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The Thank-You Project
Cultivating Happiness One Letter of Gratitude at a Time
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Who helped you become the person you are today? As Nancy Davis Kho approached a milestone birthday, she decided to answer that question by sending thank-you letters to the many people who had influenced her, helped her, and inspired her over the years: family, friends, mentors, teachers, co-workers, even a couple of former friends and exes. While her recipients always seemed genuinely pleased to read the letters, what Nancy never expected was the profound and positive effect the process would have on her. As it turns out, emerging research proves that actively appreciating the formative people in your life, past and present, can lead to a lasting increase in your happiness levels–and The Thank-you Project offers a charming, entertaining roadmap to see, say and savor your way there.
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THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
One summer day in 2016, I climbed the stairs to the guest room in my parents’ house, where I had been staying for three weeks. I sat down at Dad’s desk—the guest room, when unoccupied, was his home office and his Official Golf Channel Viewing Room. Directly in my line of sight was a thank-you letter I’d written to him earlier that year. My father loved the letter so much, he had immediately framed it and hung it over his desk so he could see it every day.
January 15, 2016
As you know, because you probably drove me home from the hospital, 2016 is the year I turn fifty. I have had such a fortunate life that I decided the best way to commemorate this Golden Jubilee year is to write thank-you notes to the people, places, and pastimes that have enriched my life along the way, and this week it’s your turn. You and Mom had to be the first two people to get these notes, for reasons large and small.
Thank you, Dad, for being such an involved, interested, and supportive father to me. Your years of work at Kodak to support our family are the tip of the iceberg. You were, in a word, present: there to pop flies in the driveway in a largely unsuccessful attempt to help your youngest kid get better at softball, there to comb and untangle my long hair after a bath while I sat transfixed by Gilligan’s Island, there to drive to Syracuse and deal with a rental car when I got stranded en route between Rochester and Philadelphia during college.
I’m also grateful for the ways in which you were hands-off—letting me screw up and fix smaller predicaments often enough when I was living at home that I didn’t feel overwhelmed when the big ones happened to me as a grown-up. Sally, Larry, and I all knew that our successes were ours to claim—you never made us feel like you were taking credit for them, which these days is a rare parenting trait indeed. I think your granddaughters are probably grateful I had you as my role model in that sense.
As a dad, you set the standard for men in my life. Which is why it never occurred to me to date losers who treated me badly (well, one guy in twelfth grade, but you didn’t know about that, and it only lasted one “date”) or anyone who tried to cut me down. You were always, always supportive of my ambitions, and your faith in my ability to achieve my goals, especially in my work life, was at least half the reason I ever did.
When I think about my fondest memories with you, I’d have to stack our road trips on top—back and forth from Rochester to Philly so many times in my college years, and the time we went to Disney World for your job when I was twenty. Even our last road trip, as we drove from Oakland to Mendocino in a blinding winter rainstorm, caravanning behind Andrew with Mom and the girls up Highway One—I thought we’d get blown into the ocean, but you just kept saying, “This is so beautiful! Wow! You’re doing great!” until my nerves settled down. The time you showed up in Munich with almost no warning, when I had just moved to Germany for my first job out of college, and you gave me what I was too stubborn or proud to admit I needed: a big fat dose of home and validation (that I worked for a nutcase). Sitting in the pre-dawn hours with you in February 1998 as you timed my contractions when Maddy was on her way. And I don’t know if you remember this, but I loved when I was little and we’d walk around the block together at dusk and sing “Me and My Shadow” and do our best fake tap-dance steps.
Even as we all get older, you continue to teach me things and set a standard I’d like to follow: downsizing and moving into your lovely townhome while you and Mom can really enjoy it; helping Aunt Noonie with her finances and household, daunting as that can be; continuing your volunteer work at camp and the fire department; and all the other millions of ways you help people around you without expecting anything back in return. Let me reassure you: we will ALWAYS need you and have handyman projects for you at our house, whenever you come.
