People underestimate how much a letter of gratitude might mean to someone else, a new study suggests.
Go ahead and write that thank-you note.
People undervalue the benefits of writing someone a letter of gratitude, new research published in the journal Psychological Science suggests — potentially leading them to withhold a sentiment that could’ve had a positive impact on both themselves and the recipient. Letter-writers underestimate how positive and surprised recipients would feel, the study found, and overestimate how awkward they’d feel.
And that self-doubt could discourage people from showing their appreciation. “These miscalibrated expectations may be a barrier keeping people from expressing gratitude more often,” co-author Amit Kumar, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, told Moneyish. “Underestimating the positive impact of prosocial actions can stand in the way of engaging in behavior that would maximize one’s own wellbeing, and the wellbeing of others.”
Kumar and his co-author, University of Chicago professor Nicholas Epley, had participants in multiple experiments write letters of gratitude to someone who had helped them, and then predict the awkwardness, surprise and happiness their recipients would feel. Recipients, meanwhile, reported their actual reactions to receiving the gratitude letters. (Nearly all of these letters were sent over email, Kumar said, per the instructions provided.)
“People are kind of inordinately concerned with how they express gratitude to another person,” Kumar added. “That ‘how’ might not matter as much to recipients.”
The authors concluded that “miscalculating the positive impact of social connections on oneself, or on others, could keep people from being prosocial enough for their own well-being.” “Expressing gratitude may not buy everything, but it may buy more than people seem to expect,” they said.
The benefits of gratitude are well-documented, with previous research linking it to increased relationship satisfaction, better sleep quality and greater happiness, among other positive physical, social and psychological outcomes.
“(G)ratitude writing can be beneficial not just for healthy, well-adjusted individuals, but also for those who struggle with mental health concerns,” Indiana University professors Joel Wong and Joshua Brown wrote last year in Greater Good Magazine. “In fact, it seems, practicing gratitude on top of receiving psychological counseling carries greater benefits than counseling alone, even when that gratitude practice is brief.”
Etiquette expert Thomas P. Farley, who advises sending handwritten thank-you notes, isn’t picky about the letter’s specifics. “I’m not terribly concerned, with few exceptions, with how long it took you to send me the note, (the) stationery … the words you’ve used,” he told Moneyish. “Already, you’ve surpassed so much of the population with taking the time to do this. You’ve done right in my book.”
With that said, Farley added, you can always strive for further excellence. Make your notes as personal as possible. Get them out sooner rather than later — “late is better than not at all,” but punctuality is ideal, he said — and block off a designated time during the week, perhaps Fridays from 2 to 2:45 p.m., for writing them. Have your notecards, stamps and favorite pen at the ready. “Leave yourself no excuses,” Farley said. “Have everything you need; make it a ritual; do it as quickly after the kindness that you’ve received as possible.”
In fact, the only occasion for which you shouldn’t write a thank-you note is “for someone else’s thank-you note,” Farley said. “I have never once gotten a thank-you note and thought, ‘What was this person thinking, sending me a thank-you note like that?’” he said. “I’m touched, I’m flattered, I’m thrilled that they’ve taken the trouble to send me a note. It shows that they’re really considerate and just a thoughtful person.”
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