Illustration of a series of happy images

Illustrations by Michele Perry (original hero illustration by @lokFung, iStock)

Can thank-you notes make the world a better place?

Expressing gratitude to people you admire is good for everyone. Try it for the Local Love Gratitude Challenge

When delivering speeches or workshops about gender-based violence Farrah Khan always brings something special with her: a handwritten thank-you note she received from a survivor. The Toronto-based advocate has spent more than two decades raising awareness and pushing for change. Supporting survivors of sexual violence, which she has personally experienced, and educating everywhere from college campuses to a G7 council meeting is a demanding job. So when she speaks in front of a crowd, the note serves as a physical reminder of who and how she is helping.

“You never expect to get a thank-you,” says Khan, “but when someone does recognize you or says thank you, it is a moment to pause and reflect.”

One example that comes to mind for Khan is a letter she received from a woman she had mentored. “You have played such an important role in my life, the development of my voice and the strength of my relationship to social justice, and for that I am so beyond grateful,” reads the handwritten letter. Khan has received dozens of thank-you notes like this over the years, both online and in the form of physical cards, and she says they ground her in her work and keep her focused on its importance.

Illustration of a thank you note

In an age where we can show our support simply by hitting “like” or sharing social media posts, thank-you notes can feel like a dying art reserved for weddings or that recurring segment on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. But showing gratitude for the people who make a difference in our lives, or the lives of others, can be a gift in itself. Here’s why.

Don’t underestimate the power of gratitude

If you’re wondering why thank-you notes have become a rarity, researchers from the University of Chicago and University of Texas have one potential answer—and it’s not just that the proliferation of smartphones and instant communication has made everyone’s handwriting terrible.

Their 2018 study, published in the journal Psychological Science, asked students to write thank-you letters to people who had touched their lives in a meaningful way. The participants were then asked to rate several factors, like how surprised and happy they felt the recipients would be to receive their letters. After surveying the recipients, researchers found that many of the writers had underestimated just how happy the receivers would be about getting a sincere expression of gratitude—and instead had overestimated how awkward it would make them feel.

What saying thanks does for others

For Rusul Alrubail, executive director of the Parkdale Centre for Innovation, getting thank-you notes for her advocacy work felt like receiving “love letters”—which was particularly powerful given the hate she has experienced. As a Muslim woman who wears a hijab and speaks out about the intersections of social justice and racial equity, Alrubail “has seen the worst” online. She’s received hate mail, death threats and Islamophobic messages. The latest was after a university speaking engagement, when a student left her a voicemail “spewing hateful, violent, Islamophobic and racist remarks.”

The volume of trolling comments Alrubail has received is larger than the volume of thank-you notes, but she says that the emails and cards expressing appreciation for her work speak louder. One sender told Alrubail that she is using her gifts to serve the world and that they hoped they could continue to work together to make change. “It’s the little things like that, that truly makes you feel you have left a tiny imprint on someone’s life,” she says.

Amit Kumar and Nicholas Epley, the researchers who examined what stops people from writing thank-you notes in the study above, wrote that expressions of gratitude can benefit the well-being of both the sender and the recipient. And this connection has been well researched. Multiple studies have shown that taking the time to say “thank you” can improve relationships, make people feel more positive about their lives and, in professional settings, boost employees’ motivation to work harder. In one study, researchers found that regular expressions of gratitude made people feel more optimistic. In another, participants who wrote thank-you letters to someone whose kindness had never been properly acknowledged reported an immediate boost to their happiness—and the benefits reportedly lasted for up to a month.

How to get started

“[Saying thank you] doesn’t take much time, but it’s really something people value,” says Nella Iasci, the executive director of Job Skills, a United Way–funded, community-based employment and training organization. Job Skills teaches job seekers the importance of expressing gratitude to those who have played a role in their career path, such as interviewers or mentors.

Iasci has worked with the non-profit organization for more than 25 years, and written and received many thank-you cards, so she has some expert advice on what to include—and what to avoid —in these messages. Here are her top tips.

• Format: How you say “thank you” depends on the situation. For job seekers, time is of the essence, so writing and mailing a handwritten note may not be feasible. “We’re living in a fast-paced, high-tech world, so I think it’s become quite acceptable to send an email thank-you to an employer or another individual who has helped you,” says Iasci.

Illustration of a thank you note

Most of the notes Alrubail has received over the years have been emails, but she really cherishes the paper cards, which she now displays among the accolades in her office. When she sends her own notes of gratitude, Alrubail opts for the old-fashioned handwritten format. “I really focus on handwriting even though my handwriting is terrible,” she says. “I think it shows a little bit of the person.”

• Timing: It’s important, as Iasci points out, to send professional thank-you notes in a timely matter. For personal thank-yous, Khan says that while it’s great to send a message in the moment, the adage “Better late than never” also applies. “If you think about a person years later, send it to them then—there is no expiry date for thanks,” she says.

• What to include: Whether it’s a DM, an email or a physical card, the most important part of a thank-you note is the actual content. Iasci advises writers to be honest and recommends making the message personal and specific to the recipient; for instance, by referencing advice or conversation points that were particularly meaningful. “Be sincere, and don’t hesitate to be vulnerable and open-hearted,” says Khan.

• What not to include: While these notes can benefit the sender by strengthening personal or professional relationships, the actual content of the note should solely be used to express gratitude without any expectations. “You don’t send a thank-you and, at the same time, ask for something else in the note,” says Iasci.

During the holiday season, Iasci, Khan and Alrubail take time to write thank-you cards to the people who have made a difference in their personal and professional lives that year. While this practice may not be as common (or as easy) as sending glittery, generic holiday cards, they know from experience that this simple gesture can have a bigger impact.

“The world gets so frantic and fast-paced, and we don’t spend necessarily enough time in the moment reflecting on something good that’s happened or something that someone has done for us. Sending a thank-you card reminds us that we are part of something more,” says Iasci. “It brings joy.”

Share your thank-yous, pics and experiences on social media during the Local Love Gratitude Challenge. Tag @ReadLocalLove and use the hashtag #locallove

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