Maddy and Lucy are so lucky to have you and Mom as grandparents, and I especially love how you and Maddy have your engineering studies in common. God knows Andrew and I don’t know what she’s talking about.
I love you so much, Dad. Thank you for being so good to me, always.
Then, I opened up my laptop and typed “EULOGY” into a new document.
Six weeks earlier, while playing golf in his Friday morning league, my eighty-one-year-old dad had fainted. He got up, finished the eighteen holes (of course), drove himself home (of course), and waved off my mom’s concerns. Though my mom’s worsening dementia made it impossible for her to adequately sound the alarm bell over Dad’s fogginess and uncharacteristic confusion to any of their three kids, it was clear in retrospect that Mom knew something was off with her husband of fifty-eight years.
My older siblings, Sally and Larry, both of whom live near my parents, figured it out anyway in their regular phone calls to Mom and Dad that weekend, as did I across the country in Oakland. On Sunday morning, they called me to say they were driving to the house together to take Dad to the ER, thinking he had perhaps suffered a concussion. By Monday morning, we all knew what had instigated the fainting: an enormous, heretofore undetected brain tumor caused by Stage 4 metastasized melanoma, a merciless disease that had staked its claim via tumors in his lungs, kidney, and bones. There was no humane cure for a man his age at this stage of this disease. We could only make him comfortable for what would turn out to be the numbingly short remainder of his life.
Throughout the quickstep assault of Dad’s deterioration from cancer, because I’d had the foresight to write my thoughts down and send them in a thank-you letter, there was one simple but fundamental worry lifted from my shoulders: I did not have to worry that my father would slip away without knowing how much I loved him. Not a moment needed to be spent in self-recrimination or doubt. I could put my energy into caring for him and helping him transition peacefully, surrounded by his family, in the home that he loved.
That letter created a moment of peace for me at a time when I badly needed it. And the solace I took from its existence reinforced something I had been figuring out since I started what I would come to call my Thank-You Project: it offered me, the writer of the thank-you notes, at least as much benefit as it did the recipients. I had been a freelance journalist for more than a decade by then, but this project was the smartest writing I had ever done.
Not the content of the letters, per se—I will leave that to the recipients to judge—but the mere act of writing them. Though I had sent the letters with no expectation of responses, I had heard back from many of the people to whom I had written, who were touched that, in this era of texting and emojis, I had taken the trouble to fill a full printed page with my thoughts about why they meant so much to me.
I never set about to make myself feel better by writing these letters. But it happened in doses large and small, over and over, throughout that year. And thank goodness it did, because, starting with Dad’s death, my Golden Jubilee year did not turn out to be quite the party I had expected.
Dad had been Mom’s primary caregiver as her dementia worsened, and it was only after he passed away that my siblings and I grasped the full extent of her illness. It meant working together to figure out a way to honor her wish for independence and familiar surroundings without endangering her health and safety. As Sally said more than once, “We don’t really have time to grieve Dad. We’re too busy worrying about how Mom will make coffee in the morning.” Throw in a heaping dollop of guilt that I returned to California after the funeral, while my brother and sister and their families who lived nearby immediately became Mom’s hands-on helpers.
I had barely unpacked from my dad’s funeral when it was time for my husband, Andrew, and me to help our oldest daughter pack up her square tonnage from Bed Bath & Beyond and head back east for her freshman year of college, three thousand miles away. While it certainly was not a loss to see our Maddy start her adult life, and our youngest daughter, Lucy, was still at home, it was a significant adjustment at a time when I was already feeling pummeled.
