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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.
Content may be subject to copyright.
Toepfer, S. (2009). Letters of Gratitude: Improving Well-Being through Expressive Writing. Journal
of Writing Research, 1(3), 181-198.
Contact and copyright: Earli | Steven M. Toepfer & Kathleen Walker, Kent State University –
Salem, USA | stoepfer@kent.edu
Letters of Gratitude: Improving
Well-Being through Expressive Writing
Steven M. Toepfer & Kathleen Walker
Kent State University | USA
Abstract: 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.
Keywords: Expressive writing, gratitude, letters, well-being
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1. Review of the Literature
According to Burton and King (2004) most writing studies which involve repeated writing
sessions focus on negative emotional experiences such as traumatic events and personal
problems. The current investigation refocuses on an alternative writing strategy by
examining the expression of positive emotion, specifically, composing letters of gratitude.
Pennebaker and Seagal (1999) demonstrated that writing which included higher levels of
positive emotion words, a moderate level of negative emotions words, and increased insight
words had positive effects on participants. Pennebaker’s (1997) expressive writing paradigm
was employed to measure participants as they repetitively re-experienced their happiest
day. This paradigm drives the current investigation and employed the method to study
potential effects in the author’s global state of well-being as measured by happiness, life
satisfaction, and gratitude.
Utilizing Pennebaker’s (1997) paradigm, Lyubomirsky, Sousa and Dickerhoof (2006)
studied and found that writing and talking about one’s day increases a person’s positive
emotions four weeks after the study. Emmons and McCullough (2003) asked participants to
keep gratitude journals once a week, three times a week, or not at all. In their journals,
participants wrote down up to five things for which they were grateful in the past week. The
gratitude-outlook groups exhibited heightened well-being across several outcome measures
with the most robust finding being positive affect.
Expressive writing studies are plentiful and the once anemic domain of letter writing as
a vehicle for improving health has seen a recent surge of interest (King, 2001; Sheldon &
Lyubomirsky, 2006a; Seligman et al., 2005; Lyubomirsky, Dickerhoof, Boehm, & Sheldon,
2009). For example, VandeCreek, Janus, Pennebaker and Binau (2002) asked participants to
pray and write letters to God and found that both prayer and the letters increased insight
and positive emotion, more so than simple written descriptions, where a single letter to God
had the most impact. The authors explained that the act of praying or explaining to another
(in this case in a letter to God) was more conducive to personal insight and greater positive
emotional formulations about life events. In other words, writing a letter to God was found
to improve participant’s positive feelings about life events.
Watkins, Woodward, Stone and Kolts (2003) conducted a study that examined mood
changes as the result of various gratitude inductions, one of which was a letter writing
condition. Their findings revealed that writing a gratitude based letter produced a positive
affect increase compared to the other gratitude inductions (Watkins et al., 2003).
Lyubomirsky et al. (2009) used gratitude letters (not mailed to recipients) to measure the
power of reflection on past memories as a factor for improving general well-being.
Participants were asked to recall experiences during the past few years for which they were
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grateful to something. Based on those memories participants wrote essays once a week for
15 minutes. Intentional and positive activities such as writing essays (as well as visualizing
one’s dreams coming true) were found to bolster perceived positive change. The authors
stated that increased well-being was most likely due to a higher motivation to become
happier. Furthermore, they suggested that increased well-being may be most beneficial
when the expression of gratitude has time to manifest, perhaps allowing people to improve
their relationships. They called for future research in this area.
The current study explored the influence of prolonged writing, or writing multiple letters
over time, as a means to better understand possible cumulative effects of expressive,
gratitude driven writing on the author’s well-being. To do so we measured change in two
primary variables of well-being: happiness and life-satisfaction.
Happiness is often defined as a feeling of gladness and satisfaction or contentment,
suggesting increased insight, and therefore subjective selection and consideration about the
important things in one’s life (Griffin, 2006). Myers (1992) described happiness, or
subjective happiness as it is often called, as a lasting sense that life is fulfilling, meaningful,
and pleasant. Happiness includes emotional states of joy, contentment, positive well-being,
and a perception that one’s life is worthwhile (Lyubomirsky, 2001). Diener and Seligman
(2002) have shown that individuals with high levels of happiness possess an abundance
factors such as joy, contentment, and the perception that life is valuable. Conversely,
unhappy people report fewer satisfying relationships and less gratitude (Park, Peterson,
Martin & Seligman, 2004). Happiness and fulfillment is an important and increasingly
common pursuit of people around the world (Diener, 2000; Diener, Suh, Smith & Shao,
1995). While happiness is often assumed to be highly related to life-satisfaction this is not
necessarily the case. According to some researchers (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2007) the
correlations are modest and one is not always an indicator of the other, especially when
assessed at particular times or in various contexts. As a result, this investigation looked at
these variables separately.
Life-satisfaction is commonly referred to as the cognitive and personal assessment of
general quality of life and is based on unique or personalized criteria that varies among
individuals (Shin & Johnson, 1978; Goldbeck, et al., 2007). This cognitive comparison of
various criteria results in one’s general satisfaction with life and is supported by previous
research (Diener, et al., 1985; Pavot & Diener, 1993; Moller & Saris, 2001; Praag & Ferrer-i-
Carbonell, 2004) as a general evaluation because it allows for measurement of overall life
satisfaction (Diener et al., 1985; Headey & Wearing, 1989). Tatarkiewicz (1976) stated that
“life as a whole” (p. 8) is an important indication of one’s affective state and one important
index of happiness. Diener et al. (1985) assert that an overall assessment of subjective life
satisfaction is attainable, allowing individuals to weigh various domains in whatever way
they choose and derive a subjective perception of life satisfaction. Life-satisfaction clearly
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has stronger cognitive features than happiness. Those cognitive tendrils reach into the
related concept of gratitude, fortifying its candidacy as the vehicle of change.
Gratitude is typically comprised of appreciation, thankfulness, and a sense of wonder
(Emmons & Shelton, 2002). It indicates that people can extract the most satisfaction and
enjoyment from life events and facilitates positive experiences (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky,
2006). Positive emotions such as gratitude contribute to more favorable cognitive judgments
of life-satisfaction and overall well-being (Diener & Larsen, 1993; Buss, 2000; Diener,
2000; Stack, Argyle & Schwarts, 1991; Suh, Diener, Oishi & Triandis, 1998) and
experiencing or expressing those emotions have been shown to further improve well-being
and happiness (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002).
Watkins, Grimm and Kolts (2004) suggested the hallmark of grateful persons is the
appreciation of the simple things in life. Numerous studies have shown that personal
gratitude contributes to subjective happiness (Emmons & Crumpler, 2000; McCullough et
al., 2002; Peterson & Seligman, 2004). This was evidenced in a study that showed
subjective happiness was increased simply by counting one’s acts of kindness during the
past week (Otake, Shimai, Tanaka-Matsumi, Otsui & Fredrickson, 2006). As an expression
of gratitude, acts of kindness have been show to increase happiness over a 10-week period
simply by engaging in kind acts such as holding the door for strangers or doing a
roommate’s dishes (Tkach, 2005). Lyubomirsky, Sheldon and Schkade (2005) found that
acts of kindness over time, as opposed to doing them all in one day, improved happiness
levels. Such finding suggests that happiness can be boosted through sustained and
intentional gratitude-oriented activities.
Recently, a concerted and broad-based effort was made to examine the impact of a full
spectrum of character strengths regarding health and well-being (Peterson & Seligman,
2004). The endeavor revealed that gratitude is among the most beneficial character
strengths due to its strong impact on well-being (Park, Peterson & Seligman, 2004).
Gratitude plays two important roles in the present investigation. First, as the
independent variable gratitude is the agent for potential change in happiness, life-
satisfaction, and gratitude. Second, if tilling the soil of gratitude with expressive writing
shows significant changes in the domains of happiness, life-satisfaction, and gratitude itself
it would present a simple means for improving important aspects of well-being. Participants
put pen-to-paper or fingers-to-keys to assess the intentional activity of positive expressive
gratitude, what Fordyce (1977; 1983) called a volitional strategy, in order to assess potential
change in well-being.
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2. Methods
2.1 Participants
Student participants were drawn from six classes at three campuses in a large Midwestern
university system. Three of these classes were comprised of the experimental group, which
engaged in the letter writing campaign, and three randomly selected classes participated as
the controls who did not engage in writing. These classes were not positive psychology
courses, which could contributed to improvement of the variables under consideration,
leaving participants happier than if found them. This should mitigate potential confounds
that might be present in a positive psychology course. For letter writers the task was a class
assignment which, if completed, resulted in a grade for student participants.
Table 1. Demographics
Control Group Experimental Group Totals
Demographic N % N % N
Marital Status
Married*
Divorced**
Single***
Race
African-American
Caucasian
Multiracial
Year in collage
Fr.
So.
Jr.
Sr.
Graduate/other
4
14
22
1
38
1
17
10
8
5
-
10
35
55
2.5
95
2.5
42.5
25
20
12.5
-
6
5
34
4
39
2
-
1
12
29
3
13.3
11.1
75.6
8.9
86.7
4.4
-
2.2
26.7
64.4
6.7
10
19
56
5
77
3
17
11
20
34
3
*Married=Never divorced; **Divorced=Includes separated & remarried; ***Single=Never
married.
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The average age of the sample was 26.7 with a median age of 23 (range=18-52, sd=8.44).
Eighty-five percent (n=72) of participants were female and 15% (n=13) male. See table 1 for
sample demographics.
2.2 Procedure
Participants in the experimental group (n=44) typed or hand-wrote three letters of gratitude
that emphasized the expression of gratitude over an 8-week period of time. Students were
permitted to use either method based on research that shows writing by hand verses word
processor makes no significant difference (Harlyey, Sotto, & Pennebaker, 2003). Instead,
what matters most is expressive writing with a focus on meaningful content. Participants
were therefore instructed to avoid trivial letters (e.g. “Thank you” notes for material gifts)
and alternatively compose non-trivial letters which included something significant for
which they felt gratitude toward the recipient. Participants were instructed to be reflective,
write expressively, and compose letters from a positive orientation. The expressive writing
intervention was limited to three letters to avoid “over-practicing” or a plateau of
diminishing returns (Brickman & Cambell, 1971; Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005).
Writers were examined in two primary ways on happiness, life-satisfaction, and
gratitude; within group and between groups. The within group comparison assessed change
in the authors over four time periods. It was intended to measure whether or not writing
letters of gratitude influenced the authors after the first letter (time 2), compared to their
baseline measurement prior to letter writing (time 1), and with subsequent letters (times 3
and 4).
The between group assessment compared the experimental group to a control group
(n=40) who filled out the same questionnaires, at the same points in time, but did not write
letters of gratitude. The only difference between groups was the introduction of the letter
writing campaign for the experimental group at times 2, 3 and 4. Participants in the control
group had no knowledge of the letter writing endeavor.
The time frame between letters for all participants was approximately two weeks with
minimal variation and therefore evenly-spaced intervals. Letters were examined by the
instructors, not to read, but to check against basic guidelines (e.g., non-triviality, author
identification, return address, a stamped envelope, etc.). The primary investigator was
responsible for mailing the physical letters. Participants were aware that letters would be
mailed to the intended recipients, therefore increasing the psychological realism of the
exercise.
The questionnaires took approximately fifteen minutes to complete and included a
demographic form (filled out once at T1), the Gratitude Questionnaire (McCullough,
Emmons, & Tsang, 2002), the Satisfaction with Life Scale (Diener, Emmons, Larson, &
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Griffin, 1985), the Subjective Happiness Scale (Lyubomirsky & Lepper, 1999), and an exit
survey (T4 only) which included questions regarding participant experience such as time
spent writing, writing method, and general perceptions of the process.
2.3 Measures
Gratitude Questionnaire – 6 (GQ6) is a brief self-report measure of the disposition toward
experiencing gratitude. Participants answer 6 items on a 1 to 7 scale (1 = "strongly
disagree", 7 = "strongly agree"). The GQ-6 has good internal reliability, with alphas between
.82 and .87, and there is evidence that the GQ-6 is positively related to optimism, life
satisfaction, hope, spirituality and religiousness, forgiveness, empathy and pro-social
behavior, and negatively related to depression, anxiety, materialism and envy (McCullough,
Emmons, & Tsang, 2002).
The Satisfaction with Life Scale (SLS) is a 5-item measure that assesses life satisfaction as
a whole. 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,
Emmons, Larson, & Griffin, 1985; Pavot, Diener, Colvin, & Sandvik, 1991).
The Subjective Happiness Scale (SHS) is a short 4-item questionnaire that quantifies
subjective happiness with regard to absolute ratings and ratings relative to peers. The SHS
has been validated in 14 studies consisting of international data across various age groups
(Lyubomirsky & Lepper, 1999). Results have indicated that the SHS has high internal
consistency, which has been found to be stable across samples. Test-retest and self-peer
correlations have suggested good to excellent reliability. Construct validation studies of
convergent and discriminant validity have confirmed the use of this scale to measure the
construct of subjective happiness (Lyubomirsky & Lepper, 1999). The SHS has been found
to range between good-to-excellent with regard to validity and reliability in 14 studies (N =
2732). The SHS has demonstrated high internal consistency (from 0.85 to 0.95 in seven
different studies), and high test–retest stability (Pearson’s r = 0.90 for 4 weeks and 0.71 for 3
months). This scale has correlated highly with informant ratings of happiness (r = 0.65).
2.4 Results
Table 2 presents the means of each group on the three scales (happiness, life-satisfaction,
and gratitude) for each of the four measurement times. A two-way repeated measures
analysis of variance was performed for each scale. The between-subjects factor for each
analysis was group (letter-writers vs. non-writers), and the within-subjects factor was time. It
was of particular interest to determine if the interaction between group and time is
significant for any of the scales. This finding indicates that one of the groups demonstrated a
differential growth over time on that scale than did the other group.
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Table 2. Means on the three scales over time
Time Combined Time
1 2 3 4
Happiness
Letter-writers 18.69 20.31 21.51 22.38 20.72
Non writers 19.58 21.21 20.84 21.42 20.64
Combined Groups 19.10 20.70 21.11 22.00
Life Satisfaction
Letter-writers 5.18 5.51 5.53 5.58 5.50
Non writers 5.16 5.22 5.24 5.38 5.30
Combined Groups 5.17 5.36 5.40 5.50
Gratitude
Letter-writers 35.73 36.13 36.24 36.80 36.23
Non writers 35.14 35.16 34.30 33.70 34.57
Combined Groups 35.43 35.65 35.27 35.25
The results, presented in Table 3, show that two significant interactions were obtained:
happiness and gratitude.
Although both groups demonstrated an increase over the four testing periods, the letter-
writing group increased in their happiness scores with larger increments over time.
Specifically, the letter-writers increased at each testing time, with a final increase of 3.69
points. The non letter-writers increased from time 1 to time 2, but then decreased at time 3,
and then increased slightly again at time 4. The final increase for non letter-writers was only
1.84 points. More importantly, the letter-writers, who started with a smaller initial mean
than did the non letter-writers, ended with a larger mean at time 4.
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The effect for time was also significant, but this finding only indicates that there was an
overall difference among the four testing periods when group was not considered. The
means for happiness summed over group were the following: time 1 = 19.06; time 2 =
20.70; time 3 = 21.11; time 4 = 21.85. The difference from time 1 to time 4 was 2.79
Table 3. Results of Repeated Measures ANOVA’s on the three scales
Time
df MS F
Happiness
Between-subjects
Group 1 .62 .01
Error 80 57.97
Within-subjects
Time 3 113.06 45.88**
Time x Group 3 19.48 7.91*
Error 240 2.46
Life Satisfaction
Between-subjects
Group 1 3.25 1.22
Error 80 2.67
Within-subjects
Time 3 1.37 3.3*
Time x Group 3 .35 .81
Error 240 .43
Gratitude
Between-subjects
Group 1 222.05 2.30
Error 80 96.65
Within-subjects
Time 3 2.74 .371
Time x Group 3 25.38 3.43*
Error 240 7.40
*
p
< .05, **
p
< .01
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190
points. The simple effects analysis between groups for each time was not significant for
happiness.
Figure 1. Estimated marginal means by groups on happiness.
Figure 2 illustrates the interaction between the two groups on gratitude. In this case, the
scores on gratitude for the non letter-writing group actually decreased over time, whereas
the scores for the letter-writing group somewhat increased. The letter-writers demonstrated
an overall increase of 1.07 points from time 1 to time 4, whereas the non letter-writers
demonstrated an overall decrease of 1.44 points. The simple effects examining the
difference between the two groups at each time showed that the letter-writers and non
letter-writers were significantly different in their gratitude at time 4 (F=7.32; df=1,80;
p<.01). The mean difference between the two groups at time 4 was 3.10.
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Figure 2. Estimated marginal means by groups on gratitude.
Considering life satisfaction, an interaction between the letter-writers and non letter-writers
over time was not found. The two groups demonstrated slight, consistent increases in life
satisfaction over the four times, and their patterns were similar. The effect for time was
significant, indicating that the increase over time was significant when group was not taken
into consideration. The means for life satisfaction, summed over group, were the following:
time 1 = 5.17; time 2 = 5.36; time 3 = 5.39; and time 4 = 5.48. The difference between
time 1 and time 4 was only .31. No significant simple effects were found for time between
the two groups on life satisfaction.
3. Discussion
The act of writing three letters of gratitude was found to positively impact young adult
college students in two sub-domains of well-being: happiness and gratitude. Similar to
previously studies (Van de Creek et al., 2002; Watkins et al., 2003; Lyubomirsky et al.,
2009) the current research showed the most significant improvements in well-being via
happiness. These gains in happiness were accomplished through a 3-letter writing
campaign and manifested in two ways; from letter to letter, demonstrating a cumulative
impact, and compared to participants who did not engage in writing. Previous research
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focused on a single letter while this investigation was the first to examine multiple letters
over time. As a result, evidence regarding a cumulative effect for both happiness and
gratitude indicated that sustained writing is beneficial. In other words, practice was shown
to improve the author’s global sense of well-being on two fronts.
These findings contribute to the literature in four specific ways. First, expressive writing
was confirmed as a method for improving multiple aspects of well-being (Pennebaker’s,
1997; 2004). Expressive writing within the parameters adopted in this study, and as a
method for change, was shown to be beneficial for the authors.
Second, but related to the first point, letters of gratitude contribute to the validity of
intentional activity (King, 2001; Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006a; Seligman et al., 2005;
VandeCreek, Janus, Pennebaker, & Binau, 2002). The volitional act of writing letters of
gratitude supports previous research which demonstrated that individuals have the ability to
direct positive change in their lives (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon & Schkade, 2005). In the present
study, sustained reflection and elaboration on gratitude fortified previous research which
found “counting one’s blessings” can improve gratitude, especially with regard to
recounting meaningful or significant events (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon & Schkade, 2005), as
well as happiness by savoring and expressing positive events and situations (Park et al.,
2004). However, action is requisite. The present investigation demonstrated one such
intentional activity that utilized an otherwise dormant reserve of gratitude made manifest
through sustained writing.
Third, this study successfully employed Fordyce’s fundamentals (1977; 1983) in the
form of an intentional activity to increase happiness. It expanded on Fordyce's work by
demonstrating that young adults can, in addition to increasing positive affect (happiness),
build on or improve gratitude. Letters of gratitude engaged participants in an activity that
met Fordyce's definition of a volitional behavior: socializing, practicing optimism and
thankfulness, being present-oriented, a sense of wonder, and the ability to glean satisfaction
and enjoyment from life events (Emmons & Shelton, 2002; Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2004)
in order to enact positive change. This is particularly significant if we consider, as Krause
(2006) explained, this topic is largely unexplored, and that gratitude is a characterological
and enduring feature of the personality (Park, Peterson & Seligman, 2004). This trait-
grounded interpretation may explain why sustained writing (3 letters) is important. It simply
takes longer to enact change in trait-based qualities such as gratitude.
Fourth, findings suggest that letters of gratitude provide a practical and simple
intervention for helping a normal and relatively happy population (young adult college
students) improve subjective well-being. This raises the possibility that such intentional
activity may contribute in positive ways to quality of life. It is a reasonable extension to
assume that self-directed letter writing may benefit others who, for example, suffer from
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maladies such as depression. It is beyond the scope of this investigation to make such
assertions but it is something to consider in future inquiries.
Life-satisfaction was not statistically significant but a trend showed improvement over
time. Life-satisfaction as a variable was probably the least likely to change as a result of the
letter writing activity. As a cognitive factor it represents what authors (Diener et al., 1985;
Headey & Wearing, 1989) have referred to as a general or “life as a whole” (Tatarkiewicz,
1976, p. 8) analysis of one’s overall satisfaction with life (Pavot & Diener, 1993). It would
be a testament to the letters of gratitude activity if a short writing campaign could change
one’s global perceptions of life, but this was not the case. The trend suggests further
investigation is warranted but no conclusions can be drawn about life-satisfaction based on
the results of this study.
4. Limitations
An obvious limitation of the study was the homogeneous sample regarding sex, educational
level, and initially high scores on happiness and life-satisfaction which restrict
generalizability. Another limitation stems from the sampling procedure. Participants in the
control groups were included based on random class assignments but the experimental
group was drawn from the same type of class across three campuses. A more random and
diverse approach toward the selection process is suggested. Sample size should also be
increased.
Some researchers have called attention to the potential interpersonal confounds of
mailing such letters (Lyubomirsky et al., 2009). The present authors assumed that mailing
the letters was valuable because it added psychological realism and responsibility. While
we echo Lyubomirsky’s concern regarding a potential confound it is unknown whether or
not this is an issue. Future investigations should explore and control for this potential
problem. One method for doing so is to mail all letters after the final composition is
complete in order to prevent recipient feedback during the writing campaign. Until more is
known we maintain that the author's knowledge that the letter would be received is an
important part of the process. It is also a positive artifact for the recipient.
5. Future Directions
The current findings are encouraging but future letters of gratitude research would benefit
from additional considerations. First, a more far reaching methodology that would allow for
the assessment of the interpersonal nature of the process would lend interesting insights. For
example, a methodology that codes various types of author-recipient relationships:
significant other, parent, friend, or child. The preexisting nature of the author-recipient
relationship may provide insight into the level of impact based on who one writes. This
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question is aligned with the work of Slatcher and Pennebaker (2006) who found that people
who engaged in expressive writing became more expressive with their partners, leading to
improved stability for individuals in normal, healthy relationships (Slatcher & Pennebaker,
2006). Others have supported social connections as fundamental to individual gratitude
(Otake et al., 2006). Understanding the recipient might help identify the most powerful use
for letters of gratitude. Anecdotal evidence from the current investigation suggests the
recipients were usually immediate family, friends, and significant others. Rojas (2006) found
that some interpersonal domains such as the immediate family matter more when it comes
to satisfaction and subjective well-being. Expressing gratitude toward a Good Samaritan
versus a family member may have different results and warrants further investigation.
Second, future research might build upon existing evidence that demonstrates those
who benefit most from being benefactors, such as volunteer workers, are those who need it
most (Astin & Sax, 1998; Thoits & Hewitt, 2001). Writing letters of gratitude would provide
a relatively easy intervention for those who suffer from depression or feel isolated, but
further investigation is needed.
Third, looking beyond the authors would enhance the knowledge base regarding
expressive writing. To this end, exploration of potential benefits for the recipients, as well as
improvements in the author, and the author-recipient relationship, should be studied. This
was not the goal of the current investigation but is an option for future work.
Finally, based on the limitations of the present study, future investigations might
compare groups based on equal male-female sample size but also character traits (verses
state levels) related to happiness, life satisfaction, and gratitude. Related trait characteristics
such as optimism/pessimism, openness, or trait happiness could provide insight into the best
practices for the letters of gratitude method. Others have suggested the results of a specific
activity, in this case letter writing, can have varied influence on one’s motivation and
subsequently their ability to benefit from a particular exercise (Sheldon, K. M. & Kasser, T.,
1995; Sheldon, K. M. & Elliot, A. J., 1999). In other words, letter writing may have suited
some participants in this study but not others. Analyzing the so called person-activity fit
might improve our understanding regarding which intentional activities would be most
beneficial to the participants.
6. Conclusion
This study contributed to the literature by generating evidence that multiple letters of
gratitude could not only sustain happiness, as proposed by the sustainable happiness model
(Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005) but improve both happiness and gratitude.
Results suggest the quality (expressive and gratitude directed) and quantity (three letters) of
writing contribute to the cultivation of improved well-being. Findings indicate that the
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emotionally driven construct of happiness improves most and improve more with continued
writing. Gratitude also showed improvement with a three-letter effort. Sustained effort
yielded meaningful results. In other words, silent gratitude is of little good but its expression
(through writing) allows one to tap into and benefit from this otherwise dormant or private
resource.
The importance of multiple letters over time is an exciting finding which, coupled with
the knowledge that gratitude is more than a positive emotion like happiness, has further
implications. Three letters of gratitude gain traction as participants work with the resource
of gratitude. In fact, it is important to consider gratitude as a valuable resource. Tapping into
this otherwise silent asset has immediate emotional benefits in terms of affect (happiness)
but presents additional gains for authors regarding thankfulness and appreciation (gratitude).
The power of gratitude is well established but this investigation provided evidence that the
intentional activity of letter writing can make a difference in well-being.
Just three installments of 10-15 minutes (average writing time for 35% of the sample)
and one page in length (53% of the sample) was sufficient to usher in positive change. This
suggests that as an intentional activity, letters of gratitude can have important benefits for
authors in a relatively short period of time. The findings presented in this study indicate that
putting one’s feeling and thoughts of gratitude on paper has real benefits after the pen
leaves the paper. The preexisting and often silent resource of gratitude can be mobilized in
the pursuit of not happiness alone but toward the growth of gratitude and ultimately well-
being. Gertrude Stein seemed to know something about this when she said, “Silent gratitude
isn't very much use to anyone.” According to the present findings, writing letters of
gratitude is an intentional activity that supports that sentiment.
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... Gratitude letter interventions have been shown to reduce distress and improve well-being. For instance, Toepfer and Walker randomly assigned college students to a gratitude letter condition (participants hand wrote or typed three gratitude letters over the course of 8 weeks) or a control condition (no-writing) [23]. Participants in the gratitude letter condition showed greater increases in happiness and gratitude than those assigned to the no-writing condition. ...
... Participants in the gratitude letter condition showed greater increases in happiness and gratitude than those assigned to the no-writing condition. A cumulative positive impact was noted after writing each letter, suggesting that writing multiple letters over time can be beneficial [23]. In a similar follow-up study, Toepfer, Cichy, and Peters randomly assigned college students to a gratitude letter condition (i.e., write three gratitude letters over the course of 3 weeks) or a no-writing control condition [24]. ...
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This chapter examines positive psychology theories and research findings on how gratitude contributes to happiness and well-being. Two theories are discussed that provide insight into why gratitude enhances well-being (i.e., Broaden-and-Build Theory; Find, Remind, and Bind Theory). Empirical findings are reviewed showing that gratitude relates to lower levels of psychological distress, higher levels of psychological well-being, and better physical health. Benefits of writing-based gratitude interventions such as maintaining gratitude journals and writing gratitude letters are described. Studies showing promising benefits of gratitude across several situations are also addressed (i.e., the workplace, romantic relationships, and aging). Finally, suggestions for enhancing gratitude in one’s life are provided along with recommendations for future research.
... Participants are likely to write fewer words when asked to list blessings, for example, than when asked to write a gratitude letter to a specific other. The open-ended format of a gratitude letter or essay may prompt participants to write more expressively, a process that has been associated with positive outcomes and the reduction of depressive symptoms in previous research (Booker & Dunsmore, 2017;Gortner et al., 2006;Toepfer & Walker, 2009). Conversely, expressing gratitude to a specific benefactor in letter form could also be relatively more difficult or uncomfortable for participants, potentially leading to feelings of indebtedness and other socially-relevant negative emotions. ...
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Gratitude activities have been shown to increase well-being and other positive outcomes in numerous experiments to date. The current study tested whether self-directed gratitude interventions that vary by type (i.e., social vs. nonsocial) and format (i.e., long-form letters vs. shorter lists) produce differential benefits. To that end, 958 Australian adults were assigned to one of six activities to complete each day for 1 week, including five gratitude activities that varied by type and format and an active control condition (i.e., keeping track of daily activities). Regressed change analyses revealed that, overall, long-form writing exercises (i.e., essays and letters) resulted in greater subjective well-being and other positive outcomes than lists. Indeed, those who were instructed to write social and nonsocial gratitude lists did not differ from controls on any outcomes. However, participants who wrote unconstrained gratitude lists—that is, those who wrote about any topics they wanted—reported greater feelings of gratitude and positive affect than did controls. Finally, relative to the other gratitude conditions, participants who wrote gratitude letters to particular individuals in their lives not only showed stronger feelings of gratitude, elevation, and other positive emotions but also reported feeling more indebted. This study demonstrates that not only does gratitude “work” to boost well-being relative to an active neutral activity, but that some forms of gratitude may be more effective than others. We hope these findings help scholars and practitioners to develop, tailor, implement, and scale future gratitude-based interventions.
... La gratitud es una experiencia universal, pero puede haber diferencias culturales en su expresión verbalmente o con gestos de reciprocidad (Floyd et al., 2018). Estas diferencias deben ser tenidas en cuenta al desarrollar intervenciones en contextos culturales diferentes pues hay evidencia de que el beneficio psicológico que se puede sacar de ejercicios de gratitud puede ser mayor, por ejemplo, en participantes norteamericanos con ascendentes anglo que con ascendentes asiáticos (Toepfer y Walker, 2009). Este tipo de ejercicios aumenta las emociones positivas en participantes angloamericanos, pero crea una mezcla de emociones positivas y negativas (ej.: nostalgia o culpa) en participantes de India (Titova, Wagstaff y Parks, 2017). ...
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... Children and early adolescents who kept a daily diary of positive events showed increased happiness, higher levels of school satisfaction, and fewer depressive symptoms (Carter et al., 2018;Froh et al., 2008). Children who wrote about positive emotional experiences, gratitude, or best possible selves showed lower negative emotions and higher positive emotions, subjective happiness, life satisfaction, and gratitude, which buffered the effects of stress (Booker & Dunsmore, 2017;Burton & King, 2004;Emmons & McCullough, 2003;King, 2001;Toepfer & Walker, 2009). ...
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... Although there are multiple protective factors that are associated with positive mental health and resilience among individuals at risk for psychological distress, gratitude is particularly important to examine because (a) it is well-established as a modifiable protective factor; and (b) there is empirical support for how it can be modified. Specifically, structured interventions, such as writing exercises designed to facilitate reflection and enhance state gratitude (e.g., Counting Blessings, Three Good Things, the Gratitude Visit; Lomas et al., 2014), have been shown to increase dispositional gratitude from pre-to post-intervention (Bohlmeijer et al., 2021;Bono et al., 2020;Lambert et al., 2009;Toepfer & Walker, 2009). In contrast, it is less clear how to enhance other specific protective characteristics that are largely considered innate or stable (e.g., personality traits). ...
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... Finally, students completed online journal entries relating to PPIs that they were asked to implement in their own time each week. These included three good things [46], learned optimism [47], a gratitude letter [48], acts of kindness [49], signature strengths [50] and goal setting [51]. ...
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Conducted 3 studies in which a self-study program, designed to increase felt personal happiness and life satisfaction, was developed. The program was based on the literature of happiness, and it was hypothesized that normal community college students (total N = 338) could become happier if they could modify their behaviors and attitudes to approximate more closely the characteristics of happier people. In the 1st study, 2 of 3 pilot programs produced statistically significant happiness boosts compared to a placebo control. A single program was then designed that combined the best aspects of the pilot programs. In the 2nd study, an experimental group receiving this combined program showed significant boosts in happiness compared to a placebo control. In the 3rd study, the combined program was presented to Ss on a take-it-or-leave-it basis--those applying it showing significant boosts in happiness compared to those who did not. The studies suggest that the resulting self-study program may be helpful to individuals wishing to increase the emotional satisfaction they derive from living. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2006 APA, all rights reserved).
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