Aren Cohen, MBA, MAPP '07 is a learning specialist working with academically, motivationally and emotionally challenged students in the leading private schools in New York City. As shown in her website and blog, Strengths for Students, Aren uses the tenets of positive psychology to teach her students to use their strengths of character to change educational challenges into educational triumphs. Full bio. Aren's articles are here.
Lately I have been thinking about thank you notes. Recently married, I have had cause to write numerous thank you notes lately. And with the holidays coming up, we will all have reasons to thank people for giving us gifts. We know that Miss Manners insists that we write thank you notes, but aside from common courtesy, what are the benefits of thank you notes?
In truth, thank you notes are one of the simplest forms of exercising positive psychology.
A visit to the Emily Post Institute website offers practical advice on how and when to write thank you notes, “Schedule a few different days to write your notes, and each time give yourself a little something to make it interesting: music, a glass of wine, your favorite radio show, a cup of tea—perhaps even some chocolate.” Yet even these goodies don’t really get at the reason how and why the process of writing thank you notes is good for the soul.
I recently saw a family friend who I had thanked for a lovely gift she had sent me. I was surprised that she said, “Your thank you note was so beautiful. Another friend also sent me a thank you note for a wedding present and it was so nowhere. I really appreciate that you took the time to write something so thoughtful.” Hmmmm…. I thought. I don’t tell this story to blow my own horn, but I was curious about why my note was different. Then I realized it was my experience with positive psychology.
Any good positive psychologist knows Marty Seligman’s story about the magic of Gratitude Night. Also, we have learned about the research on the value of keeping a gratitude journal.
Well, a thank you note is a mini-dose of a full-blown gratitude letter or gratitude journal. It is also an opportunity to flex your gratitude strength— a chance to practice one of the strengths of transcendence.
Perhaps the most important part about writing a thank you note is that it is a chance to really acknowledge the other person and to thank them for thinking about you. They may have sent you something you will never wear or use, but the fact that they thought about you is the significant act, and it is your job to acknowledge with genuine sincerity the kindness of their gesture. In an earlier article on PPND called “The Minding Life,” I wrote about the significance of not just being with other people but also the value of thinking of other people, and how this allows you and the other person to transcend. When you write a thank you note, you are recognizing that another person considered you, and in turn you are exercising an opportunity to appreciate them in turn.Another added benefit of writing a thank you note is that you allow yourself a chance to savor. Bryant and Veroff have written about the power of savoring (also super information here and here). First off, in Emily Post’s advice above, she suggests that you find something to savor when you write your thank you notes. (In her case it is wine or chocolate… my personal favorite is beautiful stationary that I feel reflects my personality and taste.)
More important than the private savoring you do while write a thank you note, when you write a thank you note, you get a chance to show the gift-giver that you are savoring the gift they gave you and the fact that they took the time to think of you. Obviously, a thank you note allows you to exercise the thanksgiving nature of savoring. It also allows you to bask in the good feeling that someone else thought of you, and depending upon the gift, you might even have an opportunity to share with the gift –giver that you are marveling over the present or that you look forward to luxuriating with it. Sharing your experience of savoring shows mindfulness and allows the gift-giver to share in your savoring.
Thank you so much for the present. It was so nice of you.
Finally, back to Miss Manners. We all know that the thank you note above just doesn’t cut it. A good thank you note is sincere and thoughtful. Get creative. The Emily Post website is correct that the process of writing a thank you note should be a joy, not a chore. Remember to tell the gift-giver that you are thankful not only for the gift, but also for their thinking of you. Make it personal and sincere. Tell them how you are looking forward to experiencing their gift. Even if you don’t love the gift, there are other ways to let them know you appreciate the thought. In these tough economic times, acknowledge their generosity. Let them know that you look forward to seeing them again soon. Mind them, make them feel important and loved. In giving you the gift, they made you feel special.
You can, and should, return the favor.
Editor’s note: This article and 19 others about gratitude, appreciation, celebrating holidays, and giving gifts are collected into the second book from Positive Psychology News Daily, Gratitude: How to Appreciate Life’s Gifts.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press. p. 76-77.
McCullough,M., Emmons, R. and Tsang, J. (2002). The grateful disposition: A conceptual and empirical topography. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 112-127.
Bryant, F. B. and Veroff, J. (2006). Savoring: A New Model of Positive Experience. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.