Gratitude is having a moment. You’ll find the word written across T-shirts, hear it shouted in sweat-soaked spin classes, and see it tagged on nearly four million Instagram posts (that’s not even counting related hashtags like #blessed and #grateful).
You could say I’m having a gratitude moment, too. I quit my full-time job six months ago to prioritize remote work and world travel, starting with three months in South America. My husband and I ditched our New York apartment, stuffed everything we owned in a storage unit, and left for Buenos Aires with one suitcase each.
There’s nothing like uprooting your entire life to make you feel grateful: for the opportunity to work from anywhere in the world; for new sights and nice locals; for the ability to travel at all, which I’m aware is a privilege both physically and financially. When homesickness crept in, I felt grateful for everything back home: the friends who couldn’t be replaced, the colleagues who supported me, the bagels.
When I returned to New York, apartment-less and house-hunting, I felt grateful for all the couches I crashed on, the car I borrowed, and the café wifi I used for no less than eight hours a day.
My gratitude experiment
A simple “thanks!” felt all too casual, given the depths of my emotions. That’s where old-school thank you notes came in. They’re thoughtful, intentional, and just inconvenient enough to let recipients know how much you appreciate them.
Of course, I’ve sent thank you notes after job interviews and to professors who wrote recommendation letters for me back in college, but with the exception of wedding “thank yous,” my note-writing stopped there. Why do we only send nice notes when we want professional brownie points? I decided to branch out by sending thank you notes every day for a week.
Even though I wasn’t trying to score a new job or acceptance into an academic program, research says there are legit benefits to embarking on this endeavor. Gratitude is associated with stronger relationships, improved work satisfaction, better sleep, and lower levels of depression and anxiety, according to a University of Montana review.
And there’s no need to keep these feelings to yourself: a University of Chicago study shows that people overestimate the awkwardness of sending “gratitude letters” and underestimate how awesome it makes the recipients feel.
After writing thank-you notes every day for a week, I can’t say I’m surprised. Here’s what happened when I expressed my gratitude on paper, then sent it out into the world.
I slept better and felt less stressed
I started out writing cards at various hours of the day, but by the end of the week, I stuck to either first-thing in the morning or just before bed. Morning thank you notes encouraged me to start my day in a positive state of mind, and the evening ones helped me unwind. Instead of stressing about tomorrow’s to-do list, I went to bed thinking about someone who changed my life for the better.
I made it a ~thing~
Like most writing, gratitude writing is a little easier with a glass of wine in hand. The truth is, it’s easy to feel self-conscious (hey, you’re putting yourself out there!), and that vino helped me get out of my head. It also made this project feel like less of a chore.
I found my rhythm
Writing these out-of-the-blue thank you notes felt cheesy at first (or like I was being a total suck-up), but it became more natural after a few days. In fact, once I got going, I couldn’t stop: I wrote a note to a teacher I hadn’t seen in over a decade, who taught me to think critically and write logically; my trainer, who pushed me out of my comfort zone, giving me the confidence to take risks like leaving my job for travel; my friends, who supported me in the aftermath of those decisions, when I needed a couch to crash on or a drink to vent over. Thank for your hospitality…for teaching me to think critically…for watching my cat. After each one, I felt lighter knowing I had put something good into the universe, giving me the motivation to keep writing more.
I learned that big-picture thank you notes are the best
Which note would you rather receive: (a) “Thanks for dinner” or (b) “You’re the most generous person I know”? The second one, of course. Even though writing sappy notes might feel a little extra, doing so also boosts your mood a little more. The more genuine, next-level goodness I put out into the world, the better I felt.
I’m inspired to write more (as in, with an actual pen)
I didn’t have an address for one of my note recipients, so I sent him an email. Getting an instant response was nice, but the old-school pen-to-paper style somehow felt more meditative. Indeed, Norwegian research suggests that the act of writing on paper activates different regions in the brain and may help ideas linger longer, as compared to typing.
I soaked up some good vibes
For starters, there are the feel-good responses: “This made my night.” “Super thoughtful.” “Thanks for the thanks!” But even before I heard anything back, it felt nice knowing that someone might have opened their mail at the end of a hard day and smiled when they saw something other than a bill. Or maybe one of the recipients saw my note in the morning and went to work just a little bit happier. On days I wrote them, I know I did.