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?

My Gratitude Letter.png

Change your life in 5 minutes a day

I try to avoid sensational titles, and I don’t mean for this week to be an exception. “Change your life in 5 minutes a day” is based on my own experience. Sometimes, it only takes me three minutes.

Ancient wisdom

I’m referring to keeping a gratitude journal. Each morning, the first thing I do when I wake up is to reflect on what made yesterday a great day, and what three things would make today great. It’s so simple it verges on trivial, and yet so useful I never miss a day. I’ve been writing in it for over a year now. I even take it with me when I travel, just for those few minutes each day. 

Ever since the advent of positive psychology in the late 1990s - "the scientific study of positive human functioning and flourishing on multiple levels” - there has been a wealth of research on the benefits of varying gratitude practices. (You can find popular summaries here and here.) It’s not a new idea, though. Practicing gratitude falls into the category of “ancient wisdom,” and has long been advocated by a wide array of sources.

“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has." - Epictetus

“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, “thank you,” that would suffice.” - Meister Eckhart

“When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the morning light, for your life and strength. Give thanks for your food, and the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies with yourself." - Tecumseh, Shawnee Chief

“A grateful mind is a great mind which eventually attracts to itself great things.’ - Plato

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others. - Marcus Tullius Cicero

In The Book of Joy, practicing gratitude is listed as one of “the 8 pillars of joy” by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. In The How of Happiness, it’s one of 12 practices advocated by Prof. Sonja Lyubomirsky.

My own results

By the time I saw an ad for The Five-Minute Journal, I was convinced and ready to start, though it wasn’t easy in the beginning. I would forget to write in it, or find myself saying the same things a few days in a row. Then I put the journal in a place where I knew I would see it when I woke up, and writing in it gradually became something I looked forward to doing. It became a habit.

Over time, I became aware of certain patterns. The things that appeared on the list most often were particular people in my life, and the time I could spend with them. Searching for new things to write, I became more aware of just how many precious basics - good health, food, and shelter to name a few - I had taken for granted. The act of listing what I was grateful for day after day helped to shift my perspective from overly-negative to something more balanced, and that made me happier.

Writing down my intentions - What will make today great? - had a somewhat different effect. It helped me to focus my attention on what mattered at different points throughout the day, and that helped me to make better, more mindful, choices. When I reflected on a prior day, I noticed how doing what I intended always provided a sense of fulfillment or completeness. Instead of being buffeted about by things out of my control, I found I could “live intentionally,” and it proved to be extremely satisfying. 

I’ve found this simple practice so helpful that I included it as one of the five self-care practices in WOL-SC.

Getting started

You don’t need The Five-Minute Journal in particular to practice gratitude. Some of my German friends use Das 6-Minuten Tagebuch. (Though I do wonder why they need an extra minute.) A blank book will do, or even placing notes in a jar. 

You might also try DayCatcher, a more visual and creative way to practice gratitude which I started using just last week. At the end of a day, you choose a photo that captures one special moment from that day, and add a short note or caption. Doing this has already attuned my attention to look for my “catch” each day. It helps me to savor the best moments and be thankful for them right before I go to sleep. At the end of the year I can use it to create a beautiful album of memories.

Your mother or grandmother probably told you to “count your blessings.” And now science has caught up with her, explaining why the advice she gave was so good.

But do you put that advice into practice? Why not start today?

“Thank you for saying that"

It was such a simple exchange and yet it left an impression on me. I was sitting in a crowded food court, working on my laptop. It was lunchtime, and there was the usual din of people eating, laughing, shuffling chairs.. Amidst all the office workers, I noticed someone on the maintenance staff wiping down tables after people left, getting them ready for the next group.

When he cleaned the table next to me, I offered my appreciation for what he was doing. He nodded, smiled awkwardly, and kept wiping the table. A few seconds later, he walked by me, leaned in, eyes averted, and quietly said "Thank you for saying that."

I think it was the earnestness in his voice that struck me. It was as if my simple comment was something especially valuable to him, something rare.