If you, like me, are in the middle phase of life—what I term “the years between being hip and breaking one” on my Midlife Mixtape blog and podcast—you know it’s a time of feeling pressed flat by concerns over aging parents and growing kids and careers and health and maybe a heaping dose of “Well, how did I get here?” If you do feel that way, you’re not alone. Labor economists David Blanchflower of Dartmouth University and Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick have conducted research showing that a typical individual’s happiness reaches its nadir during middle age for both males and females in the seventy-two countries they studied, before levels of psychological well-being start to climb again. It’s the so-called Happiness U-Curve, which sounds like an awesome amusement-park ride but feels more like your stomach after four corn dogs, one Tilt-a-Whirl ride, and a bad session at the Fun House mirrors.
Did I mention that this entire Thank-You Project took place against the backdrop of the 2016 presidential election? Remember that one? Kind of stressful and anxiety-provoking. During the months I was writing my letters, I would scroll through the interwebs or flip on the television in hopes of mindless escape from my personal worries, and instead I’d see yet another example of what seemed to be a complete loss of polite civic discourse, proof that we were going straight to hell on skids.
And then I would fire up the Word doc in which each recipient had his or her own single-spaced page, take a deep breath, and think, “OK, how did my high school best friend save my bacon? Oooh! There was the time we went to the homecoming dance and I was despondent over my date and she dragged me to the bathroom and said, ‘HE IS WEARING BLUE SHOES; THIS IS CLEARLY HIS PROBLEM NOT YOURS,’ and then we laughed so hard our mascara ran.” And the cacophony of my anxiety over the country’s direction would quiet just enough to make it all bearable.
It turns out that the restorative power of deliberate gratitude, the delight that comes from knowing you will make someone’s day when they read your words, the recognition that you—yes, you—are supported and loved as you make your way through the challenges of the world is a heady tonic.
To be clear: even if many of my letters got me thinking about long-ago events and situations, this exercise isn’t about wistfulness and nostalgia. It’s about taking a little time to dwell in the past as a useful means of taking stock of where we are now and reinforcing where we want to go in the future.
Months later, when I wrote “Love, Nan” on the fiftieth and final letter, I printed and bound a copy of all fifty letters into a book to keep on my nightstand. That was my last, best fiftieth birthday gift. When I feel low—because, let’s face it, the news is full of things to make us fearful, I still fret about my mom every day, and for whatever reason the girls aren’t thrilled when I try to live their lives for them—I grab that book and flip to a random letter or three to reread.
The reminder I get of all the different ways I have been supported throughout the years, the tactile heft of a book in my hands that reminds me that a whole team got me to where I am today, is powerful medicine. It leaves me, to use a favorite phrase cribbed from my friend Jill (Letter #10), “suffused with a sense of well-being.”
But don’t take my word for it. There’s a growing body of science that has quantified the psychological and physiological benefits of gratitude and its direct correlation to levels of happiness.
Let’s start with a definition of gratitude, courtesy of Dr. Robert A. Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California–Davis, and one of the world’s leading experts on the subject. In his 2007 book, Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier, Dr. Emmons defines two components of gratitude. “First, gratitude is the acknowledgment of goodness in one’s life.” It is the positive affirmation of the people, places, and things that make our lives worthwhile. The second component, he writes, is figuring out where that goodness comes from. “Gratitude is recognizing that the source(s) of this goodness lie at least partially outside the self.” Understanding that many of the sources of happiness in your own life are outside of your direct dominion and acknowledging from whence that goodness springs are crucial ingredients in the gratitude recipe.
Research published in 2015 in Frontiers in Psychology found that an ongoing practice of gratitude basically rewires our brains to reward us for the positive perceptions we have of the people around us. That begets more gratitude and “elevation,” a lovely scientific term defined in a 2000 article by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt as “a warm or glowing feeling in the chest [that] makes people want to become morally better themselves.” Pour me some elevation, barkeep, and make it a double!
Dr. Christine Carter, sociologist and senior fellow at the Greater Good Science Center at University of California–Berkeley, which studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being, says, “All of our emotions serve different functions. We can say, in broad strokes, that negative emotions like fear and anger are more fight-or-flight-related and can trigger things like increased heart rate, accelerated breathing, and muscle tension. The positive emotions, on the other hand, reset the nervous system.”
