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The Impact of Gratitude Letters and Visits on Relationships, Happiness, Well-Being, and Meaning of Graduate Students

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The Impact of Gratitude Letters and Visits on Relationships, Happiness, Well-Being, and Meaning of Graduate Students

Abstract

In this mixed-methods research, we examined the practice of writing and delivering letters of gratitude (gratitude visits) and its impact on well-being, happiness, meaning and relationships for students in an online graduate program in psychology. Participants completed assessments and inventories relating to happiness, well-being and meaning in life, including the Satisfaction with Life Scale, Meaning in Life Questionnaire, Approaches to Happiness Questionnaire and open-ended qualitative questions before and after they wrote and delivered gratitude letters. Quantitative analyses found significant increases in meaning in life, satisfaction with life, and approaches to happiness after the gratitude visit intervention. Using a grounded theory qualitative analysis of the data, eight primary themes emerged related to the impact and meaning of gratitude letters on graduate students: (1) the impact on the relationship; (2) positive emotions experienced; (3) experiencing a reciprocal expression of gratitude from the receiver; (4) overcoming uncomfortable emotions; (5) relief, release or liberation after sharing; (6) impact on spiritual growth; (7) unexpected responses; and (8) greater reflection on the meaning of life and a changed perspective. Overall, providing graduate students with the opportunity to engage in gratitude visit interventions was related to greater meaning and well-being. This study suggests implications and recommendations related to the use of positive psychology interventions in educational settings.
Journal of Positive School Psychology
2021, Vol. #, No. #, 117
http://journalppw.com/jppw
https://doi.org/10.##############
Research Article
1Department of Behavioral Sciences, Indiana Wesleyan University, Indiana, United States
2Colorado State University, Colorado, United States.
David R. Stefan, Department of Behavioral Sciences, Indiana Wesleyan University, Indiana
Wesleyan University, 4201 S. Washington St., Marion, IN 46953, United States
Email: david.stefan@indwes.edu
The Impact of Gratitude Letters and Visits on Relationships, Happiness,
Well-Being, and Meaning of Graduate Students
David R. Stefan1, Erin M. Lefdahl-Davis1, Alexandra J. Alayan2, Matthew Decker1,
Tracy M. Kulwicki1, Jeffrey S. Parsell1, and Josie L. Wittwer1
In this mixed-methods research, we examined the practice of writing and delivering letters of gratitude (gratitude
visits) and its impact on well-being, happiness, meaning and relationships for students in an online graduate program
in psychology. Participants completed assessments and inventories relating to happiness, well-being and meaning
in life, including the Satisfaction with Life Scale, Meaning in Life Questionnaire, Approaches to Happiness
Questionnaire and open-ended qualitative questions before and after they wrote and delivered gratitude letters.
Quantitative analyses found significant increases in meaning in life, satisfaction with life, and approaches to
happiness after the gratitude visit intervention. Using a grounded theory qualitative analysis of the data, eight
primary themes emerged related to the impact and meaning of gratitude letters on graduate students: (1) the impact
on the relationship; (2) positive emotions experienced; (3) experiencing a reciprocal expression of gratitude from
the receiver; (4) overcoming uncomfortable emotions; (5) relief, release or liberation after sharing; (6) impact on
spiritual growth; (7) unexpected responses; and (8) greater reflection on the meaning of life and a changed
perspective. Overall, providing graduate students with the opportunity to engage in gratitude visit interventions was
related to greater meaning and well-being. This study suggests implications and recommendations related to the use
of positive psychology interventions in educational settings.
Positive psychology, gratitude visits, well-being, meaning, relationships
Research has placed gratitude at the pinnacle of positive
character strengths and positive psychology
interventions as one of the most effective ways to
manage emotional health and well-being (Kaufman,
2015). This current study expanded on the existing
gratitude research by focusing on writing and delivering
gratitude letters, specifically as practiced by
participants within a graduate psychology program.
The purpose of this mixed method study was to (a)
measure the impact of writing and delivering letters of
gratitude on participants in an online graduate program
in regards to happiness, well-being and life satisfaction
and (b) qualitatively explore how completing gratitude
visits impacted participant relationships and sense of
meaning in life.
While research currently supports gratitude as an
important character trait and positive intervention to
improve well-being (Emmons & McCullough, 2003;
Kaufman, 2015; Watkins, 2018), less is known about
the specific impact and benefit of writing gratitude
letters and delivering them to the recipient (a gratitude
visit). In the literature review below, the authors
provide a broad overview of the research related to
positive interventions and gratitude, focusing on the
gratitude visit. The benefits and limits of gratitude will
also be addressed.
Stefan et al.
2
The current study, which is a mixed methods study
conducted with over 100 students in an online graduate
program in psychology, is a unique application of
gratitude towards another person, a one-time incident
that allows for a specific interaction of focused and
well-thought out gratitude. Participants were asked to
complete three pre- and post- intervention inventories
to measure the impact of gratitude visits on their well-
being, happiness, life satisfaction and relationships.
Participants were also surveyed qualitatively to explore
the impact of the experience in their own words.
Gratitude has a long history, both in religious and
philosophical circles, but more recently, psychologists
and researchers have provided specific empirical
definitions to facilitate scientific experimentation of the
construct. Emmons and McCullough (2003), for
example, frame gratitude as a two-step process: 1)
“recognizing that one has obtained a positive outcome”
and 2) “recognizing that there is an external source for
this positive outcome” (p. 378). Based partially on
Emmons’ definition, Watkins (2018) clarifies his own
understanding of gratitude: “An individual experiences
the emotion of gratitude when they affirm that
something good has happened to them, and they
recognize that someone else is largely responsible for
this benefit” (p. 8). A framework to understand
different dimensions of gratitude is also helpful.
Psychologists often categorize gratitude “as an
“affective trait” (one’s overall tendency to have a
grateful disposition), a mood (daily fluctuations in
overall gratitude), and an emotion (a more temporary
feeling of gratitude that one may feel after receiving a
gift or a favor from someone)” (Allen, 2018, p. 2).
