Gratitude letters can promote closeness and happiness in families. Let me describe what such a letter is and then describe how such might be used within a family.
Gratitude letters are usually around 300 words in length, but can be as long as you’d like. The letter is written directly to a family member (i.e., in the first person). To be more personal, write it out by hand. The letter should express only positive thoughts and feelings that you have regarding the person and should not include direct or indirect statements regarding how the person may have let you or someone else down or how the other person might improve as a person. Try to include examples of specific things the person has done or said that cause you to feel gratitude; these examples can be recent or from a long time ago. When it’s time to share the letter do so by reading it to the family member; don’t chicken out and hand it over for the other person to read. You may start to tear up or get emotional. That’s okay (you’ll probably find you’re not the only one). When you’re finished give it to the other person. Allow the positive moment to linger as long as the other person likes (i.e., some of us, though we enjoy it, may start to feel a little uncomfortable with the intimacy that can emerge); in other words, the other person decides when to end the moment or change the topic.
There are a number of ways such letters can be introduced into your family. The first way is for you to start doing the exercise unilaterally for any and all members of your family. If you chose this method don’t announce your agenda in advance; just spring it on the other person. It is also important to not do this with the hope or expectation that the other person will reciprocate.
Another method is to agree, as a family, that you will all do this exercise. The first step is to pick the person who will be the first “victim” (i.e., the one who everyone will write about first) and pick a day and time by which the letters are to be completed and read. You may need to stay after some kids to make sure they do their part; the recipient of the letter should not be the one to do this reminding (if you’re a single parent, ask a relative or friend to do this for you). If a given child is in 4th grade or younger, or has some interfering disability, you can be flexible regarding the length. For children who cannot write, but who are old enough to understand the concept, ask for a gratitude picture instead (if a given child needs it, it’s okay to provide a little help, but do this as sparingly as possible lest the recipient conclude it’s more your work). When the assigned day and time comes around, take turns reading your letters (/showing your pictures) all-together as a family. After everyone is finished, go with any urges to hug and cry and express love and joy. After the first recipient’s turn is finished, assign who the next recipient will be and so on and so forth. When I’ve helped families to do this, we’ve usually spaced the turns one week apart, though you can do it at whatever pace feels right for you.
This experience is usually very positive for families, and often to a surprising degree. (If this is not the case for you and your family, I would wonder if this is a symptom worthy of attention.) You can also find a lot of satisfaction in writing gratitude letters for others towards whom you have unexpressed gratitude, be it ancient or recent. If you’d like to make this a regular self-improvement project, write and execute one a month, at least until you run out of people. You might also encourage others in your family to try writing letters for people outside of your family. Such a practice focuses our minds on positive truths and stands to promote happiness.