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Gratitude is Always Eloquent

On the magic of gratitude letters.

Last week, I had the pleasure of talking onstage at the Aspen Ideas Festival with Jackie Bezos, a board member of Character Lab.

Earlier in the day, I met with this year’s Bezos Scholars, exceptionally gritty and purpose-driven high school students who will spend the next year developing social change projects in their communities.

After my talk, one of these young scholars and I got to talking about our favorite teachers. I suggested she do what I never did when I was her age: write a gratitude letter thanking that teacher for what she’d done for her.

This young lady assured me she would sit down and write the letter as soon as she got home from Aspen. Knowing what I do about the intention-behavior gap, I suggested she take two minutes right then and there and simply text her teacher a quick note of thanks.

Did she write that text? Maybe. But maybe instead, she’d hesitate. Maybe she’d worry she wouldn’t be able to put into words everything she wanted to say. And maybe that pause would be the end of a beautiful impulse.

Writing and delivering a gratitude letter to someone you’ve never properly thanked is an exercise that has been thoroughly investigated in psychological science. It works miracles. Both the sender and the receiver feel absolutely wonderful afterwards.

But new research suggests that most people underestimate just how wonderful the target of our gratitude will feel. We worry unnecessarily that we won’t get the words “just right.” We become preoccupied with our competence as writers.

Figure from Kumar and Epley (2018)

Have you ever received a thank you note and taken out a red pen to edit it? No, you haven’t. You were simply thrilled to have been thought of, and appreciated, and cared about.

The next time you hesitate to send a letter, an email, or even a thumb-typed text message saying that you appreciate what another person has done for you, remember that when it comes to gratitude, anything is infinitely better than nothing.

With grit and gratitude,
Angela