Stop Creating Gratitude Lists And Do This Instead
In the many self-improvement and positive psychology books I’ve read over the years, one common finding has appeared again and again: true contentment in life comes from our ability to cultivate gratitude.
At the advice of these authors, gurus, and sages, I’ve embarked on writing daily gratitude lists, scrawled on notepads and in fancy gratitude journals. I’ve encouraged the sharing of gratitudes at dinner with my family, used gratitude apps and reminders, and made impromptu lists in my head to emotionally transition from frustration to peace.
It works, which is why I am such a huge fan of gratitude. Gratitude and I go way back.
But last December I had a thought. What if I was shortchanging my experience of gratitude by keeping it all to myself, closed into journals and limited to my husband and two kids?
It was time to level up my gratitude practice.
To Amazon I went, ordering 365 thank you notes, arriving in packs of 36 and 48, and splashed with flowers and polka dots in a kaleidoscope of colors.
Over the course of the past year, I’ve sent thank you notes to colleagues, family, and friends. I’ve penned my thanks to restaurant owners, service workers, mail deliverers, a cardiologist, and an airline pilot.
I’ve written notes of deep appreciation to authors of books I’ve loved. I’ve thanked people for gifts, invites to parties, and acts of kindness. I’ve expressed thanks for new business, for making introductions, and for wise advice. I’ve thanked my parents for their parenting, my friends for their friendship, and my work team for their hard work.
A few months into this project, I shared the experience with a friend who, while delighted by the idea, was perplexed. “How do you know who to send a thank you note to each day?” he asked. “It’s simple,” I explained. “I just mentally scan through the day before and find one person I interacted with to send my thanks to.”
Surely, when we look through the previous 24 hours we can find one human being that touched our lives. Maybe it was a journalist who wrote an article you loved, or the plumber who not only fixed your leak but was punctual and courteous.
Maybe it was the manager at your grocery store who was glad to special order those crackers you love so much. Or the extra effort your child’s teacher puts into her curriculum so her students are engaged and excited. Or the fitness instructor that makes your sixty minutes of exercise not only tolerable but, actually, kind of fun.
This project taught me to notice that every single day we are touched by the people we interact with if we allow ourselves to be.
We interact with dozens, maybe hundreds, of people every week, sometimes virtually, sometimes invisibly, but there is a connection and an impact that can be acknowledged. We’re not islands. We live in this world with billions of other people, most of them just trying to do good and be good. What a gift it is to send someone thanks for their goodness.
I’ve learned so much about the art of saying thanks, and here are a few key takeaways.
- On a practical level, it helped to have a supply of stamps and cards on hand so there was nothing stopping me from writing a note each time the opportunity arose.
- The act of writing a thank you note is so different from typing an email or tapping in a text. It’s slower, more thoughtful, and more heartfelt. It invites pause and reflection as the pen patiently waits at the paper until the right words start to flow.
- Making it a daily practice, perhaps the last thing you do before you go to bed or the first thing you do in the morning, creates a ritual. After 365 days, this habit is firmly implanted in my life.
- No act is ever too small to deserve acknowledgment. In fact, no act is needed at all. Some of my favorite notes to write were the ones that thanked someone for simply being in my life.
I’m very aware that writing letters and notes is an old-fashioned art belonging to a culture of civility and courtesy that is slowly disappearing from our society. But imagine if thank you notes made a comeback. The impact would be immeasurable.
We live in an age when retro is cool and vintage is vogue. I think we’re poised to welcome back some old-school social mores.
It’s time to have a thank you note revival. I’m in. Are you?