Activity: Gratitude Visit

Title: Gratitude Visit

Activity: Think about someone who has had a positive impact in your life (a family member, old teacher, colleague, etc.) and set aside 15 minutes to write a letter expressing your gratitude for this person. If possible, then find time to deliver the letter in person, if not over the phone, expressing your gratitude.

Science: The field of positive psychology has produced many positive interventions empirically evidenced to increase well-being, and the gratitude visit is one of the most effective at driving positive effects (Seligman et al., 2005). The writing of the letter alone can serve to cultivate gratitude, which can lead to improved happiness and well-being. Moreover, delivering and savoring the letter alongside the recipient can lead to strengthened social relationships, a key driver of well-being and physical health (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015). Like many positive interventions, however, the positive effect does not seem to sustain for long after just one letter, suggesting value in repeating the exercise at regular intervals.

Results: I performed the writing of my gratitude letter alongside others at a Positive Psychology Meetup in New York. I chose to write to a lifelong friend, specifically thanking him for always being there for me in the best and worst of times. I was amazed at the feeling of writing the letter, truly grounding me in how fortunate I am to have a friend like that in my life. While I have always been grateful for my friends, this exercise gave me the space to be more thoughtful and deliberate around the gratitude.

I called my friend that night to read him the letter (we live on opposite sides of the country). It was a bit awkward at first – although we’ve been friends for over 20 years, we’ve never had this type of interaction – but we were both incredibly moved by the call. Ultimately, I think both my friend and I derived significant benefit from the experience, and am equally excited to know that we’ll each have a copy of the letter for years to come.

Thoughts:

  1. Deliberate gratitude is important, but easy to forget: This exercise served as a good reminder of the importance of deliberate gratitude. It is too easy to go through days without truly appreciating what we have. Dedicating an extended period of time to reflecting on how fortunate I am to have certain people in my life shaped my entire day (and week) for the better.
  2. Accountability leads to a higher chance of success: Knowing the delivery of my letter could be an awkward experience, I was cognizant that I might put off having the call with my friend. To mitigate that risk I made a promise to the other Meetup attendees that I would make the call that night and post a comment in the Meetup event after completing it. This relatively light-touch accountability helped me follow through on completing the exercise in a timely manner.   
  3. Sustainable well-being effects requires further research: My lifelong friend happens to have a PhD in psychology and after the delivery of the letter we began discussing the sustainability of positive interventions, or more specifically the lack of research on long-term effects. We came up with multiple ideas on how to make the clear benefits related to gratitude, well-being, and social connection from this exercise sustainable, but are both hopeful that academic researchers will continue to explore this space with empirical experiments.

Next Steps: Based on the research relating to sustainability, I plan to do this exercise on a semi-regular basis. It was a great experience and there are many others in my life that I would like to share my gratitude with in this manner. For example, I have a 6th grade teacher who helped me get excited about math and science, a previous manager who instilled confidence in me, and parents who shaped me into who I am today. What great opportunities to practice gratitude, and even better that we will both derive benefit from this simple exercise.

Research:

Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410.
Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227-237.

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