Hudson Eats: A local food hall & my sometimes office 

Hudson Eats: A local food hall & my sometimes office 

A simple test (and the worst blog title ever)

Almost two years ago, I wrote a blog post with the odd title of “The Corporate Bathroom Test.” I wanted to describe how exchanges like the one I had in the food court could be part of your Working Out Loud practice, helping you “gradually build a capability and a mindset of deepening relationships through generosity.”

“Some of the most powerful gifts you have to offer - contributions that are universally valued - are recognition and appreciation. The point of this post is that even mundane interactions are opportunities to practice offering these gifts…Each time you do it you gain subtle insights into your motivations and reactions.
Today, as you meet someone you might normally pass by, say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you.’ Be mindful of how that makes you feel. Watch how it makes the other person feel.”

Sparks of joy

Since I wrote that, I've continued practicing offering appreciation to people throughout the day. I’m careful to do it without expectations of a reply, and I try to be mindful that they’re busy and may not be in the mood to talk. (After all, I’ve taken The Generosity Test too.) Usually, it's people I notice working - restaurant workers, landscapers, crossing guards. It's a way of saying “I see you and I appreciate what you're doing.”

A woman serving food at a corporate event whispered, “You are very kind” simply because I thanked her and offered to help her move a table. When I asked a flight attendant how she was doing, she was genuinely surprised at the question. “Thank you for asking,” she said. “That’s very nice of you.” A taxi driver and I had a long talk about his home country of the Dominican Republic, and we shook hands after the ride.

The truth is I’m not especially kind or generous. I just practice paying attention to people around me, putting myself in their shoes for a moment, and offering sincere appreciation. Many people are hungry for such a gift, and in return I get sparks of human connection - even joy - throughout my day. “The Corporate Bathroom Test” is now an additional exercise in Week 2 of the WOL Circle Guides. I hope you’ll try it.

“The more you practice, the more comfortable you become offering small gifts in a variety of circumstances till, over time, it becomes a habit that makes you happier and more effective.”

 

100 slices of Thanksgiving

Isn’t it strange how a label on a calendar can make a difference? It’s Thanksgiving this Thursday in the US. And for as long as I can remember, I’ve been wondering the same thing. When I mentioned it to someone in an email this week, she said she felt the same way.

“Is it me or does NYC feel different on Thanksgiving week? I might be projecting, but it feels like a kinder, more caring place, and I love this time of year.”
“I agree with you about the holiday season in New York.  There is a special feel to the city.”

Yes, we all know that being grateful is good, both for ourselves and the people around us. Yet who has time for that? Thanksgiving is different. There’s something about the simple structure of it, and the synchronization. It’s on the calendar and everyone does it.

But what if we carved up that day a little differently?

1440 divided by 365

A few months ago, my good friend (and founder of Fearless Inventory) mentioned the five-minute journal. “It’s a gratitude journal,” he told me, and he said it was helpful, so I ordered one.

You use it twice a day. In the morning when you wake up, you write down three things you’re grateful for and three things that would would make today great. Before you go to sleep, you write down three things that actually made the day great, and something that might have made the day even better. (That last bit is meant less as a judgment and more as learning for future days.) I found it takes me even less than five minutes to do it.

Given a day is 1440 minutes long, writing in my journal is like a little slice of Thanksgiving every day. The simple structure helped me do things I somehow never had the time or attention to do before. After 100 days, I noticed some changes.

Intentional consequences

When you do something mindfully 100 times in a row, you notice some patterns. I would often write similar things day after day. Gratitude for my family, our health, the chance to do meaningful work. The things that usually made each day great were often about being present for small moments during the day, especially those with my family and people close to me. 

Over and over I would realize that a “better day” would have meant paying more attention to people and less to technology and other distractions, that I would have been calmer and more joyful. An affirmation I’ve written down many times is "To let the gratefulness shine through me."

I also noticed that the moments of reflection actually shaped my days in ways I didn’t expect. In the morning, writing down my intention for what would make the day great would attune my attention, making me more mindful throughout the day of what was truly important. Oh, that’s right! Watching the kids’ swimming lesson is one of the things that was going to make today great. I’ll focus on that instead of taking my book or laptop.

