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Abstract

This study examined the effects of writing letters of gratitude on three primary qualities of well-being; happiness (positive affect), life-satisfaction (cognitive evaluation), and depression (negative affect). Gratitude was also assessed. Participants included 219 men and women who wrote three letters of gratitude over a 3week period. A two-way mixed method ANOVA with a between factor (writers vs. non-writers) and within subject factor (time of testing) analysis was conducted. Results indicated that writing letters of gratitude increased participants’ happiness and life satisfaction, while decreasing depressive symptoms. The implications of this approach for intervention are discussed. KeywordsWell-being–Happiness–Life satisfaction–Gratitude–Writing–Letters–Intentional activity
Letters of Gratitude: Further Evidence for Author
Benefits
Steven M. Toepfer Kelly Cichy Patti Peters
ÓSpringer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011
Abstract This study examined the effects of writing letters of gratitude on three primary
qualities of well-being; happiness (positive affect), life-satisfaction (cognitive evaluation),
and depression (negative affect). Gratitude was also assessed. Participants included 219
men and women who wrote three letters of gratitude over a 3 week period. A two-way
mixed method ANOVA with a between factor (writers vs. non-writers) and within subject
factor (time of testing) analysis was conducted. Results indicated that writing letters of
gratitude increased participants’ happiness and life satisfaction, while decreasing depres-
sive symptoms. The implications of this approach for intervention are discussed.
Keywords Well-being Happiness Life satisfaction Gratitude Writing Letters
Intentional activity
1 Introduction
The scholarly spotlight has long shined on writing-oriented gratitude inductions as a means
for improving well-being. However, within this body of research there is little data
regarding a sustained ‘letters of gratitude’ writing campaign. The purpose of this
investigation was to focus on the cumulative effect of writing over time as it relates to
components of subjective well-being: gratitude, happiness, life-satisfaction, and depressive
S. M. Toepfer (&)
Human Development and Family Studies, School of Lifespan Development and Educational Sciences,
Kent State University, Salem, OH 44460-9412, USA
e-mail: stoepfer@kent.edu
K. Cichy
Human Development and Family Studies, School of Lifespan Development and Educational Sciences,
Kent State University, Kent, OH 44242-0001, USA
e-mail: kcichy@kent.edu
P. Peters
Bureau of Research Training, 507 White Hall, Kent, OH 44242-0001, USA
e-mail: ppeters@kent.edu
123
J Happiness Stud
DOI 10.1007/s10902-011-9257-7
symptoms. The impetus for the current investigation was derived from a pilot study by
Toepfer and Walker (2009).
The Toepfer and Walker (2009) study employed a three-letter method which examined
changes over time in happiness, life-satisfaction, and gratitude compared to controls.
Results showed significant gains in happiness and gratitude as writing progressed. The
2009 study was encouraging but hampered by a small sample size (n=84) and a failure to
address negative affect, an important feature of well-being. The current investigation
sought to replicate the initial study with a more powerful sample size and extend its scope
by assessing change in depressive symptoms. Goals were to reexamine the extent to which
well-being, as measured by happiness, life-satisfaction, gratitude, and depressive symp-
toms, would change in response to writing letters of gratitude over time.
2 Subjective Well-Being and Its Components
For the purposes of this investigation the concept of subjective well-being (SWB) is used
as an overarching term which includes components of positive affect (e.g., gratitude,
happiness, life-satisfaction), and unpleasant affect (e.g., depressive symptoms) according
to its general use in the literature (Howell et al. 2007). Subjective well-being, often referred
to as ‘‘well-being,’’ is conceptualized as including both emotional (high positive and low
negative affect) and cognitive (life-satisfaction) components (Diener and Diswas-Diener
2008). Accordingly, SWB is employed here as an umbrella term that addresses the het-
erogeneous but highly related construct of well-being which encompasses emotional and
cognitive components (Howell et al. 2007).
Gratitude has been conceptualized in numerous ways, most commonly as either a moral
trait or an emotional state (Froh et al. 2008). Both constructs have clearly been linked to
subjective-well being, demonstrating that happy people tend to be grateful people (Watkins
2004). This study focused on the emotional state of gratitude as a means to illicit change in
well-being. As an emotional state gratitude is commonly defined as an amalgam of
appreciation, thankfulness, and a sense of wonder (Emmons and Sheldon 2002). It is
comprised of various qualities which result in a more favorable appraisal of overall well-
being (Buss 2000; Diener 2000; Diener and Larse 1993; Strack et al. 1991; Suh et al.
