Life

This fascinating research shows writing thank you notes can actually boost our wellbeing

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Moya Crockett
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Handwritten thank you notes might seem like a hassle when there’s a million and one things to do - but with research showing these little letters of gratitude can actually boost wellbeing, there’s all the more reason to put pen to paper. 

When I was younger, writing thank you cards was a chore that my siblings and I were not allowed to bypass. As soon as the excitement of Christmas or a birthday was over, my mother would appear, wielding her address book, a stack of notecards and a list of who exactly had given us what. Not sending thank you cards wasn’t an option. To do so, I inferred, would send a different but still unambiguous message: that we were spoiled, ungrateful wretches, who didn’t deserve the lovely things we’d been given. 

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Now that I’m theoretically a functioning adult, I don’t send thank you cards as often as I once did. This is partly because I no longer have another adult ordering me to do so, and partly because I have fewer people to thank. Once you hit your 20s, the number of distant relatives sending you Christmas gifts dwindles dramatically, and friends tend to buy you birthday pints rather than presents.

But it’s also because sending a physical letter or card doesn’t come entirely naturally to me anymore. My phone is rarely more than a foot away from me, and so if I want to thank a friend or family member for something, I’ll give them a quick call, write them an affectionate text or – at a push – send an email. Like 87% of millennials (according to one survey), I appreciate the value of a handwritten note, but I don’t always make the time to write them.

According to new research, though, we should all get back into the habit of writing thank you notes – and not just when we’ve been given a physical gift. Researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of Texas at Austin found that sending letters of gratitude to people who’ve done something kind or helpful can improve our own wellbeing, as well as the wellbeing of the people we’re thanking. 

And while we might expect people to feel awkward about receiving a thank you letter out of the blue, that’s rarely the case. 

A woman using a mobile phone
Thank you notes: a thank you text just isn’t the same as a handwritten note

Over the course of three different experiments, the researchers asked participants to write a letter of gratitude to someone who had done something nice for them, and to predict how the recipient would feel when they opened the note. 

In every experiment, the letter writers overestimated how awkward the recipients would feel, and underestimated how surprised and happy they would be.

The study was published in the journal Psychological Science and led by Amit Kumar, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Texas at Austin. He said that awkwardness or anxiety about what to say often stopped people from expressing feelings of thankfulness.

“We looked at what’s correlating with people’s likelihood of expressing gratitude – what drives those choices – and what we found is that predictions or expectations of that awkwardness, that anticipation of how a recipient would feel – those are the things that matter when people are deciding whether to express gratitude or not,” said Kumar.

Thank you notes: writing a thank you note boosts the wellbeing of both the recipient and sender

“People often fret that they won’t be able to express their appreciation eloquently enough,” Kumar added. But we should learn to put these worries to one side – because the benefits of writing thank you notes can be significant.

“When we’re thinking about ourselves, we tend to think about how competent we are, and whether we are going to be articulate in how we’re expressing gratitude,” he said.

“What we saw is that it only takes a couple of minutes to compose letters like these, thoughtful ones and sincere ones. It comes at little cost, but the benefits are larger than people expect.”

Realised you’ve got a few people in your life who deserve a note of appreciation? We’ve rounded up five of the best thank you cards below. 

House of Holland 

papier house of holland stationery note cards thank you

Personalised ‘Thanks for Nothing’ card, £3.35, papier.com

Liberty London 

Poppy Daisy Liberty print thank you card, £4.95, libertylondon.com

Paperchase 

Navy stripe thank you cards, £5 for 10, paperchase.co.uk

Oliver Bonas 

‘You’re the Bee’s Knees’ thank you card, £3.50, oliverbonas.com

Champaign Paper 

Nineties style thank you card, £8.01 for 10, etsy.com

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Images: Getty / Pexels 

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Moya Crockett

Moya is Contributing Women’s Editor at stylist.co.uk and Deputy Editor of Stylist Loves, Stylist's daily email newsletter. Carrying a bottle of hot sauce on her person at all times is one of the many traits she shares with both Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton.