Because we were created as social beings, when we do things that make others feel good, we can’t help but feel good ourselves. In continuing with the conversation about gratitude I found in my research on happiness a neat little gratitude exercise. The exercise involves writing a gratitude letter. Pretty self explanatory. In detail though, it entails expressing our appreciation in concrete terms to someone who has been kind, thoughtful, or helpful to us in one way or another. It could be your mother, father, an old friend, a new friend, a teacher, a coach, a mentor… pretty much whomever. The letter is to entail a detailed description of what he or she did for you and exactly how it affected your day, your week, your year, or your life. The exercise becomes even more powerful if we read the letter aloud to the person to whom our gratitude is directed.
Positive Psychology researcher Martin Seligman and his colleagues (2005) performed a study on the happiness benefits of expressing gratitude with this type of gratitude letter. Over the course of one week the participants in the study were instructed to write and then deliver by hand a letter of gratitude to someone who had been particularly kind, caring, or thoughtful to them. After the exercise was completed, the participants were to report back and unsurprisingly all of them reported an immediate and significant increase in their levels of felt happiness and a decrease in their feelings of depression. What’s more is that most of the same participants maintained an increase in their overall happiness even at a one month follow up.
While reading this, my thoughts immediately went to my grade 11 and 12 math teacher, Mister Outerbridge. He was such a lovely man and an incredible teacher. Now mind you math had always been my favourite subject in school, but there was something about Mister Outerbridge that made me enjoy it even more. He was the type of teacher who would come in early and make himself available before school if any of his students wanted to come in and ask questions about their homework, or to gain clarity on a concept or two. I often took the opportunity to go in for the extra support and almost every time I would walk into his classroom long before the first bell was to ring he would be up at the chalk board writing out formulas and humming or, more accurately ‘da, da, dee, da, da, da’-ing a joyous tune to himself. Such a delight. He was always so patient, clear, encouraging, and helpful. One couldn’t help but find the man lovely.
I think I will make it my intention in the next couple weeks to find the time to sit down and write a letter of appreciation and gratitude to him. Just the thought of doing this makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
Seligman, M.E., Steen, T.A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60: 410-421.