My attention also shifted when it came to gratitude. Instead of just thinking of things I already had, I noticed I was actively looking for things to be grateful for throughout the day. I’d be in the supermarket and think Aren’t I lucky that I can choose from so much abundance? In the doctor’s office I’d be thankful for having access to medical care and health insurance. A cold day would make me appreciate a hot shower and a warm comfortable bed. Later, I’d write those things down in my journal, reinforcing those thoughts and further attuning my attention.

After 100 days, I felt…happier. I realize now that happiness, like being grateful or kind or almost anything you can say about a person, isn’t so much about who you are. It’s about how much you practice.

I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving. Every day. 

 

 

 

The Appreciation Test

I thought this one would be easy, but I was wrong. Try it for yourself.

Imagine someone just paid you a compliment on something you did, perhaps a presentation at work or something else that evoked a “Nice job!”

What would you do?

  1. Wonder if the person was being sarcastic.
  2. Reject it. “Oh it was nothing.”
  3. Smile awkwardly.
  4. Graciously accept the compliment.

You might think the answer is obvious. But it has taken me decades to get to a comfortable answer, and that’s only after working  through all of the possible responses.

The M&Ms Incident

I was about 5 years old when this happened, maybe younger. It was such a trivial incident and yet it stuck with me.

My mother, older siblings, and I visited a neighbor up the block. Her home seemed so neat and orderly. To my mind they were rich, though it was just a one-bedroom home in the Bronx. The woman had M&Ms in a glass bowl, something extraordinary for me because a) in my house the M&Ms would be devoured immediately, and b) we would inevitably break the glass bowl.

She held the bowl out to me. “Would you like some?” My mother gave me a look and shook her head. Afterwards, she explained (or this is how I remember it), that even if people offered something, I wasn’t supposed to take it. My young mind interpreted it as somehow impolite to accept what was offered. Perhaps the person didn’t really mean it, or I didn’t deserve it, or both.

Of course, it’s nice to receive compliments. And yet, for most of my life, each compliment is like that bowl of M&Ms being offered to me. I look at it awkwardly, wondering whether I’m allowed to accept it.

The Appreciation Test

“You look nice today!”

I much prefer to give compliments than to receive them. “You look nice today!” “What a great outfit!” I thought offering such genuine praise was an unambiguously nice thing to do. One day, though, a woman I knew responded with, “So I don’t look so nice on the other days?”

I never expected that. I guess she focused on the word “today” more than “nice” and interpreted it as a kind of insult. It taught me two lessons: to be more thoughtful of how I offer a compliment, and to realize that other people, like me, may not be comfortable when they get one.

I still offer positive feedback to people, but I try and practice empathy before I do it. How would I receive this if I were them? It makes me more mindful of what I say and how I say it.

How accepting a gift can be a contribution

Last week, I gave a talk at a conference and there were well over a thousand people in the audience. As I walked off stage, I wasn’t sure how it went. I had a sense of how well I did or didn’t do, but now how it was received. Then, some people came up and congratulated me, and over the course of the day different people would come up to me and say something nice about my presentation.

I thought about this appreciation test. My instinct was to respond with disbelief or some other form of rejection. “Really?” “Oh, it wasn’t my best effort.”

This time, though, I practiced just accepting it. Sometimes it was as simple as “Thank you. I really appreciate it.” Sometimes we would start a conversation and exchange contact information, or even get to know each other a bit.

If a person had gone through the trouble of walking up to me to say something nice, then the least I could do in return would be to graciously accept it. Now, instead of responding with my usual self-defenses, I practice reciprocating with my attention, appreciation, and vulnerability. As the write Stephen Donaldson has said, “In accepting the gift, you honor the giver.”

Practicing Gratitude

It’s Thanksgiving Day tomorrow in the US, and some people will invariably point out that we should give thanks every day, not just on the one day reserved for it. They’re right. At work, we don’t even have the one day, so I introduced  “Thank you Thursdays.” a campaign encouraging people to post a short update on our social network to show appreciation. Again, someone asked why we needed to designate a day. “Why can’t we just offer appreciation spontaneously?”

