An Exercise in Gratitude

Hardly anything I have written at RBC gets as much sustained, positive reaction year after year as this utterly unwonky Christmas post. I thus re-post it here, having just done my letters of thanks again this year.

One of these days, gonna sit down and write a long letter, to all the good friends I’ve known.—Neil Young

For people of a range of faiths and of no faith, this week is a time to reflect upon the good things that happened to them over the course of the year. A few years ago, I added a step to this reflection process that has benefited me and a number of other people as well. I share it here for what it might be worth to others.

Each year, I sit down and think about 5 or 10 people who have brought good things into my life. Sometimes it’s a specific action (A neighbor who took me to the hospital when I fell and broke my wrist) sometimes it’s something larger (enduring friendship, inspiration and kindness). I then write to those people and thank them, not with an evanescent, dashed off email or text but with a real, honest to God letter.

Consciously reflecting on the blessings we have received has been shown empirically to make us happier and less anxious. I feel those emotions as a write my annual letters of gratitude: I am happier even before I have mailed them. More importantly, they build character by producing humility. The natural tendency — perhaps particularly for Americans — is to take individual credit for all the good things we have. But the truth is that none of us make it through life alone, and all of us are dependent on the kindness of strangers and intimates to make our lives livable.

The other aspect of this exercise which is truly win-win is how happy it makes people I care about to receive the letters. Clearly, no one does kind things in the hope of a letter of thanks. Yet the experience of receiving one often brings joy nonetheless. At their best, the thank you letters help people appreciate things about themselves: Not all patient listeners realize the healing they facilitate, not every remarkable person realizes the inspiration they give to others, not every funny person knows how their wit lifts low spirits at critical times.

This isn’t a self-help website and I am not selling anything, so I guarantee nothing about how an annual exercise in expressing gratitude may affect you and those you care about. But if something about this practice resonates with you, I hope you will try it and see what happens.

Best wishes to all for a happy and fulfilling 2017.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.