my whole life I’ve been under her
raincoat thinking it was somehow a marvel
that I never got wet.
Gratitude Letters and Visits: Skills to Practice
Some lucky people are naturally grateful! Most therapists think that we can help those who aren't learn to be more grateful through practicing interventions that teach gratitude. Like all good coping skills for depression, gratitude needs to be practiced. Journaling is one way to practice gratitude. But perhaps a more powerful way is to express your gratitude and thanks outwardly so it can be received.
Some studies show that gratitude letters and visits can decrease depression in the letter writer for up to three months after the visit, and increase a sense of well being and happiness in both the person expressing gratitude and the person receiving it.
Martin Seligman who is considered the father of positive psychology suggests guidelines for how to perform a gratitude visit.
Write a letter on one page of paper and have it laminated.
- Take up to a month if necessary to comprise the letter. Carefully consider all the ways this person has contributed to your life.
- Then, make an appointment with this person without letting them know what the visit is for.
- Invite them to your home, or visit them at their home.
- Then, spend this time together sharing with this special person all of the things about them that you treasure.
- In times of the pandemic, you could do this virtually, and surprise them with a screen share, text of the letter, picture of it.
For those who are too intimidated by the prospect of staging a gratitude visit, to share your letter writing a gratitude letter, and sending it, ( or even just writing it in your journal without sending it) also has tremendous benefits. You can write a series of letters over a course of time to people who have made an impact in your life, some you know well or, even some you do not know so well. Or, you could write just one letter to someone to see if you enjoy or benefit from the experience. You could start with whomever you are most comfortable with: your sister or cousin, a mentor from earlier on in your life, and just express the impact they have made on you and thank them! You could even write a letter to someone you don't know personally such as a writer who you appreciate or an artist, or even the cashier in the local grocery store who is friendly to you every week. Think of all the ways they have made your life and the lives of others around you easier and express your gratitude and thanks for them!
Why Letter Writing?
Letter writing seems to have a stronger impact on people than just thinking thoughts, somehow strengthening feelings of gratitude in the person who is translating feelings into language, and more strongly impacting depression and improving feelings of happiness.
What does the Research Say?
Gratitude letters and visits may help you to feel better and to cultivate a disposition of gratitude. A 2020 meta-analysis of gratitude interventions suggests some claims of these interventions may be overblown, and that they have a small effect on depression. However, we do know that people that have a grateful disposition are more likely to be happy and well-adjusted people. Why not try some of these ideas and see if they help?
What Should I Write about in my Gratitude Letter?
Questions to ask yourself if this is a person who made an impact on your life in the past.
- What might your life be like if I had never met this person?
- What lessons did this person teach me?
- How did I become a better or wiser person?
Questions to ask yourself if this is a person currently in your life.
Imagine this person was gone.
- How would I be impacted? What would I miss?
- What do they bring to my life?
- Do I tell them enough of the importance they have to me? Do I appreciate them and value the things they do/have done for me?
Questions to ask if this is a stranger
- What does this person do that ads value to my life?
- How to they help me to function?
- What must their daily life be like?
- How many other people do they impact?
- Are they valued the way they should be by society?
People to write letters of gratitude to
You may also think about writing letters or making visits to people who impact the lives of people you love. For example your parents, children, friends or spouses. How have these people cared for or impacted the lives of your loved ones?
You may think of someone who made an impact on you only once. For example, a person who made a difference in your life when you were vulnerable or lost, in crisis or need, and you remember a kind act that made an impression on you.
References for Gratitude Letters and Visits
Cregg, D., & Cheavens, J. (2020). Gratitude Interventions: Effective Self-help? A Meta-analysis of the Impact on Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety. Journal of Happiness Studies, OnlineFirst, 1-33.
Emmons, R. A. (2013). Gratitude works!: a 21-day program for creating emotional prosperity. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.