In research, these definitions and distinctions can
make a significant difference in understanding the
impact, effectiveness, and benefits of various gratitude
interventions on overall well-being, meaning and
happiness.
Gratitude has risen in popularity and impact as one of
the most effective psychological and spiritual practices
for enhancing overall well-being. After investigating
which of 24 character strengths (e.g. courage, love,
humility, etc…) were most closely correlated to well-
being, Kaufman (2015) reported these findings:
Interestingly, virtually every single one of the 24
character strengths were individually correlated with
well-being at the p < .05 level of significance” (p. 6).
However, Kaufman (2015) continues, “Out of all 24
character strengths, the only significant independent
positive predictors of well-being were gratitude and
love of learning” (p. 10). Emmons (2013) affirmed that
gratitude has one of the strongest connections to well-
being and life satisfaction even when compared to other
positive virtues, including optimism or compassion.
Allen (2018) suggested that gratitude is “’the mother of
all virtues’ by encouraging the development of other
virtues such as patience, humility, and wisdom” (p. 8).
The benefits of gratitude seem endless. According
to Emmons (2013), numerous research studies with
diverse participant groups have revealed that the
practice of gratitude leads to the following: Increased
feelings of energy, alertness, and vigor; success in
achieving personal goals; better coping with stress;
greater sense of purpose and resilience; solidified and
secure social relationships; bolstered feelings of self-
worth and self-confidence; and generosity and
helpfulness” (p. 10).
Watkins (2018) reported, “According to
correlational studies, grateful people tend to be happier,
healthier, more likeable, better in dealing with stress,
more humble, less narcissistic, more giving, and more
spiritual” (p. 5). However, Watkins (2018) provided
this caveat, “most of these studies are investigating the
relationship of well-being variables with trait gratitude.
So we’re not just looking at the good of an occasional
feeling of gratitude…these are really relationships with
a lifestyle of gratitude” (p. 26). The gold standard of
predicting causation, according to Watkins (2018), is
true experimental studies conducted as Randomized
Controlled Trials (RCTs). He found that “over 40 true
experimental studies have shown that gratitude
exercises produce increased well-being (Watkins,
2018, p. 28).
There are numerous ways to cultivate gratitude,
including Grateful Recounting, Grateful Reappraisal
and Grateful Expression (Watkins, 2018). Grateful
Recounting involves remembering and reflecting on
blessings or good things in your life. Examples of these
interventions include Counting Your Blessings,
Gratitude Journaling, and Three Good Things. Grateful
Reappraisal is an exercise that asks participants to recall
a negative or difficult experience and reflect on it in a
new light.
The primary focus of this study was the Gratitude
Visit, which is also known as a form of Grateful
3
Expression. As Emmons (2013) suggested, one of the
most effective means of increasing gratefulness is to
write and read a letter of gratitude to someone who has
impacted us. Emmons (2013) reports that research
published in the most rigorous scientific journals shows
that the gratitude visit can increase happiness in the
letter writer for up to three months after the visit.
A number of studies have attempted to identify the
impact of writing and reading gratitude letters on
overall well-being. In one study, participants were
asked to write a gratitude letter once a week for three
weeks; after completing the exercise, they were
happier, less depressed, and more satisfied with their
lives (Toepfer et al., 2012). In another study,
participants were assigned to write a gratitude letter and
were told these letters would be sent to the person they
were thanking. Participants reported increased positive
affect and decreased negative affect (Allen, 2018).
Research from Seligman’s positive psychology
laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania has shown
that gratitude visits can help improve well-being.
Seligman et al. (2005) reported that “gratitude visits,
caused large positive changes for one month” (p. 416).
These were the instructions that Seligman (2002) and
his assistants gave participants:
Select one important person from your past who
has made a major positive difference in your life
and to whom you have never fully expressed your
thanks. Choose someone who is still alive. Write a
testimonial just long enough to cover one
laminated page. Take your time composing this
several weeks if required. Invite that person to
your home or travel to that person’s home. It is
important that you do this face to face, not just in
writing or on the phone. Do not tell the person the
purpose of the visit in advance.
Bring a laminated version of your testimonial with
you as a gift. Read your testimonial aloud slowly,
with expression and eye contact. Then let the other
person react unhurriedly. Reminisce together about
the concrete events that make this person so
important to you (p. 74).
Although Seligman’s initial research showed
greater happiness and decreased symptoms of
depression one month later, Allen (2018) reported a
potential bias. The subjects in the study were recruited
through Seligman’s website and were informed that the
study “was intended to increase participants’ well-
being. This process for recruiting participants may have
led to self-selection effects, which could help explain
why the results reported in this study were stronger than
those from other studies” (p. 34).
Watkins (2018) reported that the initial impact of
the gratitude visit is much greater than other
interventions such as using your signature strengths,
and counting blessings; however, there were no long-
term benefits after six months (Seligman et al., 2005).
In the gratitude research literature, there are three
exercises that most frequently appear: counting
blessings, gratitude journals and diaries, and gratitude
visits (Morgan et al., 2015). While there is an
abundance of research investigating gratitude
interventions, meta-analytic studies have posited that
the majority of studies (79% in one meta-analytic
investigation) focus on gratitude journal exercises
(Dickens, 2019). Gratitude visit interventions have
been empirically studied less frequently. However,
researchers have proposed that these interventions may
be more powerful than gratitude journals, given the
interventions opportunity to feel gratitude twice: during
the writing of the gratitude letter and during the
subsequent visit, where the letter is read to the recipient
(Dickens, 2019). There is limited empirical research on
gratitude visits, but a few empirical studies have
investigated the positive effects of participating in a
gratitude visit intervention (Dickens, 2019; Gander et
al., 2013; Proyer et al., 2014). Interventions that
incorporated gratitude visits have been investigated
within several populations, including children and
adolescents, breast cancer patients, and older adults.
