Last weekend, my boyfriend and I went to a store that sells shelving, boxes, and lots of other exciting organizational paraphernalia. We asked the cashier whether a particular item was available in a particular color and the poor soul was so incredibly confused. After rephrasing our request five times, he called for backup.
As we walked out of the building, I made a joking comment about how the young man was not the brightest bulb. I try to filter my comments through the sieve of true, necessary, and kind, so I’m not proud of that comment. However, I wasn’t prepared for what came next.
My boyfriend responded, “You’re worse than that on your bad days.” He hugged me, assured me that things would get better, and promised that was wasn’t going anywhere–no matter how dazed and sluggish I become. Even though his comment stung, I know that it came from a place of love, and I know that it’s true.
Since then, I’ve been thinking about the experience in my life where people have shown me compassion, generosity, and attentiveness. In these instances, do I always make an effort to express my gratitude?
Growing up, my mother expected her kids to write thank you notes for every gift they received. Every birthday and Christmas celebration was inevitably followed by an afternoon spent scrawling words of gratitude to family and friends.
I think writing thank you notes is becoming a lost art, and I believe it’s a positive experience for both the writer and the recipient of the thoughtful note.
Underestimating the power of gratitude
Have you even felt so grateful to a friend or colleague that you considered sending them a thank you message, but then talked yourself out of it? Perfect phrasing is tough, it might be awkward, and it probably won’t mean much to them anyways.
Psychology has shown that humans have a tendency to have a tunnel view of their own perspective, and thus habitually underestimate the positive impact of expressing gratitude. When we convince ourselves that a “thank you” is unnecessary, we miss out on a simple way to improve our relationships and well-being.
Awkward or Thoughtful: An asymmetry of perspective
Two psychologists recently set out to quantify the impact of gratitude and concluded that “expressing gratitude might not buy everything, but it may buy more than people seem to expect.”
In the study, hundreds of participants emailed a letter of thanks to someone who had touched their life in a meaningful way, including expressing what the person had done and how it had affected their life. Participants were also asked to make various predictions about how the recipient would feel and perceive the thank you note.
Meanwhile, researchers contacted the recipients to find out how they actually felt. They found that the senders of thank you letters consistently underestimated how positive the recipients felt about receiving the notes, and overestimated how awkward the recipients felt. Regardless of age and gender, recipients perceived the sender to be especially warm and competent.
The thank you note: A powerful act of civility
The researchers behind this particular study believe that the asymmetry between the perspective of the potential gratitude sender and recipient means that we often refrain from a “powerful act of civility” that would benefit both parties.
Similar patterns of hesitation may extend to other areas of our lives, as well. If people engaged in pro-social behavior are more concerned with their competence than those whom they’re serving, they may hold back. Our fear of awkwardness can lead us to misjudge what is in our own best interest, including underestimating how much we will enjoy interacting with strangers.
Your mother was right: thank you notes are important, and their recipients are more touched by the gesture than we expect.
Some actionable steps
We’ve looked over the research and understand the value of written gratitude, so what now?
- Begin by identifying one person who has positively impacted your life, whether a relative, friend, professor, or mentor.
- Draft out a note of gratitude that lists at least one way that individual positively impacted you and one way in which their action had positively affected you.
- Push aside the fear of awkwardness and doubt about how the recipient will interpret the letter. Remember how you’ve felt when receiving kind notes from others.
- Make minor adjustments, if you feel so inspired. If fear is nipping at your heals, your draft is enough.
- Hit send and smile knowing that you are about to make someone’s day a whole lot better.
What are your thoughts on thank you notes? Are they a consistent habit in your life, or something you’ve been wanting to start? How do you feel when you receive a thoughtful note from someone else?