1998). These favorable qualities are typically emotional expressions directed toward an
external agency or entity following perceived aid from that source which is interpreted as
costly, valuable, and altruistically intended (Lane and Anderson 1976; Tesser et al. 1968;
Wood et al. 2008a;b). Those who express gratitude more frequently have been shown to
improve on measures of well-being (Fredrickson and Joiner 2002) and generate more
positive affect (Emmons 2008; Emmons and McCullough 2003) by provoking participants
to extract more satisfaction and enjoyment from life events as a result of positive expe-
riences (Sheldon and Lyubomirsky 2006). Watkins (2008) described gratitude as follows;
‘It is as if our enjoyment is incomplete unless some praise or gratitude is expressed to the
source of our enjoyment’’ (Watkins, p. 167). McCullough et al. (2004) showed that such
gratitude based moods can be created from the ‘‘bottom-up’’ to influence well-being in a
positive way. The current study examines the psychological benefit of expressing gratitude
as a bottom-up effect to examine change in well-being.
It should be noted that in some cases gratitude has been defined as ‘‘a sense of
thankfulness and joy in response to receiving a gift, whether the gift be a tangible benefit
from a specific other or a moment of peaceful bliss evoked by natural beauty’’ (Peterson
and Seligman 2004, p. 554). This investigation limited the expression of gratitude to less
S. M. Toepfer et al.
123
tangible factors by excluding ‘‘thank you notes’’ in order to isolate interpersonal qualities
of support and corresponding feelings of gratitude.
Many definitions of happiness have been used in the literature, from overall life sat-
isfaction to fleeting feelings of pleasure, but this study employs the term happiness to
denote the frequent experience of positive emotion (Lyubomirsky et al. 2005a). This
narrower use of the term is accepted as a means to address the influence of frequently
experienced positive emotion, a cornerstone of the happiest people (Diener et al. 1991).
Researchers have found that positive emotion may include feelings of gladness, joy, and
contentment (Griffin 2006; Lyubomirsky 2001). The present investigation hypothesized
that by working with gratitude, a highly related quality that requires re-experiencing past
interpersonal events which contained positive affect, happiness would increase. Such
improvements have been previously shown due to the influence of gratitude by those who
practice it (Emmons and McCullough 2003).
Life-satisfaction is referred to as the cognitive and personal assessment of one’s overall
quality of life and is based on unique or personalized criteria, which shows variance
between individuals (Shin and Johnson 1978; Goldbeck et al. 2007). Research indicates it
is a cognitive comparison or evaluation of personal criteria that a person uses to asses
general satisfaction with life (Diener et al. 1985; Pavot and Diener 1993; Moller and Saris
2001; Van Praag et al. 2003) and has been used as an overall measurement of life satis-
faction (Diener et al. 1985; Headey and Wearing 1989). Tatarkiewicz (1976) drew a
connection between life-satisfaction and happiness stating that ‘‘life as a whole’’ (p. 8) is
an important indication of one’s affective state as one important index of happiness.
However, Sheldon and Lyubomirsky (2007) have shown these correlations to be modest,
indicating that one is not always an indicator of the other, especially as context varies. For
the purposes of this investigation life satisfaction is therefore considered distinct from
happiness as it may be influenced separately from happiness over the course of the letter
writing campaign.
3 Depressive Symptoms
Depressive symptoms assess negative affect and its contribution to well-being. Depression
can be defined not only by high levels of negative affect but relative levels compared to
positive affect (Watson and Clark 1995). The influence on well-being depends on the
frequency of those positive and negative emotions one experiences (Diener et al. 1991).
Negative affect (NA) and positive affect (PA) have shown moderate inverse relations
across individuals (Lyubomirsky et al. 2005a,b). Numerous studies have linked the effect
of negative emotions (ill-being) to compromised health functioning and increased illness
(Booth-Kewley and Friedman 1987; Herbert and Cohen 1993; Segerstorm and Miller
2004). It is the interrelated coexistence of NA and PA that warrants the inclusion of
depressive symptoms as an indicator of well-being.