One particularly important study related to
gratitude visit effectiveness was Seligman et al. (2005),
which provided empirical data on the efficacy of this
intervention. Gander et al. (2013) aimed to replicate the
findings of that study by providing participants with the
opportunity to participate in gratitude visits. The
researchers investigated the immediate and long-term
effects of a condition using a gratitude visit intervention
as well as another condition which included the
combination of a gratitude visit and the three good
things intervention. Immediate effects included
increased happiness. Effects after one month included
participants in both conditions reporting a reduction of
depressive symptoms. After three months, that
reduction of depressive symptoms was reported in the
gratitude visit condition but not in the combined
intervention condition. This research suggests that
gratitude visits provide immediate and long-term
positive effects (Gander et al., 2013).
Gratitude visit interventions have been shown to be
effective in populations throughout the lifespan,
including with children and adolescent populations and
older adult populations. One such study looked at
Stefan et al.
4
gratitude visits as a classroom intervention to promote
self-compassion, with positive results and a
recommendation to implement gratitude visits in the
classroom ((Lloyd-Hazlett & Maestri, 2013). Another
study found that gratitude visit interventions
implemented among children and adolescents in grades
3, 8, and 12 were related to enhanced levels of
subjective well-being (Froh et al., 2009). Proyer et al.,
(2014) investigated the impacts of several positive
psychology interventions, including gratitude visits.
This study reported that gratitude visit interventions are
related to increased happiness, subjective well-being
and a reduction in depressive symptoms one-month
post intervention. Three months post intervention,
participants in the gratitude visit condition showed
significant improvements in happiness and a marginally
significant reduction of depressive symptoms when
compared to the placebo control group (Proyer et al.,
2014).
One study sought to investigate which specific
component of the gratitude visit contributes to
increased levels of happiness. This study incorporated
three conditions: writing a gratitude letter and reading
it to the recipient, writing a gratitude letter and reading
it to another research participant, or writing a gratitude
letter but not reading it to anyone else. The results of
this study found that happiness and gratitude levels
increased significantly in all three conditions,
suggesting that the act of writing the letter may be
related to changes in happiness (Brausen, 2017).
However, one of the unique and particularly
meaningful effects of traditional gratitude visit
interventions is that they provide the opportunity to
have positive effects on both the writer and the
beneficiary (Grant & Gino, 2010). In one study,
participants wrote gratitude letters and then predicted
how surprised, happy, and/or awkward the recipients of
those letters would feel. Those who wrote gratitude
letters significantly underestimated how surprised and
happy the recipients would feel and overestimated how
awkward recipients would feel (Kumar & Epley, 2018).
Overall, people may underestimate the positive impact
of expressing gratitude on the recipients (Kumar &
Epley, 2018).
Gratitude visits can impact one’s desire to
participate in future helping behaviors, as well.
Research suggests that expressions of gratitude to
others through gratitude visits not only positively
impact one’s feelings of self-efficacy and social worth,
but also one’s prosocial behaviors (Grant & Gino,
2010).
Gratitude visit interventions have been
incorporated into individual and group psychotherapy
practices. Gratitude visits can provide personal well-
being benefits, but also positive effects on one’s
relationships with others, including friends and family,
which can offer added benefits to one’s life and
therapeutic treatment (Priebe et al., 2014). Dowlatabadi
et al. (2016) investigated the effects of a group positive
psychotherapy intervention on the well-being of breast
cancer patients. The intervention within the study
included two sessions on gratitude visits. Overall, the
intervention was related to significant reduction in
depressive symptoms and significant increases in
happiness when compared to the control group
(Dowlatabadi et al., 2016).
There appear to be benefits to the use of a gratitude
visit intervention as part of a larger psychotherapy
intervention. One article proposes the use of a virtual
gratitude visit, where role-playing with an empty chair
can enact a gratitude visit. This intervention may be
especially useful for expressing gratitude towards a
higher power, to a person who may no longer be living,
to a person who is alive but unavailable, and/or to parts
of one’s self that one has gratitude towards (Tomasulo,
2019). Virtual gratitude visits may also be useful in
group therapy, where witnessing the expression of
gratitude by others may provide benefit for the
observer. Future research can empirically study the
effects of the use of the virtual gratitude visit in
individual and group therapy, seeing as this
intervention can provide unique and nuanced
opportunities to conduct gratitude visits that may help
to address some of the barriers to participating in
gratitude visits (Harbaugh & Vasey, 2014; Tomasulo,
2019).
One particularly relevant study to the current
project is one that incorporated a gratitude visit
intervention into higher education courses and
qualitatively examined students’ experiences and
insights related to participating in the intervention
(Payne et al., 2020). Six major qualitative themes
emerged from the data, including the following:
expressions of satisfaction, insight, and positive
emotions as a result of participation in the intervention;
experiences of awkwardness, nervousness, and
difficulties related to the experience; relationship
improvement with the recipient of the letter; reflections
on gratitude as it related to the intervention and their
own experiences; benefits related to mental and
emotional health; and reflections on long term effects
of the intervention beyond the course. These qualitative
5
data highlight the positive effects of a gratitude visit
intervention, while also noting some of the challenges
of engaging with this exercise. This study noted the
eagerness of students to meaningfully engage with
positive psychology interventions through courses and
encouraged the use of similar exercises in future
courses (Payne et al., 2020).
Broader than gratitude visit interventions specifically,
several studies have investigated the role of meaning in
life related to experiences of gratitude. Datu and Mateo
(2015) posited that gratitude relates to higher levels of
life satisfaction through the partial mediating effects of
meaning in life, more specifically, presence of meaning
in life. Kleiman et al. (2013) investigated the
relationship between gratitude and reduction of suicidal
ideation, and suggested that the combination of
gratitude and grit were related to reduced suicidal
ideation, and that these were partially mediated by
increased levels of meaning in life. In one longitudinal
study, gratitude and meaning in life predicted decreased
depression levels (Disabato et al., 2017). Several
studies investigating gratitude visit exercises have
suggested the relationships between gratitude and life
satisfaction and happiness (Brausen, 2017;
Dowlatabadi et al., 2016; Froh et al., 2009), however,
more research investigating the potential role and
relationship between gratitude and meaning in life is
needed.
