Have you given any thought to how much getting there is in thanks giving?
“Thanks” is what you say when the Starbucks clerk hands your venti-latte-extra-whipped-cream through the drive-up window.
But the thanks I’m talking about is the kind that’s much more intentional than automatic. It’s an act of appreciation, filled with meaning and sincerity. That’s the kind of gratitude that pays back in spades, according to research by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., director of the Penn Positive Psychology Center at University of Pennsylvania.
Seligman, the author of the book Authentic Happiness, asked 411 people as part of a study to perform one of six tasks that supposedly would make them feel an elevated sense of well-being. Among the tasks was one that required writing a letter of thanks to someone who had been especially kind to the writer, but who had never received his or her expressed gratitude.
Part two of the assignment was to deliver that letter in person and stay while the recipient read it silently. Seligman found that of all the positive tasks assigned, the gratitude option delivered the highest boost to the happiness of study participants and the most significant reduction in symptoms of depression. What’s more, the subjects who chose the gratitude task were still enjoying the benefits after one-week and one-month follow-ups.
I decided to test the Happiness Doc’s theory by trying out his gratitude experiment—write a thank-you letter to someone who has shown me kindness but never received my thanks, hand deliver it, watch him read it.
I chose my old Scoutmaster, Bryon Breese. That man taught me stuff while I was under his tutelage that I use every day and a lot of stuff I’ll probably never use but that’s cool to know nonetheless.
I can start a roaring fire with a piece of flint and an old pocketknife, tie a bowline, a sheetbend and a timber hitch with my eyes closed. I know how powerful simple courtesy can be and the value of measuring twice before you saw. I taught one of my daughters how to keep a canoe straight with a j-stroke this past summer because Byron Breese taught me how 40 summers ago.
So, I wrote my letter of gratitude long tardy. But here’s the thing: I didn’t hand-deliver it. I couldn’t. I tear up easily. It would be an awkward mess, and I couldn’t put the old man through that. Besides, letter writing and letter reading should be an intimate affair, not a performance.
But the result mimicked Seligman’s findings. I felt an incredible lift while writing the letter of thanks, handwritten, then again while licking the stamp. And then, again, a month later when I received a thank-you letter from Scoutmaster Breese.
University of California researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., believes intentional acts that make us feel gratitude are powerful tools for a healthy psyche. In her book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, she argues that 50 percent of a person’s degree of happiness is genetically set, while just 10 percent is due to life circumstances—are you rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy—leaving 40 percent to be determined by behavior.
That means you and I can significantly influence our own happiness by doing something, not just thinking, about it.
You’ve had a coach, a teacher, a good friend who did something significantly nice for you. Pick up a pen. And, man, you don’t have to hand-deliver it to experience the getting in the thanks giving.
Postscript: My Uncle Byron Breese died last year. I feel so grateful that he received my letter, and my thanks in person, before he passed. Don’t wait to thank someone who has given so much to you.