Researchers Steven Toepfer and Kathleen Walker of Kent State University conducted an interesting study on writing about gratitude. Based on the finding that 40% of our happiness is accounted for by intentional activity (the other 60% breaks down to: 50% genetics/ 10% circumstances), the researchers decided to find out if one such intentional activity, writing letters of gratitude, would increase people’s sense of happiness and wellbeing. They chose letters of gratitude because gratitude is strongly linked to a sense of wellbeing.
The researchers asked college students to write three letters of gratitude over time (the letters weren’t very long, maybe a page and the students wrote for about fifteen minutes each time). What the researchers found was that writing the letters significantly increased the students’ feelings of happiness and gratitude and that writing over a sustained period of time really added to their happiness.
The key issue seems to be the deliberate writing down feelings of gratitude rather than just feeling grateful without expressing it. By writing down what we’re grateful for we are paying more attention to this feeling of gratitude rather than perhaps focusing on all the things that are going wrong in our lives. We are naming what it is that we are grateful for and this intentional activity is key to improving our level of happiness.
In the first stanza of the poem, Those Winter Sundays, Robert Hayden describes what his father did for his family without receiving any gratitude. Of course the poem is itself an expression of gratitude and love:
Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
Then with cradled hands that ached
From labour in the weekday weather made
Banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
In this writing exercise, try writing a list of things that you feel grateful for, then write another list in a week’s time and then again a week after that.
If you like you can email me your lists and, if you give permission in your email, I’ll post the lists on this site.