As indicated, much research has been conducted on the
benefits of gratitude and gratitude practices over the
past few decades, but few have focused on the impact
of gratitude visits on happiness, well-being and
specifically meaning within an online graduate
program. To provide a greater understanding of this
apparent gap in the research and literature, the purposes
of this mixed method study are to (a) measure the effect
of writing and delivering letters of gratitude on student
happiness, well-being, and life satisfaction in an online
graduate program in psychology and (b) explore how
completing gratitude visits impacted student
relationships, well-being and sense of meaning in life.
With these purposes in mind, the authors of this
study hoped for a twofold impact: First, that
participants might experience improvements in
happiness, well-being and life satisfaction by
participating in the practice of gratitude visits within
their first course of a graduate psychology program.
Second, this research might add to the current level of
knowledge and understanding of the experience of
gratitude visits and the impact on relationships, well-
being and meaning in life.
The sample was composed of 123 graduate students at
a medium-sized university in the Midwest. The
majority of participants were female (81%; N=103).
35% of participants (N=45) identified as Black and
56% of participants (N=56) identified as White. 9%
(N=22) were multiethnic or declined to report.
Participant ages ranged from 23 to 62 years, with a
mean age of 34.9 years (SD = 9.51). Of the 123
graduate student participants, 100 completed all of the
quantitative and qualitative measures.
This study examined archival information, results of
student surveys from assignments in a masters in
psychology program. The information was analyzed
using IBM SPSS Statistics (Version 24.0). The
University Institutional Review Board approved the
study, and participant information was kept
confidential and private.
Research data was collected from the first course
in an online graduate psychology program. Over a
three-week period of time, students took pre-tests,
wrote and delivered a letter of gratitude in person or via
an online video platform, and completed post-tests. The
activities were required and graded assignments and
were accompanied by additional assignments
associated with the focus of the course, which was
lifespan development.
Prior to the gratitude visit, students were asked to
visit the University of Pennsylvania Authentic
Happiness Test Center website and complete three
measures and then self-report their results. In the
assignment, students were provided the following
instructions for the gratitude visit:
“Write a letter of gratitude to someone who has had
a meaningful impact on your life and then
personally deliver it and read it to them by means
of face-to-face contact or a virtual contact, such as
Facetime or Google Hangouts.”
After the gratitude visit intervention, participants
were then asked to complete the same three measures
and self-report their results, along with sending their
quantitative results from the website to the course
instructor. At this point, students were asked to
compare the pre- and post- test results, and to answer
several open-ended questions related to their
experience with the gratitude visit assignment.
Stefan et al.
6
This five-item instrument measures subjective well-
being. Items include: “In most ways my life is close to
ideal” and “If I could live my life over, I would change
almost nothing.” Participants respond to these items
using a 1-7 Likert scale (1=strongly disagree,
7=strongly agree).
This ten-item instrument measures meaning in
life. The scale has two subscales: one that measures
presence of meaning in life (items include: “I
understand my life’s meaning”) and one that measures
search for meaning in life (items include: “I am seeking
a purpose or mission for my life.”) Participants respond
to these items using a 1-7 Likert scale (1=absolutely
untrue, 7=absolutely true).
This eighteen-item
instrument measures three approaches to happiness: the
Good Life, the Meaningful Life, and the Pleasant Life.
Items include: “My life serves a higher purpose” and
“For me, the good life is the pleasurable life.”
Participants respond to these items using a 1-5 Likert
scale (1=very much unlike me, 5=very much like me).
Participants were asked to
respond to the following open-ended questions: (1)
Report on any significant differences you noticed
between the first and second taking of the Meaning in
Life Questionnaire (2) Who is the person you contacted
for the Letter of Gratitude? (3) What is your
relationship with them? (4) Summarize in a few
sentences what you are most grateful for about this
person? (5) How did expressing gratitude to this
individual in a personal way affect you? and (6) How
did this individual respond to your expression of
gratitude? Participants were encouraged to write a two
to three-page response to the open-ended question
prompts, in order to allow the opportunity for
meaningful reflection.
Quantitative analyses were conducted using SPSS. To
investigate whether participants experienced
improvements to well-being and meaning after
participating in a gratitude visit intervention, scores on
the three measures pre-gratitude visit and post-gratitude
visit were compared. Multiple significant differences
were found when using paired samples t-tests to
compare measures from the pre-test to the post-test. The
satisfaction with life score pre-gratitude visit (M=23.1,
SD=6.3) was significantly different (t(115)=-5.51, p<.05)
from post-gratitude visit (M=25.1, SD=6.3), indicating
potential improvements in satisfaction with life post-
gratitude visit intervention. The meaning in life-
presence subscale score pre-gratitude visit (M=23.4,
SD=3.5) was significantly different (t(117)=-3.66, p<.05)
from the post-gratitude visit score (M=24.5, SD=3.2),
suggesting potential improvements in presence of
meaning in life through the gratitude visit intervention.
All three subscales of approaches to happiness
(meaning, pleasure, and engagement) were
significantly different pre-gratitude visit to post-
gratitude visit (see Table 1), indicating potential
relationships between a gratitude visit intervention and
improved levels of happiness.
No significant differences were observed on any
measures of interest between ethnic groups or gender.
Qualitative Data Analysis
The graduate students who participated in this
research study were asked several questions about the
experience of writing and delivering gratitude letters,
and how this may have impacted their well-being and
sense of meaning in life. Their answers to these
questions were analyzed and coded by a qualitative
research team using a grounded theory approach
(Corbin & Strauss, 2014; Glaser & Strauss, 1967).
