Coast Lines - January 2016
A Keeper Kind of Resolution
Letters of gratitude can work magic, even if they're never even mailed. It's a scientific fact.
- by Ellis Anderson
But there’s one item that I’m elaborating on in 2016. “Write more thank-you notes” is becoming “Write more letters of gratitude.” Although Miss Manners would surely give her stamp of approval, my motivation stems from selfish reasons rather than etiquette: Studies show that expressing gratitude in letters makes the writer a happier person.
The How of Happiness is a book I discovered soon after it was first published, in 2008. The author, Sonja Lyubomirsky, is a behavioral researcher so the book’s subtitle is “A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want.” No new-agey mush here.
The premise is simple. Humans are born with a certain “set point” of happiness, which accounts for about 50% of our emotional pie. Only 10% of the pie is influenced by circumstances – loss of loved ones, financial situation, job satisfaction. The remaining 40% is up to us. We shape it with “Intentional Activity.”
This means that even if our circumstances are wretched and we’re born with the most naturally depressive nature possible, if we perform certain activity, we tip the scale over into a sense of well-being.
The book is divided into chapters explaining these activities and citing the studies proving how they work. Lyubomirsky suggests people try them on for size, see which ones work best and which fit into an individual’s regular routine.
The chapter subjects are fairly predictable: Living in the Present, Managing Stress, Investing in Social Connections, Committing to Your Goals, Taking Care of Body and Soul. However, the studies referred to in each chapter are often eye-popping. For example, even imagining the process of forgiving someone has measurable positive physiological responses. Your body relaxes and your blood pressure goes down.
The technique that most resonates with me is expressing gratitude – probably because I’m indebted to so many kind souls. In one study, participants wrote and then hand-delivered a letter of gratitude to someone whose kindness had been especially meaningful, but “whom they had never properly thanked.” The letter writers reported instant boosts in happiness levels, with aftereffects continuing a month later.
Even writing a letter and not sending it upped happiness levels significantly in another study.
Another recent study by the University of Georgia showed that "spousal expression of gratitude was the most consistent significant predictor of marital quality." Saying “thank you” to the person closest to you in life — and saying it often — builds trust, commitment and appreciation.
The rest of the resolutions on my list seem almost frivolous compared to this one. Maybe I’ll be able to stick with it better than a diet. After all, it’s not about deprivation, but enrichment. The passing months will show if I’m able to work this into a regular routine.
Regardless, I know my first letter of this new year will begin with “Dearest Larry.”
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