As preparation for this exercise, take the Gratitude Survey on the Web site (www.authentichappiness.org).
The positive emotion of gratitude connects us to the kindness of others. Our society seems to lack gratitude rituals, formal ways of expressing thanks to those who have done well by us.
Think of the people — parents, friends, teachers, coaches, teammates, employers, and so on — who have been especially kind to you but have never heard you express your gratitude.
Write and rewrite a Gratitude Letter to one of these individuals, describing in concrete terms why you are grateful. The letter should be concrete: Name specific things they did for you, and exactly how they affected your life. Tell what you are doing now and how you often remember their efforts. Make it sing.
Deliver the letter personally and plan to read it aloud in the person’s presence. Call the person in advance and make an appointment with them. Do not tell him or her the precise purpose of the meeting (be vague). Once you’ve shared the letter, discuss your feelings, more specifics of your gratitude and your vision for the future.
This exercise was originally designed as part of a class. As part of the exercise, individual students were encouraged to share their letter of gratitude with the class and to reflect on their experience of expressing their gratitude. Feel free to share your letter and your experience with others. If you like, you can also complete the exercise with friends, family members or others in a group.
Whether you are working alone or in a group, a week or so after you’ve completed the gratitude letter and visit, contemplate the following questions.
1) How did you feel as you wrote your letter?
2) How did the other person react to your expression of gratitude? And how were you affected by their reaction?
3) How long did these feelings last after you presented your letter?
4) Did you recall the experience in the days that followed the reading of the letter? If so, how did this recollection affect your mood?
5) Have you thought of others with whom you wish to share your gratitude?
Modification for group setting
Host a “gratitude night” in which members of the group invite a guest who has been important in their lives but whom they have not properly thanked. Give individuals the opportunity to stand up in front of the group with their guest and read their letter publicly.
Every day find an opportunity to express your gratitude. This expression can be as simple as a sincere “thank you” said to someone who holds the door open for you, or it can be as elaborate as the gratitude letter described above. Just make it a habit to build gratitude into your daily schedule.
Example Gratitude Letter
Dear Mr. Atkinson,
As I think back to the three years you were my teacher, so many great memories come flooding back. I remember the little incident with the blackboard during freshman year. I remember you calling my house at the end of that year. The first thing you said was, “Don’t piss me off, Tom,” (jokingly, of course) then told me I got a 100 on the Sequential II Regents. You even took me out for ice cream.
I remember sophomore year, the emotion you showed when you told us about Mohammed’s death. I had never seen a teacher cry until then, and realized then that teachers really do give a damn about their students. I remember you consoling me when I went through a bad break-up, even though it was taking up valuable class time. I think we went out for ice cream that year too. I’ll never forget the highlight of that year: getting accepted into the Penn Summer Science Academy. It was a wonderful feeling, but seeing how proud you were of me was an even greater thrill. Do you still have that picture hanging on the wall?
Did you know that I was incredibly upset that you didn’t teach Pre-Calculus, so I didn’t have you as a teacher my junior year? As good a teacher as Mr. Valentine was, I remember thinking that you would have done a better job. I think I may have been suffering from Mr. Atkinson withdrawal.
Out of all the teachers I had in high school, you were the first person I thought of for a recommendation when application time came. I knew you would be fair and honest, hoping that was a good thing. AP Calculus was probably the first time I really had trouble grasping math in school, and you patiently helped me through it, taking time to talk to me and do extra problems — you never gave up on me. You should also know that it’s been four years and I still can’t get “don’t sleep in the subway” out of my head.
I guess what I’m really trying to say is thank you. Thank you for seeing something inside of me and not giving up on me. You pushed me to be my best, and I think you succeeded. You were sympathetic when I needed it, patient when I said or did something stupid. Above all else, you had a sense of humor. However warped and cracked it was, I always thought it was funny, even the bad jokes….
I hope the students you have now appreciate the gift they have in having you for a teacher. If they don’t now, I’m sure someday they will. I knew you were a good teacher when I was in high school. It took graduating from college to realize that you were a great teacher. I hope this letter finds you well and happy. I look forward to seeing you in May.
Reprinted with permission from the Authentic Happiness Newsletter Exercise Series.
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