Pre-Gratitude Visit
Post-Gratitude Visit
Paired samples t-tests
results
Happiness- The Meaningful Life
M=4.06, SD=.74
M=4.26, SD=.60
t(110)=-4.25, p<.05
Happiness- The Pleasant Life
M=3.38, SD=.81
M=3.55., SD=.89
t(115)=-2.89, p<.05
Happiness- The Good Life
M=3.14, SD=.60
M=3.38, SD=.70
t(109)=-4.38, p<.05
7
Ç
Grounded theory is a respected qualitative approach
that carefully analyzes the responses of participants to
generate theory about the rich meaning of participant
words and explanations in regards to a specific subject
of study (Charmaz, 2000; 2006). In this case,
researchers used a grounded theory approach to explore
how completing gratitude visits impacted graduate
students’ well-being and sense of meaning in life.
Coding of participant responses was performed by
a research team (see Appendix A) who had very little
experience with gratitude letters, with most having
“none at all.” The research team identified domains,
themes, patterns and particular responses in the
participant data, using grounded theory as the guiding
methodology for this process (Glaser & Strauss, 1967;
Corbin & Strauss, 2014). The data analysis and coding
that was used was emergent, reflexive and continuous,
and team dialogue was used as a tool for a more diverse
and complex understanding of participant responses. A
detailed list of specific qualitative themes and
categories, with numbers of responses for each domain,
is included with the data (Appendix B).
After the participant responses were analyzed by the
research team using a grounded theory approach, eight
primary themes emerged related to the impact and
meaning of gratitude letters on graduate students: (1)
the impact on the relationship; (2) positive emotions
experienced; (3) experiencing a reciprocal expression
of gratitude from the receiver; (4) overcoming
uncomfortable emotions; (5) relief, release or liberation
after sharing; (6) impact on spiritual growth; (7)
unexpected responses; and (8) greater reflection on the
meaning of life and a changed perspective. Each of
these themes was detailed and explored, using the
quotes of participants to demonstrate agreement,
variations, and unique ideas in the specific thoughts,
feelings and experiences of the participants. The
quantitative results provide insight into several
potential improvements post-gratitude visit
intervention, specifically related to satisfaction with
life, presence of meaning in life, and approaches to
happiness. The qualitative results provide added insight
and context into the specific ways that the intervention
impacted the participants’ well-being. These qualitative
themes illustrate the impact and meaning of writing and
delivering gratitude letters on individual participants
and their relationships.
Many of the graduate student participants discussed the
impact of writing and delivering a gratitude letter in
terms of the impact it had on their relationship with the
recipient. Participants felt that the impact of writing the
letter enhanced their relationship with that person. One
participant wrote “we can look back at negative
experiences with an attitude of appreciation, knowing
that we can grow through difficulties.” Participants
reported specific categories of change in their
relationship with their gratitude letter recipients. These
changes included a revival of the relationship, renewed
friendship and a recommitment to their relationship.
“We have a renewed commitment to connect more
often as our friendship is important to both of us.”
Another participant expressed “we both reassured
ourselves of the fact our friendship will always be
strong enough to endure the obstacles life brings us. I
believe writing the letter of gratitude made our
friendship stronger.” Also, many participants
experienced an enhanced closeness and bonding, as
well as a feeling of being supported.
We must be open to hear and be physically present
for emotional support. I learned a valuable lesson
about friendship that no matter how close you think
you are; you are not. People are afraid to express
how they really feel even to those closest to them.
Another participant expressed that
Delivering my letter to [the recipient] was a
genuinely cathartic experience. My emotions ran
strong as I felt an overwhelming sense of elation
each time I read it. I emphasized my promise to
always be there for him, no matter what life brings,
as well as the extraordinary impact that love has in
our lives.
Quantitative results suggested significant
improvements in satisfaction with life and feelings of
happiness post-gratitude visit intervention. Qualitative
results provided added insight into participants’
experiences of happiness through the intervention.
Participants detailed several positive emotions that
were evoked during the writing and especially when
delivering and reading their gratitude letter. These
included happiness, surprise and joy.
I read the letter and shared those many feelings. I
felt a sense of pride in myself for doing so. I also
felt euphoric for making her feel special and happy.
Bringing her happiness also brought me happiness
at the same time. It is said that one of the greatest
gifts is giving.
One participant wrote, “during the conversation at
some point, we were both in tears and were a bit
emotional. All happy tears. She responded well and is
thankful for our friendship too.”
Stefan et al.
8
Surprise was also an emotion that was felt by many
participants, “I felt a sense of appreciation, love,
admiration and surprise while reading my gratitude
letter to my daughter.”
Finally, many participants felt a sense of joy,
“while reading my letter to [the recipient], I became
emotional; however, it was not a sad feeling, it was
more so an overwhelming joy from hearing all the great
things that had changed within myself.” Another
reported that “taking time to slow down and really
focusing on all of the positive traits in someone and the
many ways in which that person has been a source of
wisdom and joy in your world.”
A surprising theme that emerged during data analysis
was the large number of participants who received a
reciprocal expression of gratitude from their gratitude
letter recipient. A majority of recipients were noted as
offering thanks and appreciation for the letter, but some
went above and beyond by expressing an unexpected
reciprocated response of their own gratitude towards
the giver. Students often recognized the impact the
recipient had on their lives, but never imagined they had
a similar effect on them.
One student noted, “He responded to my letter with
reciprocated gratitude and graciousness. He thanked me
for everything I had done and stated that I was the
greatest blessing in his life. He thanked me for support
and always pushing him to do his best. He gave me
credit for shaping him into the man he is today.”
Another participant discussed how this exercise opened
a portal to a whole new level of gratitude and
appreciation for the relationship;
This opened up a whole new conversation on
additional things that we were grateful for in each
other. It is amazing how one act of expressing
gratitude can open the door to a whole new
conversation on how we were grateful for one
another.
And finally, another simply reminisced, “For
several minutes after I read the letter, she spoke tender
words of blessings and gratitude back to me.” Many
participants saw this activity as an opportunity to show
appreciation and gratitude to others, yet received an
unexpected blessing of reciprocal gratitude in response.
