This simple action has psychological benefits for both sender and recipient.
There was a time when handwritten thank you notes were de rigeur, a societal expectation following the exchange of gifts or a pleasant visit, and whose absence would be perceived as rude. Now, with the rise of social media and texting, formal thank you notes have fallen by the wayside, usurped by easier and more convenient ways to express gratitude.
It turns out, though, that these other ways may not hold the same meaning as old-fashioned thank you notes and we should all keep on writing them. A study published earlier this year in Psychological Science found that "people chronically underestimate the power of expressing gratitude and overestimate how awkward it will be."The research, led by Amit Kumar, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Texas, consisted of a series of experiments in which people were asked to send a thank you letter expressing gratitude to someone who had done something kind for them. Before sending, the writers were asked to predict the recipients' reactions to the letters. Later, the recipients were asked for their real reactions. The researchers found that, overwhelmingly, writers underestimate how great their letters would make the recipients feel. Kumar is quoted in TIME:
"[Writers] think about things like, 'Am I going to get the words just right and am I going to be articulate?' That might be a barrier to actually sitting down and writing the thing. But when you're the recipient of something like a gratitude letter, you tend to evaluate things on the basis of warmth and prosocial intent. As long as somebody's expression is sincere and warm and friendly, recipients are often going to have a very positive reaction to that."
Not surprisingly, the senders felt happier and better about themselves afterward. "Writing the gratitude letters consistently put them in more positive spirits — a finding in keeping with plenty of existing research on the mood-enhancing effects of gratitude."
This study's conclusion is particularly relevant in the post-Christmas season, when there is a good chance you've received gifts and shared meaningful experiences with close friends and family members. Take a few minutes to jot down thank you notes and prolong the holiday cheer. As Kumar says, this action comes at little or no real cost to the sender.
"The broader message is that people should express gratitude more often, and precisely how you go about doing that might not matter that much."
He recommends keeping a stack of blank cards on hand so that it requires minimal effort to compose a note. And when it comes to figuring out what to say, I'll add the advice my mother always gave me when she was making me write thank you notes as a kid: Details! Say specifically what it is the friend gave you, what you liked about it, how you're going to use it. People want to know that their gifts are valued and useful.