Manufacture Joy: Write a Gratitude Letter

I thought it might be a good time of year to review a set of strategies that we parents can use to manufacture happiness. I’m drawing these strategies from the science of positive psychology. The first of these is to write a gratitude letter. I first learned about this strategy from a video presentation by psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman years ago and have since garnered a good amount of professional and personal experience with it. There are five steps:

Step #1: Identify a person towards whom you feel a significant amount of unexpressed gratitude. This might be a person who knows about some of the gratitude you feel but not all of it. This gratitude can be recent or ancient. You can also rotate writing a gratitude letter within a family: week #1 is moms turn, then eldest son’s, then dad’s, etc. Then everyone writes a gratitude letter for the person whose turn it is.

Step #2: Hand write a legible letter of about 300 words. Don’t worry about a precise word count, just land somewhere in that ballpark. (The handwritten nature of the letter produces a more personal feel and indicates more effort on your part.)

Step #3: Schedule a meeting with the person, but don’t tell her or him about your letter. The surprise tends to be more impactful.

Step #4: Read your letter to the person. You typically would not want to chicken out and hand it over for the person to read as that stands to significantly weakens the experience. Don’t worry if you get misty or cry as such usually adds meaning for the other person; plus you probably won’t be the only one.

Step #5: Give your letter to the person.

I’ve done this myself, had families do it in my office and offered graduate students extra credit for doing it. I find that just about everyone (myself included) is surprised by how powerful of an emotional experience it proves to be. The research also suggests that the writer of the letter can experience a bump in happiness for three to four weeks afterwards. So, give it a try it and see how much power you have to manufacture happiness in your life and the life of another.

Stay tuned as I’m going to do a series of these strategies and will end with a list of books where you can learn more.

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