Where I come from, a “thank you” is just part of everyday life. It can be anything, big or small, but if someone goes out of their way for you, you say, “thanks”. I don’t want this to be a conversation about different generations having their own ways of showing thanks. As long as the person giving thanks is sincere, it doesn’t really matter how they express it. I don’t think that our society has gotten away from that notion of being thankful for others’ generosity, but I do think that there are more impactful ways to give back to a person that has had a major part of our lives. Even more beneficial, is how specific practices of giving thanks can improve our own mental well-being for weeks and months to come.
The scientific community has found numerous benefits from creating, “Gratitude Letters”. These are essentially letters that a person writes to somebody that has been influential in their life. Most times, the recipient may not even know they had an impact on our lives. I learned about this practice via a podcast I’ve been listening to called, “The Science of Happiness”. In a recent episode, they interviewed a children’s book author and illustrator who came to this country, suddenly, and found a sense of acceptance through her local library. Her story is beautiful and if you have the time, please listen to the episode. In each of their episodes, their guest chooses an exercise designed to increase happiness, kindness, resilience or connection. This author decided to write a gratitude letter to the librarian that made her feel welcome in a place she didn’t think she could.
After listening to the podcast, it made me question if there was anyone in my life I would feel compelled to write a gratitude letter for. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that I knew a very specific person that deserved a gratitude letter, and so very much more. So, I sat down and began to write. Well, first I did some sleuthing and found their address online. It didn’t take long and was kinda creepy how easy it was.
After getting all of my words out, I sat and thought about the experience. There’s a ton of emotion that goes into a project like this. For me, I don’t feel I have the best memory but while I was writing the letter, I could very clearly remember that specific time in my life. I could recall the different emotions I was going through and I think a very big part of why this exercise is so beneficial is because of how it jogs our memory and puts us right back in a scenario, or time in our lives, we are grateful for. Furthermore, there is something about handwriting a physical letter that has been lost on recent generations, myself included. The practice allows for a higher level of focus on something very positive in our lives. Likewise, we take the time to actually reflect on the moment. This aspect of the practice is huge. Our brains can use these memories to release the same endorphins that were produced during these positive experiences, originally. It makes sense as to why this exercise has been seen as one of the most beneficial practices we can do for increasing our mental health.
Take some time and think about the people in your life. Who would you choose to write a gratitude letter for and why? I challenge everyone reading this to take the time to write one for someone who has positively affected their lives and send it to them. Then, think about how it affected your mood. Being grateful is contagious and helps us live our happiest lives.
Here is my letter:
Dear Dr. Elder,
I really don’t even know if you’ll remember who I am. I like to think you will but I also don’t know that it is all that important if you do. My name is Eric, and I took multiple courses with you in college. I was in school for Biology but was required to take some philosophy courses as electives. I settled on your course, “Female Heroes in Religion and Art”, mostly because it fit with my very full schedule of sciences. Little did I know, it was a changing point in the way I saw many things in life.
The class, itself, was very straight-forward but the passion you brought to your lectures was something else, entirely. There were the face-value components of the class we were expected to learn but then there was all the extra information you were able to provide just because you obviously loved the topics and loved what you were doing. This class convinced me I needed to take more religious studies courses with you.
Your classes were always a highlight of my day. I did not grow up with a religious influence in my life and it showed by the questions I would ask in class. I don’t know that I had ever dealt with a more patient professor before you. I clearly remember asking what Lent was during one of our classes. I had never known what it was but we were discussing it so I figured I should find out. I didn’t even realize it would be a weird question to ask. The entire classroom stared at me, shocked, but you very kindly explained it to me and went even further to explain the original history of the tradition, which was a new understanding for the rest of the class.
That wasn’t the only time that you were kind to me. I went through a rough time when I was taking your Judaism class. I had unexpectedly lost my job and was struggling really badly to pay my bills. I ended up finding some work through a family friend, but missed about a month of classes because I was working any odd job I could find. School went to the wayside. Eventually, I showed up to class and you asked me to stay after because you wanted to talk to me. I thought, for sure, that you were going to tell me that I had no chance of passing your class. Instead, you asked me if I was okay and told me that you were worried about me because I hadn’t been in class. I explained my situation to you and you made a deal with me. You told me that you would pay me to come do yard work at your house if I promised to show up to class. You showed me an insane amount of kindness and trust during a time in my life I really needed it.
It was because of you that I decided to minor in religious studies but I learned so much more than that. I learned that passion drives us and we must follow it. I learned that there is always time for kindness and understanding. I learned that everyone has a past and it is up to us to determine our future. I am forever grateful to have had the opportunity to learn so much from you.
A version of this post was previously published on GoFindYourHappy and is republished here with permission from the author.
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