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.”
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.
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.
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?