Dr. Carter points out that when it comes to stress in the modern world, our bodies don’t do a great job of differentiating between lion attack and heavy rush-hour traffic; we experience both as threats, and our bodies and minds bear the prolonged strain. But even small expressions of gratitude can have a restorative effect.
“In today’s world, where so many people feel stressed all the time, expressing gratitude is a highly functional way to get ourselves back to a neutral place,” says Dr. Carter. “So if we express a deep sense of authentic gratitude, or even just a little bit of gratitude, we activate the part of our parasympathetic nervous system that can create a physical sensation of warmth in our chest or chest cavity.” She says, “That starts the positive emotions working on our nervous system, helping us relax, helping us feel safe, helping us feel connected to other people.”
Sociologists at the Center have identified myriad physical health benefits that accrue as a result of the regular practice of gratitude, from better sleep to more energy to improved asthma control. To put it more bluntly, Dr. Carter says, “if you could sell gratitude as a pill, you’d be very wealthy.”
If it seems unfortunate that so many of us wait to engage in an active gratitude practice until we have experienced trauma, it seems criminal that people who are absolutely soaking in reasons to be grateful, as I was heading into the year I turned fifty, don’t always remember to take stock and express thanks. We take for granted our freedom from harder realities we may have been spared, such as poverty, abuse, addiction, familial estrangement, and oppression, when, at the end of the day, so much of it is due to help from others and blinding good luck.
The good news is that writing a “gratitude letter” is one of the most common prescriptions from all those scientists and researchers for people looking for a way to elevate gratitude levels in their everyday lives. In fact, that’s often how happiness scientists test their theories: they have the experimental group write a letter expressing appreciation to someone to goose their gratitude levels, while the control group is, I suppose, denied access to stationery. Just think: you can replicate the studies, only without that pesky MRI!
More than a year after I’d sent off my last thank-you letter, I was sitting on a patio at a party, explaining the whole project to Melisa, a friend on the verge of a milestone birthday herself. “How did you decide who to write to?” she asked. “Did you send every letter? How long did it take?”
I walked her through my whole project that evening. Months later, I was surprised to receive a hot-pink envelope in the mail with Melisa’s return address in the corner. It turns out, I was one of the people to whom she’d written a thank-you letter.
“It has honestly been one of the best projects I’ve ever tackled,” Melisa wrote. “The letter-writing project was many things: huge, exhausting, enlightening, stressful, soothing, time-consuming, emotional, and exhilarating, just to name a few. It made me insanely happy to put my love and appreciation on paper for my favorite humans. Receiving a text, email, or call in response to one of the letters was a bonus I never expected, but was blessed with, time and time again.”
As I had explained to Melisa that night, despite its profound impact, the Thank-You Project comes down to three simple steps, done repeatedly: see, say, savor. See the people, places, and things that make your life richer. Say something to acknowledge your good fortune in your letters. And, by keeping copies of the letters to reread, savor the generosity and support that surrounds you.
With this book, I hope to help you see, say, and savor yourself into an elevated, more resilient frame of mind, using snippets from my own letters as examples to get you started. I hope to give you the framework to create a sense of well-being for yourself and to enrich the lives of the people you love, appreciate, and admire at the same time. I hope to remind you that receiving help and support with grace and humility is a gift you give back to your friends and family.
Consider it my Golden Jubilee party favor. Thank you for coming to the celebration.
LINING UP YOUR LETTERS
Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance.
I am a planner and organizer, and I have never met a numbered to-do list I didn’t immediately cuddle up to. But after five decades I have finally accepted that not everyone has a brain shaped like a yellow legal pad and a fresh ballpoint pen. This chapter will give you some tools and techniques to organize your letter project, steps that worked for me, and ideas for alternatives that may work better for you.