Several participants mentioned that the act of delivering
and reading gratitude letters took courage, and
participants had to overcome uncomfortable emotions
to complete the task. Participants noted that they felt
nervous, scared, awkward, anxious, or vulnerable as
they wrote their letters and prepared to read the letter to
their recipient. One participant described her feelings
by stating, “When I expressed my gratitude to [the
recipient] it felt awkward at first just because I’m not
used to speaking this personally with anyone. Even
though we are close and she knows everything about
me, I did feel nervous.” Sharing their gratitude letter
seemed to make many of the participants feel
vulnerable and required them to step out of their
comfort zone to share their thoughts in a more intimate
way than they were used to. Another participant
explained, “I’m a fairly emotional person, but I always
attempt to keep it to myself and not show it. So being
vulnerable like I was when I read her my letter was a
unique experience.”
Participants recognized the vulnerability of the
exercise and knew that reading the letters would be an
emotional experience. For participants who do not
typically express their emotions, this was a very
uncomfortable activity. One participant described,
“Initially, I was nervous because I am not a touchy,
feely type of person. I am usually very much about
the issue at hand and taking care of business. I
don’t discuss my personal life at work, and I try to
stay out of drama. I had to show a side of myself to
her that she has never seen, and I was extremely
uncomfortable doing so.”
Another respondent described her experience by
stating, “I was nervous about completing the
assignment because I thought I would look sappy.”
Other participants were unsure of how their
recipient would respond to the letter and this
uncertainty made them nervous. The participants
wanted to make sure that their recipient fully
understood their gratitude and how important they were
to them, and some participants struggled with the
insecurity of not knowing how to best express their
sincere and deep gratitude. One of the participants
explained, “I was nervous about how it would be
received, and if I would be able to express myself in the
way that I had wanted to. I wanted my person to feel as
if it was genuine, and not just because I was forced to
do so for a school assignment.” Another participant
reflected, “I was nervous going into it. I didn’t feel I
quite had the words to fully express everything I wanted
to say in my letter and I worried that it would not be as
meaningful to her as I had hoped.”
Most of the participants who described feeling
uncomfortable emotions as they began the exercise
expressed that their emotions changed to more
9
comfortable emotions of gratitude, happiness, and
comfort as they began to read and discuss the letter. One
participant who described her nervousness when
preparing the letter explained that, “Afterwards, I felt
happy and rewarded, like I had just contributed
something significant.” Another participant said, “As
nervous as I was though, once I got started, I was shaky
at first and then I found my voice and my confidence,
so the words just started to come out.”
Another unexpected benefit of delivering and reading
gratitude letters was the relief, release or liberation
participants felt after sharing their letters with the
intended recipient. For some participants, these feelings
were a byproduct of finally communicating things left
unsaid over the years. Quotes such as “It felt like a
burden was lifted off me,” and “I was glad to finally get
it off my chest” offer insight on how the exercise helped
participants deal with unresolved past circumstances
and unexpressed relational thoughts and feelings.
While some participants struggled to overcome the
weight of sharing, many more were uplifted by the
opportunity to finally give thanks and show gratitude
for favorable past experiences. One respondent
explained, “Taking time to be detailed and specific in
my thoughts and experiences was liberating.” Another
declared, “it felt like releasing something good into the
world.”
Many participant responses also centered around
the feeling of peace or healing enjoyed after going
through this experience. Remarks like, “I gained a sense
of peace from the entire process” and “I felt peace
afterward” were common in the responses. Quotes such
as, “after sharing the letter, I felt relieved, or healed in
some way” and “this action felt like a release [and] now
we can look toward the future with a new perspective”
show the powerful effect this gratitude visit had on
many participants.
A number of participants also chose to write their
letters to a deceased individual. This experience was
quite different from those who delivered letters to
individuals who were still alive, but a common theme
among these was a final chance to say everything they
had always wanted to say but never did. This group
experienced many of the same feelings of relief and
release as the others, but the act had the additional
impact of providing a means for closure. These
participants spoke of the importance of relaying
gratitude on a regular basis to those who impact our
lives, and how the need and desire to do so may extend
to when that recipient is no longer with us.
Participants reported a distinct impact on spiritual
growth due to the writing and delivering of a gratitude
letter. Reflecting on their gratitude for the other person
caused some participants to also recognize their
gratitude to God for divine intervention in their
situation or relationship. One participant stated, “this
was a good experience for us to look back and reflect
about God’s hand in our separate stories and in the
connection [between us] that’s now lasted two or three
years...it was a blessing to...gain a new layer of
understanding and appreciation about what God is
doing in our lives!” Another participant reflected,
Seeing that God loved me so much that he placed
a man into my life who would love me like God
loves me. Chastise me when I am wrong but still
give me a hug when I am hurting. The proof that
God can and will answer the little prayers...He
gave me more than I could ask for or think.
The exercise of writing and sharing the gratitude
letters also helped to strengthen some of the
participants’ relationship with God. One participant
described,
I felt a deeper connection both with her and God.
My relationship with both of them was forever
changed. Never did I think that sharing my
gratitude for her would open up a whole new
dynamic to my relationships.
Another participant described her spiritual
experience by saying, “I feel that this gratitude
experience helped bring my spirit closer to my
childhood experiences of flourishing happiness.”
Some participants reported unexpected responses by
the recipient when they delivered and read their
gratitude letters. These unexpected responses included
shock, tears, discomfort, and the recipient struggling to
receive gratitude. One participant reported this about
her experience:
[The recipient] kept saying, “Girl you do not have
to say that” as if she was not worthy of a
compliment. I continued reading my letter of
gratitude about how her actions in and for life
taught me to grow into the person I am as a friend
and a woman. I began to see how she was
[incapable] of receiving gratification from others.
After the event, the participant reflected on their
recipient’s deflection of the gratitude, and the longer
version of the story the recipient shared with her about
never feeling loved or worthy during her childhood
years. The graduate student gained this insight from the
experience: “How people receive things let me know it
Stefan et al.
10
is not always because they are being polite, but there
could be a reason for them not being able to receive.”