The depression literature on writing is broad and varied. Generally, a robust literature
exists regarding writing as a vehicle for managing depression (L’Abate et al. 1992; Est-
erling et al. 1999; Koopman et al. 2005; Sloan et al. 2008), but previous investigations have
not measured depressive symptoms under the conditions proposed by this study. Research
related to depressive symptoms has shown that writing about past trauma has decreased
depressive symptomotology over time (Dominguez et al. 1995; Greenberg and Stone 1992;
Murray and Segal 1994). Longitudinal research on writing points to the antithesis of
depression, happiness, as a factor which can fend off depression related issues (Cohen et al.
Letters of Gratitude
123
2006). Long-term documentation of the effectiveness of cognitive and behavioral inter-
ventions to combat negative affect and depression has encouraging implications for the
possibility of elevating long-term happiness (Gloaguen et al. 1998). This warrants further
examination of the Toepfer and Walker (2009) results which, in addition to showing
significant change for happiness, found a non-significant trend in life-satisfaction, sug-
gesting this approach may have implications as a behavioral intervention.
4 Intentional Activity
An intentional activity is described as a willful and self-directed act (Sheldon and Ly-
ubomirsky 2007) and is the vehicle for change in this study, but it has not always been
accepted as a springboard to well-being. In fact it has been suggested that changing one’s
happiness is ‘‘futile’’ (Lykken and Tellegen 1996, p. 189). The ‘‘hedonic treadmill’’ is
commonly cited to show that people adapt to positive change, quelling the impact of self-
directed behavior (Brickman et al. 1978). Yet, a rapidly growing body of research has
tabled contradictory evidence. The model of sustainable happiness (Lyubomirsky et al.
2005b; Sheldon and Lyubomirsky 2006) suggests that people can do something about their
own happiness—intentionally. Recent literature suggests that self-directed activity can
improve well-being (Sheldon 2008; Seligman et al. 2005; Charles et al. 2001; Gloaguen
et al. 1998). In one three-part study it was demonstrated that intentional activity had a
significant impact on sustained happiness when compared to circumstantial events, sug-
gesting that intentional activity is a powerful mediating variable (Sheldon and Lyubo-
mirsky 2006). Kashdan (2007) reviewed converging evidence from different psychological
fields to conclude, ‘‘self-regulatory strategies can promote resilience, create and sustain
positive moods and intrinsic motivation, and aid in the repair of different negative emo-
tion’’ (p. 303). It is that sentiment, backed by the sustainable happiness model, which
motivated this re-investigation of gratitude letters.
5 The Power of Writing
A robust literature concerning the value of expressive writing indicates numerous psy-
chological and health benefits for writers (King 2001; Sheldon and Lyubomirsky 2006;
Seligman et al. 2005) while the marriage of gratitude and writing has long been a metric for
assessing well-being (King 2001; Sheldon and Lyubomirsky 2006; Seligman et al. 2005;
Watkins et al. 2003). Pennebaker and Seagal (1999) showed that writers experienced
positive effects when their writing included higher levels of positive emotion words, a
moderate level of negative emotions words, and increased insight words (Pennebaker and
Seagal 1999). Increased positive mood has been shown to be the result of various gratitude
inductions, the most notable of which was a gratitude letter writing condition (Watkins
et al. 2003). The highly structured nature of both writing and talking create a narrative that
generates understanding and meaning (Singer 2004; Smyth et al. 2001), provides definition
and a sense of control of emotion and experience (Pennebaker and Graybeal 2001), and
integrates memories with self-understanding (Blagov and Singer 2004). This suggests that
reflecting on memories of gratitude in an organized format and taking ownership of a
preexisting cache of gratitude influences well-being because writing shapes these experi-
ences. Specifically, positive and insightful writing that is a hallmark of the gratitude letter
is associated with many outcomes including health improvements (Esterling et al. 1999;
S. M. Toepfer et al.
123
Pennebaker et al. 1997). Pennebaker’s (1997) writing paradigm supports the use of
increased insight and positive emotion words as a vehicle for change and has elicited
positive outcomes in a multitude of studies (Lyubomirsky et al. 2006; Emmons and
McCullough 2003).