This Whole Chapter Comes with a Caveat
As with any long-term project, you can structure a road map for thank-you-letter writing like you have a PhD in organizational planning and still get felled by forces out of your control. In my case, I thought I would start my letters on January 1 and finish on December 31, just as the ball dropped in Times Square. How clever of me! How elegant! With my goal of writing fifty letters, my plan even built in two weeks to slack off, what with my being a Gen X slacker and all! Then Dad died and Maddy moved cross-country for her first year of college, and for three months I could barely sign a name to a check, let alone put in the level of thoughtfulness I wanted these letters to convey. There was a BIG pause in my process. I finally wrote the last letter almost seventeen months after starting.
If that happens, don’t sweat it. Do you think anyone cared that their heartfelt, personal thank-you note arrived in May rather than February? They did not. Did anyone know about my arbitrary twelve-month timeline? They did not. No one is tracking your progress but you.
There’s a catchphrase my husband and I have used since the early days of our marriage. Andrew is half Asian, which gives him a somewhat ambiguous ethnicity that has caused people to assume he is anything from Latino to Southern Italian to a member of the Tlingit people, depending on the dominant demographics of wherever they happened to meet him. He also likes to do absurd things to make me laugh. Either of those facts could have been the reason why, on that particular day years ago, Andrew gave his name as “José” to a deli-counter worker when he ordered his barbecue sandwich. When Andrew asked a follow-up question about takeout cups for sauce, the harried counter worker, trying to maintain order over the crowd of customers, spun on his heel and barked at him, “It’s not always all about you, José.”
It’s not always all about you, José. José, no one even knows you’re writing these letters. You thought you could bang this thing out in a month, and it took six instead? Good for you. Stop being so hard on yourself. You’re doing a nice thing, and whenever it’s done, it’s done.
This means that my goal of fifty letters may not be yours. Ten letters when you have reached ten months sober? Twenty-five letters on your quarter-life-crisis birthday? Seventy-three letters because you love prime numbers? Make it so. This project really is one size fits all because you are the only one taking the measurements.
Make Your List, but Don’t Bother Checking It Twice
Amazing secret revealed: the first step in the Thank-You Project is figuring out to whom you want to send your letters. WHAT? How did she know that? That justifies the cost of this book right there.
It’s true. Much of this book is devoted to prompting you to think of the people who might appear on your list.
Here’s a real secret, though: you don’t have to write a single letter to start reaping the benefits of this Thank-You Project. Simply looking at the list of names of your home team, your ride-or-dies, your hype squad is surprisingly reassuring.
- “An excellent reminder to regularly reflect on those who have helped you throughout your life.”—USA Today’s YES Magazine
"I love The Thank-You Project and it's inspiring me to be more grateful in my life, which is a very good thing."
—Jenny Lawson, author of Furiously Happy and Let's Pretend This Never Happened
- "After reading Nancy's delightful book, I have added the Thank-You Project to my list of life goals. She has managed to create an inspirational, yet refreshingly unsentimental treatise on gratitude . . . You'll notice and savor more examples of goodness in your life and feel authentically happier."—Kelsey Crowe, co-author of There Is No Good Card For This: What to Do and Say When Life is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to the People You Love
"This warm-hearted, joyful book brims with practical experience and good stories . . . it reminds us all of the miracle that is gratitude."
—Jonathan Rauch, author of The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50
"Nancy, thank you for sharing your wit, wisdom, and generous heart. You have left the world a more thankful place. I'm sure many will benefit from your gratitude."
—Bruce Feiler, author of The Secrets of Happy Families and The Council of Dads
"Gives readers the tools, the motivation, and the direction to write gratitude letters -- and entertains them in the process."
—Christine Carter, PhD, sociologist and senior fellow at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, and author of Raising Happiness
- "A fun approach to showing others how much they mean to you."—Kirkus Reviews
- "Sweet and wise, this hopeful book will inspire readers to honor those who have made a difference in their lives."—Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Dec 3, 2019
- Page Count
- 208 pages
- Running Press