Another participant reported a similar response
when she shared her gratitude letter: “After reading the
letter, [she] thanked me but then expressed that I didn’t
need to tell her thank you. She continued on to say that
it just felt like the right thing to do and she was glad she
did it.” This unexpected response of being unwilling or
unable to receive gratitude, or to downplay and dismiss
the letter, was often surprising to the participants, and
sometimes disconcerting.
Other unexpected responses included shock of the
recipient, for example: “He said no one has really done
this before and he was still in shock that I chose him for
it.” Also, crying, either a mild or an extreme show of
tears, was another response, which sometimes caused
similar emotion in the participant: “She teared up as I
read each sentence. I did, too! As I saw the tears in her
eyes, it made me tear up as well.”
Quantitative results suggested significant
improvements in meaning in life post-gratitude visit
intervention. Qualitative results provided added insight
into participants’ experiences of reflection on meaning
in life through the intervention. Participants reflected
on deeper meaning in life and often reported a changed
perspective after the experience of writing and
delivering a gratitude letter. The reflection involved in
writing the gratitude letter caused the participant to look
back on past experiences with a changed perspective.
This allowed participants to reframe those situations by
applying meaning and purpose to past circumstances
that may have seemed negative or debilitating at the
time. One individual reflected, Afterward, she
expressed to me her thankfulness that we can look back
at negative experiences with an attitude of appreciation,
knowing that we can grow through difficulties.”
Many of the participants chose to write the letters
to individuals that were mentors or role models at vital
points of their development. They were people that
came along at just the right time to provide positive
examples and model effective methods of dealing with
setbacks and hardship. One participant reported,
“Thinking about different experiences that occurred
where she helped look at things differently or kept me
laughing instead of crying about a situation is
priceless.” Another had a similar response, “I was able
to reflect on how being around someone with such
positivity and who often always looks for the best in
someone during difficult circumstances really
influences my life for the better.”
One participant profoundly noted that while he
carried out his gratitude letter, “It also brought me back
to a very difficult time in my life, but I was able to look
at it as a time that I had conquered.” This exercise
provided opportunities for participants to look back on
their lives with renewed perspective and find the value
and meaning in situations or relationships that may
have seemed hopeless or disastrous at the time.
The quantitative and qualitative results from this
current study are consistent with earlier gratitude
studies in many respects. As mentioned previously,
numerous research studies with diverse participant
groups have revealed that the practice of gratitude leads
to a: “greater sense of purpose and resilience; solidified
and secure social relationships; bolstered feelings of
self-worth and self-confidence; and generosity and
helpfulness” (Emmons, 2013, p. 10). The quantitative
findings reported in this study support and build on
these previous research findings that describe various
positive effects related to increased happiness, life
satisfaction, well-being and meaning of participants
after writing and delivering a letter of gratitude. The
graduate students who participated in this study had
significantly improved scores in satisfaction with life
and meaning in life following the gratitude visit. They
also showed improvement on all three operational
constructs of happiness (meaning, pleasure, and
engagement) post-gratitude visit. This indicates a
strong correlation in the potential relationship between
a gratitude visit intervention and improved levels of life
satisfaction, meaning and overall happiness, which is
also consistent with earlier studies. According to
Toepfer et al.(2012), after participants wrote letters of
gratitude, they were happier, less depressed, and
reported greater satisfaction with their lives. In another
study, participants reported an increase in positive
emotions and a decrease in negative emotions (Allen,
2018).
The qualitative results of this study also found that
graduate students self-reported that writing and
delivering gratitude letters had a powerful positive
impact on their relationships, their emotional
expression, their spiritual growth, and promoted a
greater reflection on the meaning of life and a changed
perspective. The gratitude letter intervention also had
the effect of producing relief, release or liberation after
11
sharing in many participants, and often incited a
reciprocal expression of gratitude from the receiver.
Participants appreciated the added element of receiving
a dose of gratitude from their recipients! The positive
and meaningful qualitative results found in the current
study are similar to those that emerged from Payne et
al. (2020), most notably, positive impacts on
relationships and benefits on their own well-being as
well as experiences of uncomfortable emotions related
to the exercise. The quantitative results unique to this
study add to Payne et al. (2020) by suggesting increases
in scores on measures assessing meaning in life,
satisfaction with life, and happiness related to
participation in the gratitude visit exercise.
Following the writing and delivery of gratitude
letters, participants were able to better understand and
express the lessons learned and insight gained from
both the specific relationship they were grateful for, and
the larger meaning of their lives. When we take time to
look back on our lives with gratitude and apply meaning
to our journey it helps emphasize our personal sense of
efficacy and resilience. This exercise helped some
participants realize they don’t have to ignore the
difficult or hard times from the past, but might look at
and appreciate them for the change they initiated or
inspired in their lives, and for the people who helped
support them through it all.
Research has suggested that positive psychology
interventions may not be as promising as some might
conclude. Davis and Elise (2016), in their article,
Thankful for the Little Things: A Meta-
Analysis of Gratitude Interventions, reported: “Our
results provide weak evidence for the efficacy of
gratitude interventions” (p. 25). Davis and Elise (2016)
suggested that their meta-analysis called into question
the value of additional exploration of gratitude
interventions:
In fact, a cautious interpretation of our findings is
that gratitude interventions may operate primarily
through placebo effects…. Consistent with this
idea, in a review of self-directed interventions to
promote psychological well-being, Lyubomirsky
and Layous (2013) concluded that engaging in any
regular activities involving self-discipline seems to
promote psychological well-being” (p. 26).
Berger et al. (2019), in their article on the efficacy
of interpersonal versus non-interpersonal
gratitude interventions, state, “Gratitude interventions
have generally been shown to enhance psychological
well-being (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Toepfer et
al., 2012), but not trait gratitude (Watkins et al., 2003)”
(p. 32).