Writing inductions for non-letter formats have received abundant attention. These
studies have typically employed methods such as counting your blessings and weekly
journals (Emmons and McCullough 2003). The use of letters has primarily been restricted
to a single document or act of kindness rather than a continued effort (VandeCreek et al.
2002). The current study extended the gratitude-writing literature by introducing multiple
letters over time.
6 Methods
6.1 Participants
Participants were 219 adults, 31 men and 188 women randomly selected from a research pool
across three campuses at a large Midwestern university. Participant age ranged from 18 to 65
with a mean of 25.7 (SD =11). The total sample was composed of 89% (n=195) Cau-
casian, 7% (n=16) African-American, 1% (n=3) Hispanic, 1% (n=3) multicultural,
and 1% (n=2) who self-identified as ‘‘other.’’ The participants were largely traditional in
terms of being young adults, 61% (n=134) being single and never married. Those who
completed all stages of the project were compensated with research extra credit.
Beyond asking new questions, the present investigation addressed limitations of the
pilot; sample size, randomization, and more controlled handling of the letters. The current
project increased the sample size from 84 to 219 participants. The 2009 study assessed
participants directly from the primary investigator’s classes for the experimental group,
whereas the current study canvassed a wide variety of students from different classes,
majors, and campuses for both the control and experimental groups outside of the primary
investigator’s courses. Finally, more rigorous control of the letters was maintained. The
original study found that a fraction of participants received positive feedback from earlier
letter recipients before they finished writing the third, creating a potential confound. To
prevent recipient feedback, letters were held until the entire data collection process was
completed.
6.2 Procedure
Participants in the experimental group (letter writers) were instructed to complete the
battery of questionnaires four times at 1-week intervals. During weeks two, three, and four
they composed a letter of gratitude, resulting in four measurement periods. The control
group completed the same inventories at time one and four without the writing component.
Participants were not privy to the upcoming letters. Instead, they were told only that an
additional assignment was forthcoming. The instructions for composing the letters were
identical each week, with the condition that there could be no repeat recipients. Both
groups had filled out the questionnaires at the same time electronically from a computer
lab. The experimental group was given a 24-h window between the writing assignment and
the surveys but most participants completed both within a 1-h period. Sixty-two percent of
participants wrote between half a page to one full page and 79% of writers took 15–30 min
to do so.
Letters of Gratitude
123
Participants in the experimental group (n=1,41) composed letters either by hand or
word processor. Research supports either method as it has been shown to make no sig-
nificant difference when used for similar expressive writing studies (Harlyey et al. 2003).
The element that makes a difference is a focus on meaningful content. Participants were
therefore instructed to write non-trivial letters of gratitude to an individual to express
appreciation for them. Participants were asked to be reflective, write expressively, and
compose letters from a positive orientation while avoiding ‘‘thank you notes’’ for material
gifts. Writing was restricted to three letters to avoid ‘‘over-practicing’’ or a plateau effect of
diminishing returns (Brickman and Campbell 1971; Lyubomirsky et al. 2005a,b).
Letters were individually examined by the primary investigator to insure the basic
guidelines (e.g., non-triviality, expression of gratefulness, return address, a stamped
envelope, etc.) were followed. The primary investigator mailed the physical letters after the
final composition in order to prevent recipient feedback. Participants were aware that
letters would be mailed to the intended recipients, therefore increasing the psychological
realism and ownership of the exercise.
6.3 Measures
Questionnaires took approximately 15 min to complete and included a demographic form
(completed once at T1), a series of items assessing gratitude, life satisfaction, happiness,
depressive symptoms, and an exit survey (completed at T4), which included questions
regarding participant experiences, such as time spent writing, method, and general per-
ceptions of the process.
6.3.1 Gratitude
Gratitude was assessed using the Gratitude Questionnaire—6 (GQ6), a brief self-report
measure of the disposition toward experiencing gratitude (McCullough et al. 2002). Par-
ticipants answered 6 items on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree)to7(strongly agree).
Example questions include, ‘‘I have so much in my life to be thankful for,’’ and ‘‘Long
amounts of time can go by before I feel grateful to something or someone.’’ The GQ-6
demonstrates good internal reliability across multiple studies, with alphas between .82 and
.87 (McCullough et al.).
6.3.2 Life Satisfaction
Life satisfaction was assessed by The Satisfaction with Life Scale (SLS), a 5-item measure
that assesses life satisfaction as a whole (Diener et al. 1985). Example questions include,
‘In most ways my life is close to my ideal,’’ and ‘‘I am satisfied with life.’’ The scale does
not assess satisfaction with specific life domains, such as health or finances, but allows
subjects to personally integrate and weigh these domains (Diener, et al.; Pavot et al. 1991).
Strong internal reliability and moderate temporal stability are illustrated by a coefficient
alpha of .87 (Diener et al. 1985).
6.3.3 Happiness
We used The Subjective Happiness Scale (SHS), a short 4-item questionnaire to assess
subjective happiness with regard to absolute ratings and ratings relative to peers
S. M. Toepfer et al.
123
(Lyubomirsky and Lepper 1999). Scores range from 1 to 7 per question, a score of ‘‘1’
indicating low levels of happiness and ‘‘7’’ a high score. Example questions include,
‘Compared to most of my peers, I consider myself:’’ with options for ‘‘not a very
happy person’’ to ‘‘a very happy person’’ and ‘‘Some people are generally very happy.
They enjoy life regardless of what is going on, getting the most out of everything. To
what extent does this characterization describe you?’’ Internal consistency for the SHS
has been found to be stable across seven different studies (N=2,732) with a range
between good-to-excellent with regard to validity and reliability, demonstrating alphas
that ranged 0.85–0.95 (Lyubomirsky and Lepper 1999). High test–retest stability
(Pearson’s r=0.90 for 4 weeks and 0.71 for 3 months) scores have also been reported.
6.3.4 Depressive Symptoms
The 10-item Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale (CES-D10) was used to
assess depressive symptoms (Lorig et al. 2001; Radloff 1977). Its primary use is to identify
current depressive symptoms in community or non-clinical samples during the previous
week (Radloff 1977). Participants were asked how often they felt the following ways in the
past week on a 4-point scale from 1 (rarely or none at all)to4(most of the time). Higher
CES-D scores indicate more frequent depressive symptoms. Representative questions
include, ‘‘I was bothered by things that usually don’t bother me,’’ and ‘‘My sleep was
restless.’’ Higher total scores indicate more frequent and severe depression. The CES-D has
been shown to be a reliable measure for assessing the frequency, types, and duration of
depressive symptoms across racial, gender, and age categories (Knight et al. 1997; Radloff
1977; Roberts et al. 1989). The CES-D demonstrates high internal consistency (a=.85–
.90) across studies (Radloff 1977).
7 Results
Results are presented in two parts: findings for the well-being variables (i.e., gratitude,
happiness, and life satisfaction) followed by the ill-being variable (depressive symp-
toms). The test–retest correlations revealed significant positive associations between
pretest and posttest scores for gratitude (r=0.42, P\.001), happiness (r=0.78,
P\.001), life satisfaction (r=0.81, P\.001), and depressive symptoms (r=0.71,
P\.001).
7.1 Between and Within Group Differences in Components of Subjective Well-Being
To test the effects of writing letters of gratitude on individuals’ subjective well-being, we
conducted a series of 2 (Time) 92 (Group) mixed method ANOVAs, separately for each
well-being variable (i.e., gratitude, happiness, and life satisfaction) and depressive
symptoms. We used mixed method ANOVAs because this study includes both between
and within subject effects. In this study, time is a within subject effect, whereas group is a
between subject effect. Time refers to within person differences from pretest to posttest.
Group refers to differences between the experimental group (i.e. writers) and the control
group (i.e. non-writers). Table 1presents the means for the experimental and control
groups on the well-being variables and depressive symptoms for the four measurement
periods.
Letters of Gratitude
123
7.1.1 Gratitude
Contrary to our expectations, there was no significant main effect of time for gratitude
(Table 2). Reports of gratitude did not significantly differ between the pretest and the
posttest. We also did not find a significant time x group interaction, suggesting there was
no significant effect on gratitude from writing the letters of gratitude.
1
7.1.2 Happiness
Results for happiness revealed a significant main effect of time that was qualified by a
significant time x group interaction (Table 2). Happiness was significantly higher at
posttest than at pretest, however, follow-up analyses separate by group revealed that this
difference was only significant for the experimental group (F(1, 104) =7.04, P\.01). As
expected, the experimental group reported higher levels of happiness at posttest
(M=20.62, SD =3.88) than they did at pretest (M=19.72, SD =3.92), whereas there
was no significant difference between pretest (M=19.68, SD =4.28) and posttest
(M=19.58, SD =4.16) for the control group.
7.1.3 Life Satisfaction
Similarly, results for life satisfaction revealed a significant main effect of time that was
qualified by a significant time x group interaction (Table 2). Life satisfaction was signif-
icantly higher at posttest than at pretest for both the experimental, F(1, 104) =33.53,
P\.001 and the control group, F(1, 104) =6.35, P\.01. The experimental group’s life
satisfaction improved from pretest (M=23.49, SD =5.95) to posttest (M=26.24,
Table 1 Means on well-being scales over time
Time
Pre-test Post-test
Happiness (SHS)
Letter-writers 19.72 (n=105, SD =3.9) 20.62 (n=105, SD =3.8)
Non-writers 19.68 (n=78, SD =4.28) 19.58 (n=78, SD =4.16)
Life satisfaction (SLS)
Letter-writers 23.49 (n=105, SD =5.95) 26.24 (n=105, SD =6.59)
Non-writers 23.42 (n=78, SD =6.8) 23.06 (n=78, SD =6.52)
Gratitude (GQ6)
Letter-writers 29.35 (n=105, SD =3.38) 29.67 (n=105, SD =3.81)
Non-writers 29.45 (n=78, SD =2.99) 28.77 (n=78, SD =3.68)
Depression (CES-D)
Letter-writers 12.88 (n=105, SD =4.69) 11.56 (n=105, SD =5)
Non-writers 11.35 (n=78, SD =4.46) 11.40 (n=78, SD =4.42)
1
We explored whether the effects of letter writing varied by initial levels of gratitude by conducting a series
of regression analyses for each of the dependent variables that included the interaction between pretest
gratitude and group (i.e., experimental vs. control). Our results did not provide support for gratitude as a
moderator of the treatment effect.
S. M. Toepfer et al.
123
SD =6.59), whereas the control group’s life satisfaction slightly declined from pretest
(M=23.42, SD =6.81) to posttest (M=23.06, SD =6.52).
7.1.4 Depressive Symptoms
Results also revealed a significant main effect of time for depressive symptoms that was
qualified by a significant time x group interaction (Table 2). Participants reported signif-
icantly fewer depressive symptoms at posttest compared to at pretest, however, follow-up
analyses separate by group indicated that this difference was only significant for the
experimental group, F(1, 104) =8.58, P\.01, not for the control group, F(1,
77) =0.26, P[.05. Consistent with our expectations, the experimental group reported
Table 2 Results of Repeated
Measures ANOVA’s on the
well-being scales
*P\.05, ** P\.01,
*** P\.001
df MS F
Happiness (SHS)
Within-subjects
Time 1 14.06 3.96*
Time 9Group 1 22.28 6.27**
Error 181 3.55
Between-subjects
Group 1 26.41 0 .91
Error 181 29.10
Life satisfaction (SLS)
Within-subjects
Time 1 128.19 17.92***
Time 9Group 1 216.62 30.28***
Error 181 7.153
Between-subjects
Group 1 234.42 3.09
Error 181 75.98
Gratitude (GQ6)
Within-subjects
Time 1 2.98 0.42
Time 9Group 1 22.10 3.10
Error 181 7.14
Between-subjects
Group 1 14.36 0.83
Error 181 17.30
Depressive symptoms (CES-D)
Within-subjects
Time 1 35.70 5.72*
Time 9Group 1 41.73 6.68**
Error 181 6.24
Between-subjects
Group 1 64.25 1.70
Error 181 37.70
Letters of Gratitude
123
significantly fewer depressive symptoms at posttest (M=11.56, SD =5.03) compared to
at pretest (M=12.88, SD =4.69).
Finally, we conducted a series of analyses intended to test whether the benefits of the
writing campaign accumulated over time. We could not assess whether there was a
treatment effect at T2 or T3 because the control groups only reported on the dependent
variables at T1 and T4. In an effort to still explore the issue of dosage and consider whether
our results were more than mood manipulation, we assessed how the well-being variables
changed from T2 to T3 in the experimental group and found there were no significant
changes in gratitude, happiness, or depressive symptoms from T2 to T3. These analyses
suggest that the changes observed in happiness and depressive symptoms accumulated
across the study period and represent more than a brief mood manipulation.
In summary, our findings provide partial support for our hypotheses. Contrary to our
expectations, gratitude did not change in response to writing the letters of gratitude. As
anticipated, writing letters of gratitude seemed to increase participants’ happiness and life
satisfaction, while decreasing participants’ depressive symptoms.
8 Discussion
The present investigation sought to replicate a previous study by Toepfer and Walker
(2009) which examined the effects of a letters of gratitude writing campaign as a means for
improving important qualities of well-being. The goals of the current study were twofold:
(1) to examine the durability of the original study with a more appropriate sample in terms
of size and selection, and (2) to extend the scope of the original investigation by assessing
depressive symptoms as an outcome.
Significant findings from the current study supported much of the previous research and
showed new evidence that depression is influenced by letters of gratitude. The previous
investigation showed significant findings regarding happiness and gratitude. Happiness
demonstrated a cumulative effect after each letter and compared to non-writers or controls.
Gratitude showed significant improvements for writers compared to non-writers (Toepfer
and Walker 2009). The current study supported the Toepfer and Walker (2009) findings on
happiness over time and compared to non-letter writers. Both studies were consistent in
showing that the writing campaign of three letters improved affective states of happiness
which includes feelings of gladness, satisfaction, fulfillment (Griffin 2006; Myers 1992).
Regarding life-satisfaction, the present study found significant improvement over time and
compared to non-writers, whereas the original study did not. The Toepfer and Walker
(2009) pilot investigation showed no significant results for life-satisfaction but demon-
strated a trend over time. Replicating the original study yielded significant findings over
time and compared to non-writers. These differing findings suggest that cognitive evalu-
ations of one’s life are improved by engaging in an expressive writing campaign which
uses gratitude as a vehicle for change. This is encouraging because it indicates the
intentional activity has a broader impact than initially reported by Toepfer and Walker
(2009), influencing both the affective and cognitive domains.
Gratitude yielded no significant change in the current study, unlike the previous
investigation. Toepfer and Walker (2009) reported a significant interaction between groups
for letter writers and non-writers. The current investigation did not show significant
improvement either between or within groups. Therefore, the claim that working with
gratitude can bolster gratitude cannot be supported in the current investigation. Based on
the design and methodology of the current study we can only speculate as to the reasons for
S. M. Toepfer et al.
123
gratitude’s lack of responsiveness. First, it is possible the small sample size of the first
study yielded an unrepresentative sample. The larger, randomized sample of the current
investigation may represent a broader range of participants and reflect a more accurate
picture of gratitude. Second, gratitude may be less subject to change because it is a fixed
quality. The GQ-6 and the design of the study may not possess the sensitivity to distinguish
the difference between state and trait qualities of gratitude. It is possible that the conceptual
nature of gratitude we used (McCullough et al. 2002) hinges on trait qualities (e.g.,
optimism, life satisfaction, hope, spirituality and religiousness, empathy, and pro-social
behavior) that are less likely to be influenced by such a gratitude induction. Participants
were grateful due to a preexisting understanding of a relationship with a person which
might also be stable. As a result, gratitude may not change due to treatment.
Depression was a new consideration in the current investigation. It was examined to
assess whether or not letters of gratitude would decrease depressive symptoms. Results
indicated that the writing campaign showed significant decreases in symptomatology over
time and compared to non-writers. The findings present interesting implications for letters
of gratitude as a way to reduce depressive symptoms as well as an intervention for those
suffering from depressive symptoms. It is important to note that the CES-D is not a
measure of major depression, but instead a metric for depressive symptoms, and is often
used to screen for pre-clinical signs of depression in the normal population (Radloff 1977).
As a measure of the level of depressive symptoms the CES-D may not be a strong tool for
screening for clinical depression or major depression (Roberts et al. 1989) regardless of
high correlates with clinician rating measures of depression such as the Hamilton, the Beck
Depression Inventory, and the SCL-90 (Weissman et al. 1977). Nonetheless, writing letters
of gratitude may have potential for alleviating depressive symptoms prior to more severe
clinical depression. Further investigation is required before such claims can be made but
the results are promising.
