Feeling gratitude can improve your health and happiness; expressing gratitude also strengthens relationships. Yet sometimes expressions of thanks can be fleeting and superficial. This exercise encourages you to express gratitude in a thoughtful, deliberate way by writing—and, ideally, delivering—a letter of gratitude to a person you have never properly thanked.
Budget about 10 minutes for writing the letter and at least 30 minutes for the visit, if you choose to deliver your letter in person.
Call to mind someone who did something for you for which you are extremely grateful but to whom you never expressed your deep gratitude. This could be a relative, friend, teacher, or colleague. Try to pick someone who is still alive and could meet you face-to-face in the next week. It may be most helpful to select a person or act that you haven’t thought about for a while—something that isn’t always on your mind.
Now, write a letter to one of these people, guided by the following steps.
Next, you should try if at all possible to deliver your letter in person, following these steps:
If physical distance keeps you from making a visit, you may choose to arrange a phone or video chat.
Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410.
When researchers tested five different exercises, writing and delivering a Gratitude Letter showed the greatest benefit to people’s happiness one month later; however, six months after, their happiness had dropped back down to where it was before. This is why some researchers suggest doing this exercise once every six weeks or so. Participants in this study were largely white, middle-aged adults with college degrees.
Froh, J. J., Kashdan, T. B., Ozimkowski, K. M., & Miller, N. (2009). Who benefits the most from a gratitude intervention in children and adolescents? Examining positive affect as a moderator. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(5), 408–22.
Adolescents who often don’t experience positive emotions showed a significant boost in positive emotions two months after writing and delivering a Gratitude Letter. Nearly 70% of the adolescents in this study were Caucasian, with the rest identifying as Asian American, African American, Hispanic, or “other.”
Research suggests that while there are benefits simply to writing the letter, you reap significantly greater benefits from delivering and reading it in person.
Who Has Tried The Practice?
Additional research has engaged members of other groups:
More research is needed to explore whether, and how, the impact of this practice extends to other groups and cultures.
The letter affirms positive things in your life and reminds you how others have cared for you—life seems less bleak and lonely if someone has taken such a supportive interest in us. Visiting the giver allows you to strengthen your connection with them and remember how others value you as an individual.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., University of California, Riverside
Kristin Layous, Ph.D., California State University, East Bay
Martin Seligman, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania