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Thank You Notes and Positive Psychology

written by Aren Cohen 12 December 2008

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.

Thank You 1 PPNDLately 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.

Thank You 3 positive psychologyPerhaps 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.

Pen and Stationary (Kevin Gillespie)

Pen and Stationary (Kevin Gillespie)

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.

Dear So-and-so,
Thank you so much for the present.  It was so nice of you.

Thank you 2 positive psychologyFinally, 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.

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Marcial Losada 12 December 2008 - 8:59 pm

Not to mention, Aren, that grateful people are the ones whose sleepings patterns are the most relaxing and restoring.

When you are beginning to feel tired, close to sleep, in those few moments when you are in and out, it is a good moment to go to your heart, not your head–that will wake you up–and think of a few things you might be grateful that day. If you are one of those many that has trouble going to sleep it is going to take a few trials, Then easy and deep sleep will be the sign that gratefulness now resides in your heart.

Hans Rippel 13 December 2008 - 2:07 am

The Christmas Holidays are always a great time to think about the multitude of things we are grateful for and express it to the people we care about. I find a thoughtful note, a sincere gesture, or a warm hug are some of the most precious moments. They remind me every time that caring and being cared about is the fuel to living, each and every single day, a happier and more fulfilling life. Thank you Aren, your article is a nice reminder of this powerful but simple truth and the beauty of it is that the possibilities are endless.

Laura 13 December 2008 - 2:21 pm

“I saw this and thought of you…” is one of the most powerful tips given to me on teacher training. It can completely change a relationship with a challenging pupil if you can use this phrase. Taking an article out of a magazine on something their interested in can spark new conversations; or even just saying that a character on tv reminded you of them (and then explaining why) can be enough to make students realise that you think about them. It doesn’t cost anything but really does seem to make a difference. Great point!

Kirsten Cronlund 13 December 2008 - 2:52 pm

I LOVE writing thank-you notes. Always have. And interestingly – to Marcial’s point – I have always been an incredibly sound sleeper… And gratitude is one of my signature strengths. Thanks for the article, Aren!

Kathryn Britton 14 December 2008 - 11:08 am


Somehow this reminds me of grading papers — another activity that people often classify as a chore. I can see why. They’ve been piling up lately and seem like a mountain of work to get through.

But when I am on a roll, I think of each one as an opportunity to say, “I see you!” to somebody.

I think we all crave moments when someone else says with word or deed, “I see you!” I also think it gets easier with practice — and more rewarding as well.

Thanks for turning wedding gift thank-you notes into such an interesting reflection. Maybe I should send you a wedding gift!


Aren Cohen 15 December 2008 - 12:19 am

Dear Kathryn,

I think you might be right that the flip side to writing thank you notes is grading papers. Like writing thank you notes, the comments you, as a teacher, write on a paper are really impactful in terms of what it conveys to a student. As Laura points out, studednts love it when a teacher says, “I saw this and thought of you.” People in general, and students in particular need encouragement and nourishment to learn and grow. A good teacher is a master at giving that kind of positive feedback.

As a tutor, I often see how teachers respond to students’ papers, and what effect their words can have. Currently I have a pupil who has a very mean teacher. What hurts both me and my student the most is that this teacher does not acknowledge that the kid is TRYING HER BEST. Sometimes as teachers we get so caught up in our own expectations of what a student “should” be able to do, that we can’t see those who might not meet our mark but are really putting forth their best efforts. Mindfulness means that we MUST lovingly encourage students to feel confident to continue trying to learn. Even a C- paper can get a note of encouragement if you tell a student what part of their essay you did respect, and how they can grow to make it better.

What is the flip side of gratitude? Perhaps it is altruism. Maybe that is what I am calling for in teachers. In either case, both gratitude and altruism are good for the soul because they give us opportunities to be mindful of others. (And according to Marcial and Kristen at least gratitude, and I would guess altruism too, make us sleep better.) In any case, both should be practiced as often as possible for good psychological health.

Thanks all for reading, and for your comments!

Allison Huyett 15 December 2010 - 7:24 pm

Dear Ms. Cohen,

Your post strikes a beautiful and harmonious chord. I should go now and make it resonate in my actions. When puzzled by the absence of a specific note, I like to think about how the other person might think about my seeing something and thinking of them. Maybe I have obligated them to accept? Maybe they have too much already. Maybe they feel they are not worth giving to or thinking of. This is all speculation on my part, grounded in personal experience.
I treasure the idea you have illustrated and cited,about finding something to savor – and crafting something to accompany the thought. Thank you!

Positively yours,

Aren Cohen 16 December 2010 - 11:59 am

Dear Allison,

Thank you so much for your lovely note. I am glad you enjoyed the article! It’s funny, because sometimes we think that writing thank you notes is a chore (associated with our parents or our grandparents asking, “Have you written a thank you note yet.” But the truth is, it is far from a chore. Thank you notes are a great way of fostering positive psychology, both by stimulating gratitude in you and sharing your thanks with the person who took the time to think of you.

Best wishes for a happy holiday season!

John 11 January 2012 - 9:51 am

Thanks for the thoughtful article. In our fast paced age with all its technology we seem to neglect or take for granted the blessings taking the time to say, “Thank you” can give to others and also bring into our lives. I am just beginning to scratch the surface of Positive Psychology and have found a wellspring of benefits and blessings in life that grow from practicing some of these neglected practices. Thank you for reminding me how precious they really are.
Blessings & Peace,

Judy Krings 7 November 2014 - 9:38 am

Lovely blog, Aren,

Mindfulness and acceptance also bubble up to the top of my senses. To pause and empathize with the giver. Could using your strengths of perspective, love, and kindness also float your boat here?

Instead of a chore, re-framing your thought to, “Wow, look how many friends I have!” or “How wonderful it is to pause and see my life so full of love.”

I am grateful to Kathryn Britton for sending this link in her comments in Shannon Polly’s recent PPND blog on gratitude.


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