The Gratitude Letter

Martin Seligman is a professor, author, and one of the founders of positive psychology. Stumped for an assignment during one of his courses, he asked students for ideas. Someone suggested “Gratitude Night.” 

The proposal was that members of the class would “bring a guest who had been important in their lives, but whom they had never properly thanked.” The guests wouldn’t know the exact purpose of the event. Students would prepare a testimonial ahead of time, and read it aloud to the guest during class. Seligman related what happened next in his book, Authentic Happiness.

“And so it was that one month later, on a Friday evening, with some cheese and a wine, the class assembled along with seven guests - three mothers, two close friends, one roommate, and one younger sister - from around the country.”

Students talked about things their guests did that shaped their lives, about the qualities that inspired them, about the affection and admiration they felt. Reading the letters tapped into deep emotions for everyone present. 

“There was literally not a dry eye in the room. The givers, receivers, and observers all cried. When I started to cry, I didn’t even know why I was crying.” 

In course evaluations at the end of the semester, a typical comment was, “it was one of the greatest nights of my life.” 

Now it’s your turn. But instead of “Gratitude Night” and an in-person event, I suggest you do something simpler, something you can do now: write a “Gratitude Letter.”

  1. First, pick someone “who has made a major positive difference in your life, and to whom you have never fully expressed your thanks.” It could be someone living or deceased. It could be a family member, friend, or anyone who you are grateful to have had in your life.

  2. Write your letter. Take your time, and savor it. Reflect on special moments and qualities that made a difference for you. Relive the feelings you felt. In your letter, address the person directly - you’re writing to them, not about them.

  3. Finally, deliver your letter in some way. You could choose to read it in person like Seligman’s students, or deliver it via mail. If the person is no longer alive, you might store the letter in a special place, perhaps where there’s a memorial or photo.

I already have several people in mind - my mother, my sister, a teacher who influenced me. The more I think about it, the more letters I want to write. To help me actually do it, I included the Gratitude Letter as an exercise in the second month of the WOL-SC experiment that’s underway now.

Take a moment now to think about your own letter. Who has made a difference in your life? Who will you thank?

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Introducing a new kind of Circle: WOL-SC

For people who have participated in a WOL Circle, a common question is, ”What comes next?” Many people want to keep going, so some join another Circle with new members. Others just continue to meet every so often, updating and supporting each other. 

Now there’s another option. It’s a new way to deepen the insights and practice you began developing in your WOL Circle, and it’s called WOL-SC.

 

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What is WOL-SC?

The “SC” in “WOL-SC” can stand for many things: “Self-Care,” “Self-Compassion,” “SuperCharge,” or whatever other label you can come up with that expresses a sense of investing in yourself and and developing important skills. In many ways, a WOL-SC Circle can be thought of as a prequel to a WOL Circle. Whereas Working Out Loud improves how you relate to others, WOL-SC helps you improve how you relate to yourself.

WOL-SC is comprised of five discrete practices that you experiment with one after the other. Without exaggeration, these practices have changed my life. When I compare my current self to myself in years past, I am happier and calmer. I act with more confidence and clarity. I am a better father, husband, and friend. WOL-SC is an attempt to distill what I’ve learned from years of experiments aimed at improving my own work and life. It is not meant as a prescription that will work for everyone, or to presume that anyone should do what I do. Rather, it's offered in the spirit of “this helped me, and I hope you find it useful too.”

The main ideas are not new. The WOL-SC Circle Guides are all based on ancient wisdom, much of it thousands of years old and increasingly supported by scientific research. My intended contribution is to make it easier for anyone to apply these fundamentally good practices till they become habits, so more people can realize the many well-documented benefits.

How does it compare to a WOL Circle?

If you have already been in a WOL Circle, then certain aspects of WOL-SC will be familiar to you. You will meet as a group of four or five. It will be a psychologically safe, confidential space without judgment or competition. Your Circle can meet in person or via video across locations, and there will be guides with instructions on what to do in those meetings.

Beyond that, there are several important differences. You will meet only once a month for six months. You will do daily exercises on your own each month, and your meetings will be for you to share what happened and to prepare for a different practice the next month.

Also, unlike a WOL Circle, there is no goal or relationship list. The practices are largely focused on yourself. The only goals are to develop greater self-awareness and mindfulness. These are the keys to realizing more of your potential as well as a greater sense of fulfillment and happiness. The reason for the Circle meetings is that the structure, shared accountability, and support can help each person make progress. Also, reflecting on and exchanging experiences each month can advance your learning. 

Better for you. Better for your organization.

The personal benefits of the five practices in WOL-SC have been thoroughly studied and documented, and the new Circle Guides include resources to help you explore further and learn more. But there are benefits for organizations, too. Companies clearly recognize the need to do more to help employees handle the strains of work and life. Every company I've met with, for example, has a Wellness at Work or Mindfulness program. And hundreds of companies are spreading Working Out Loud Circles, proving that they are willing to create a safe, confidential space for employees to develop themselves.

What if we could build on that, and use Circles to enhance employees' focus, self-control, and stress management while helping them be kinder and happier? How many people would benefit if all those wellness programs had a new method that was easy to implement and spread? 

If you would like to be the first to try it…

I’ve been toying with this idea for a few years. While staying in Japan this summer, I finally drafted a set of guides that are ready to test, but not yet ready to publish. For the first experiment, I’d like to form 3 Circles, comprised of people I don’t know well and all of whom have been in at least one WOL Circle. We will start in September.

  • Circle #1 would meet in person in New York City, and I would be a member. So I would need four volunteers who live in or near NYC.
  • Circle #2 would meet via video and would span timezones. I would be a member of this Circle too, so I would need four volunteers from different countries.
  • Circle #3 would not include me. This will help me understand if the new guides are self-explanatory and what changes I may need to make. For this Circle, I would need five volunteers who would meet via video (unless five people in the same location volunteer as a group).

If you would like to volunteer for the WOL-SC experiment, send me an email at john.stepper@workingoutloud.com and let me know if you have a preference for which Circle you’d like to join. This is version 1.0 of something that may take many iterations to get right, but I am committed to working on it and to making the guides available for free. I appreciate your interest and support.