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 6.49.17 AM

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 6.49.17 AM

The answer, of course, is that we can - but we don’t. For most of us, we simply don’t have the habit of offering thanks and showing appreciation as much as we would like to. In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie described appreciation as something we all “hunger for” and that “all souls enjoy,” and he decried the lack of it in everyday life.

“One of the most neglected virtues of our daily existence is appreciation.”

The good news is that you can develop the habit of offering appreciation with practice.

Try it now. Before you put down your laptop, tablet, or phone, think of at least one person you would like to thank or whose efforts you appreciate. Send a short message by text or email, or post it on Twitter. If you need help, I included simple exercises below from Working Out Loud. If you were in a Working Out Loud circle, this is something you would practice.

Do it now, and see how easy it is and how it makes you feel. When you develop the habit of gratitude, every day is an opportunity to make someone else feel good, to feel better yourself, and to deepen a relationship.

Happy Thanksgiving.

***

Something you can do in less than a minute

Show public appreciation on Twitter for someone’s work. Don’t expect to get a reply, but do it just because it’s a nice thing to do. When someone does reply, it’s an extra bonus. For example, I shared how much I was enjoying the work of Austin Kleon, a bestselling author whose work has influenced me..

Austin Kleon tweet

Austin Kleon tweet

Public feedback isn’t intimate (it’s public, after all), but it’s still a lovely gift. It shows you want others to know someone has done something worth your gratitude. Just make sure the gift is pure and really about the recipient, not about you.

Something you can do in less than 5 minutes

E-mail someone now to say “thank you.” Then send a LinkedIn message to someone else to say “I’ve been thinking of you and hope you’re well.”

These are private messages and thus more personal. Notes like these are simple, universal gifts that anyone would like to receive. You can add other details if you like, but keep these notes to no more than a few sentences.

#thankyouthursday

Every Thursday at work, I take a few minutes and think of someone I would like to thank publicly. Then I write a short post on our enterprise social network and tag it with #thankyouthursday. Over time, more people at work are offering thanks that way too. It’s not an original idea. There’s a thankyouthursday.org and a Facebook group and, of course, the fourth Thursday of every November in the US.

My hope is that this post will help you implement your own version of #thankyouthursday at your company or with your friends and family.

Solving the recognition paradox

Inside large organizations, there’s a recognition paradox. Everyone says there should be more recognition of people and their good work, but few people do anything about it. Instead of thanking and recognizing each other, we limit ourselves to Recognition Programs created by Human Resources.

But in an era of self-publishing, it’s easier than ever to change this.

In a recent session on twitter, people who work with social networks inside companies came together online and one topic was about the simple contributions people can make. That reminded me of #thankyouthursday.

thankyouthursday tweet

Steal Like An Artist

About 18 months ago, I wrote about another idea I hoped would spread. Inspired by Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist, I adapted a kind of discussion on Reddit called Ask Me Anything for use inside our firm.

Since then, over 80 executives have participated in open online discussions where anyone at the company can ask them anything. Those discussions are often rich and authentic, with dozens of questions and thousands of people looking on.

Better still, many other firms now use the same technique. They too stole like artists, further adapting Ask Me Anythings to suit their particular organizations. Now I hope the same thing happens with #thankyouthursday.

Creating your own culture of gratitude

Every week, reading all the different notes makes me feel better about where I work and feel more connected to the people there. The small investment I make thanking someone is repaid 100-fold.

To get this feeling yourself, you don’t need to wait for anyone to give you permission or create a program. Just start by scheduling a few minutes every Thursday. Then say thank you in a way that’s convenient and authentic for you. Here are simple instructions from thankyouthursday.org:

“Every Thursday, take an intentional moment to acknowledge those who you are thankful for. Send an email, post a note on Facebook, send them a message on Twitter, give them a call, stop by their desk… etc.

Simply take the time to thank those who have impacted you in big or small ways.”

Say thank you. Whether you do this with friends and family or at work, you’ll be creating your own culture of gratitude that’s good for everyone.

thankyouthursday tag