8.1 Limitations and Future Directions
This study showed numerous improvements in well-being as a result of writing letters of
gratitude, yet it is not without its limitations. The present investigation consisted of a
sample that was largely limited to Caucasian females. A more heterogeneous sample would
improve generalizability.
It is also important to acknowledge that the time frame between the writing intervention
and the final measurement assessment was relatively brief. Due to this brief time frame, it
is difficult to know for certain if the intervention produced lasting changes in subjective
well-being or a short-term boost in participants’ mood. Although, we cannot claim with
certainty that the intervention produced lasting effects in well-being, the accumulated
effect of time is promising as it suggests more than mood manipulation. Future research
should attempt to further address the issue of dosage by including longer-term follow-up
assessments to determine how long the intervention effects last.
Future research would benefit from one important component—parceling out the dif-
ference between writing versus the benevolent act. As a means for manipulating gratitude
the letters of gratitude required both expressive writing and, through the writing process,
the intentional act of kindness which was to thank others. The investigation hinged on the
intentional use of expressing gratitude in written form to till the soil of well-being, so to
speak, and produce a fertile context for the related qualities (happiness, life-satisfaction,
and gratitude itself) to grow. Participants expressed written gratitude to real people,
essentially, a benevolent act. Part of the process, beyond formulating and reflecting on
Letters of Gratitude
123
gratitude, is the act of reaching out to others as a meaningful way to spark gratitude and
ignite well-being. However, further investigation is warranted in order to parcel out the
differences between acts of kindness and the gratitude letter. In addition, it would be
beneficial to better understand the differences between writing letters of gratitude versus
other methods of writing (e.g., thank you notes). Also, future investigations may benefit
from a second look at gratitude and the measurement of it. No significant improvement in
gratitude was found using the GQ6 but this may be explained by the instrument’s tendency
to measure trait rather than state qualities of gratitude. Finally, future research should
address questions about the interpersonal factors, including relationship style, emotional
bonds, or attachment style. This study did something unique. It introduced psychological
accountability and ownership for the sentiments contained within the letters. In so doing,
interpersonal factors were introduced. Letters were not sent until the third and final letter
was composed, in order to prevent feedback prior to completing the entire process, but
interpersonal influences may remain. Does this accountability matter? Were long term
writer-recipient effects introduced? Did participants talk with recipients? These are
important questions beyond the scope of the current study to be explored by future
research.
9 Conclusions
The current investigation presented evidence that supported the Toepfer and Walker (2009)
letters of gratitude study, particularly in the domains of happiness and life-satisfaction,
suggesting the short writing campaign improves important qualities of well-being. It for-
tified the initial study with a new finding regarding significantly decreased levels of
depressive symptoms as a result of the writing activity. In addition to supporting the 2009
pilot study the present investigation contributes to the literature by further clarifying that
writing letters of gratitude has a cumulative effect that benefits the author. The implications
are that this type of expressive writing can benefit those who suffer from depressive
symptoms. Further research is necessary, but gratitude letters may be a simple intervention
for those who struggle with such symptomatology.
Gratitude appears to be a powerful and preexisting resource that when utilized can
produce positive effects upon well-being. As a tool for mining that resource letters of
gratitude have produced positive outcomes related to important qualities of well-being:
happiness, life-satisfaction, and depressive symptoms. The current investigation provided
further evidence of these benefits.
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Researchers have shown that about 40% of our happiness is accounted for by intentional activity whereas 50% is explained by genetics and 10% by circumstances (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon & Schkade, 2005). Consequently, efforts to improve happiness might best be focused in the domain of intentional activity: willful and self-directed activity (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2007). Such activity is nested in the "sustainable happiness model" proposed by Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade (2005) which states that happiness is in part within our ability to manage. Earlier work (Fordyce, 1977; 1983) supports the premise that individuals can sustain levels of happiness through volitional behavior. The current pilot study explored one such intentional activity - composing letters of gratitude. It was hypothesized that writing three letters of gratitude over time would enhance important qualities of subjective well-being in the author; happiness, life-satisfaction, and gratitude.
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