One of the most powerful lessons in gratitude I have ever experienced was taught to me by two teenagers participating in my farm-based mindfulness class. Alice is an outgoing and enthusiastic student with aspirations of becoming a therapist. Alice’s mom contacted me to ask if a teen she had started fostering could join, warning the girl was shy and might not even step out of the car. That week Alice approached the barn followed closely by the shy teen. I was surprised to recognize Jamie, a student who had been in a previous class at the farm. Her life had changed quite a bit since we had last met.
My lesson plan for that day involved considering events in our lives that were difficult at the time but ultimately brought something good to us. Jamie and Alice turned to each other and smiled. Jamie shared with the group that she had spent the last four weeks in an emergency youth shelter before joining Alice’s family. She quietly expressed her gratitude for the acceptance she felt in her new foster home. Jamie was able to write a gratitude letter to her foster family for making her feel wanted and for modeling healthy relationships.
But Jamie was not the only one experiencing gratitude about her new living situation. Alice explained that the isolation of the pandemic had been difficult for her as an extroverted only-child who had resorted to talking to herself at home. She expressed how grateful she was for Jamie’s companionship. These two young ladies found gratitude within a difficult circumstance, not years after the fact, but while in the midst of hardship. And, in doing so, demonstrated the power of connection and resiliency found in expressing gratitude.
Writing a gratitude letter is a wonderful practice to try during challenging circumstances but can improve your mood whenever you do it. A gratitude letter involves sitting down with pen and paper, and thinking of a person in your life to whom you are grateful. Consider someone who is still alive and with whom you could arrange a visit. Write about a page detailing the specific ways in which this person has made your life better. The recipient could be someone who taught you a meaningful lesson, demonstrated compassion during a difficult season of life or inspired you to do something worthwhile. Try and be specific about the things this person has done to enhance your life. Include any ways that their influence continues to bless your life.
Once you have written your letter, contact that individual to schedule a visit. Simply let the person know that you would like to spend some time with them. When you meet, arrive with your letter in hand. Let your person know that you are grateful for their presence in your life and read the letter. Try to be observant of any thoughts, feelings or sensations that you experience while you are reading the letter. And, be curious as to how your person receives the letter. What do you notice about them during the visit? At the end of your visit, be sure to give the letter to your benefactor.
I recently wrote a letter of gratitude to my twelve year old daughter and we went to breakfast before school one day to read it. It was a meaningful experience for both of us. You may find that the gratitude letter + visit brings you joy as well. A group of psychologists studied five different practices intended to cultivate positive emotions. Out of the five practices, the gratitude letter + visit, resulted in the largest boost in happiness and reduction in depression for the participants. Even more impressive, was that these benefits in mood lasted for up to a month.
I hope you consider trying the gratitude letter + visit. It may have the benefit of improving your mood and strengthening an important relationship in your life.
You can listen to our podcast episode about it here, along with the meditation at the end.
-Dr. Kristin Dawson