When I was studying positive psychology, one of my homework assignments was to write a gratitude letter to a person who positively impacted my life, describing in detail how they made my life better. The second part of the assignment was to deliver the letter in person and read it out loud to them.
I chose to write to my grandmother. As a child I spent a lot of time with her, and until I was given the gratitude letter assignment, I hadn’t realized how much she meant to me and gave me. She was just part of my life, and I took her for granted. In the letter, I thanked her for the homemade chicken soup she always put in a special green bowl just for me, for the Russian folk songs she sang to me when I sat on her lap as a little girl, and for always making me feel safe and loved. I also wrote about her resilience. Despite surviving a war that took many of her loved ones and devastated her youthful dreams for the future, she remained kind, loving and accepting of others. And even though she coped with chronic pain throughout her life, she never became bitter. In fact, she continued to flourish as a woman as she aged. I thanked her for inspiring me to want to be a better woman myself.
When I arrived at her house to deliver the letter, she gave me a little snack and we sat down together. We chatted for a few minutes and then I read her the letter. When I finished, she simply said, “Thank you.” I told her she could keep the letter, and we spent a bit more time together. Then I went home.
To be honest, afterwards I felt ambivalent about the experience. I knew it was a helpful exercise for me. Writing the letter helped me appreciate her more, and truly did inspire me, but delivering the letter was a little awkward, and I felt surprisingly exposed and vulnerable reading it to her. We never discussed it again, and I never knew how she felt about it.
My grandmother passed away last month, and yesterday I went to her house to help clean out her room. I found the letter in her nightstand! It’s been years since I wrote it, but there it was, laying at the top of a small pile of papers. So even though she never told me how she felt about the letter, she showed me, by keeping it close to her for all those years.
Most people live their entire lives not really understanding the impact they have on others. Families and friends gather after they’re gone and remember them with affection and gratitude. But I had the opportunity to thank my grandmother while she was alive, sitting with me at the kitchen table. And she had the rare experience of knowing exactly how she touched me. My grandmother was very special to me, and I gave her many material gifts over the years, but seeing my gratitude letter in her bedside table drawer showed me clearly that it was the best gift I ever gave her. And understanding how that letter touched her strengthens my connection with her even now.
Research has now shown that writing gratitude letters can help build happiness and satisfaction with life, but there’s nothing more powerful than personal experience. So today I want to pass this proven positive psychology exercise on to you. I encourage you to write a gratitude letter to someone who has touched your life. Read them the letter. Even if it feels awkward, you will be giving them, and yourself, a profound gift. And I urge you to write this letter soon; you never know what tomorrow will bring.