Watkins (2018) suggests there are caveats to
gratitude interventions and that one reason gratitude
research may not be as effective or why it is more
impactful for some is that initial studies have
discovered that it might simply be more beneficial to
those who need it the most:
Depressed people gain more from grateful
recounting than those not depressed; several
studies have found that ungrateful people gain
most from a gratitude intervention; although
women enjoy grateful recounting more than men,
men gain more from gratitude interventions; and
those who enjoyed grateful recounting the least,
benefited most from this treatment, over the long
run. (p. 105)
According to Allen (2018), a growing number of
studies have evaluated the impact of various gratitude
practices, which have helped to verify many of the
benefits of gratitude. Results from these studies also
conclude as Watkins (2018) does that some people are
more drawn to, and benefit from, certain gratitude
interventions. There may be benefit to the act of writing
letters of gratitude without delivering them for this very
reason; it serves the same purpose as the Three Good
Things exercise, in enhancing self-discipline and a
positive perspective.
In the current study, any and all of these limitations
may be present; participants may have been impacted
more by their own self-discipline than by the actual
intervention (a placebo effect), or they may have been
more likely to be impacted due to personal reasons;
perhaps they were more depressed, or more ungrateful
before the intervention, or perhaps the participants
being majority female influenced the results. Research
participants were beginning their graduate work, which
also could contribute to improvements in mood and
meaning. Additionally, positive psychology concepts
were introduced in the course along with the practice of
the gratitude visit. While grades were not awarded for
more positive post-test results or for favorable
qualitative reflections, students could potentially skew
their responses to impress their instructors. These are
also influencing factors that may have impact on the
final results. However, the large sample size
(particularly for a qualitative study) and the strong
positive correlation may point to something more
significant happening here, beyond these limitations.
Stefan et al.
12
The impact of writing and delivering gratitude letters
cannot be understated for many of the graduate students
who participated in this study. Being present with
another person to share a carefully worded message of
gratitude added a renewed sense of value and meaning
to how participants approached these relationships, and
led to an increase in their sense of happiness, life
satisfaction, and well-being. This intervention, done as
a part of graduate school coursework in positive
psychology, helped to promote the very concepts that
these graduate students were being educated about: life
satisfaction, well-being, meaning, purpose, relational
satisfaction and resilience.
The qualitative responses indicated that
participants experienced uncomfortable emotions like
nervousness and vulnerability in the preparation
leading up to the reading of their letters. One
recommendation to ameliorate this in future
participants could be to explain the emotions that may
be felt throughout the process of writing and delivering
the letters of gratitude. It is important to also note,
however, that many participants indicated that their
initial fears and concerns dissipated as they observed
the positive impact the act of reading the letter was
having on the recipients.
This study highlights a significant implication for
educators: providing students with the rationale and
opportunity to engage in gratitude visit interventions
can provide added meaning and well-being to their
educational journeys. For graduate students, who are
often at a very intense and stressful time in their lives
(many juggling family, full-time work, and graduate
school), positive psychology interventions, such as the
one described in this research, may serve as helpful
tools for success and life satisfaction. Future research
should continue to explore the utilization of gratitude
visit exercises in educational settings, and the
consequent impact on students’ lives and well-being.
Gratitude is often identified as one of the most
important traits contributing to increases in well-being
and character strength (Kaufman, 2015). Gratitude
interventions, ranging from gratitude journals to
grateful reappraisal, show increases in many aspects of
well-being, but the gratitude visit has shown to be one
of the most impactful practices and thus the focus of
this current study with graduate students.
This research provided a mixed methods approach
to understanding the gratitude visit and its impact on
participants within an online graduate program in
psychology. The stated purposes of this study were to
assess and explore how completing gratitude visits
impacted student relationships, happiness, well-being
and sense of meaning in life.
After reviewing the results of more than 100
participants who completed the pre- and post- tests and
conducted the gratitude visit, the research team
discovered improvements in life satisfaction,
happiness, and well-being, and most significantly
differences in the student’s experience of meaning in
life. Regarding qualitative responses and conclusions
related to overall improvements in well-being and
meaning in life, participants felt that the impact of
writing and delivering the letters of gratitude helped
them renew their perspective on past challenges and
find greater meaning in life, enhanced their
relationships, evoked emotions of happiness, surprise
and joy, experienced an unexpected reciprocal
acknowledgement of gratitude, and reported a distinct
impact on spiritual growth.
It is clear from both the quantitative and qualitative
measures that students in an online graduate program in
psychology who wrote and delivered letters of gratitude
to intended recipients experienced significant benefits
to their overall well-being and also reported changes in
their sense of meaning in life.
All study procedures involving human participants
followed institutional and/or national research
committee ethical standards and the 1964 Helsinki
declaration and its later amendments or comparable
ethical standards. All participant data was collected in
accordance with the APA ethical code of conduct for
research. This study and procedures for archival data
collection and informed consent were approved by the
institutional review board of Indiana Wesleyan
University.
The authors did not receive support from any
organization for the submitted work.
The authors declare that they have no conflict of
interest.
David R. Stefan https://orcid.org/0002-0037-8551
13
Erin M. Lefdahl-Davis https://orcid.org/0003-3968-
8749
Alexandra J. Alayan https://orcid.org/0001-5614-
5522
Matthew Decker https://orcid.org/0000-0002-1177-
8251
Tracy M. Kulwicki https://orcid.org/0000-0002-
1624-6377
Jeffrey S. Parsell https://orcid.org/0000-0002-2286-
8383
Josie L. Wittwer https://orcid.org/0000-0001-7806-
7510002-4635-2146
Received: January 26, 2021
Accepted: April 18, 2021
Published Online: May 26, 2021
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15
Primary Researcher
Female, Caucasian, age 49, married, Christian, graduate faculty in psychology
Previous experience with gratitude letters: none
Before you participated on this research team, did you think writing and sharing a gratitude letter would have an
impact on meaning, well-being and persistence for graduate students? I wasn’t sure, but I thought that most
participants would have at least an emotional impact from writing and sharing their gratitude letter. I wasn’t sure
if there would be an impact on well-being or persistence, but possibly on meaning!
Research Team Member
Male, Caucasian, age 46, married, Christian, graduate student at IWU in psychology
Previous experience with gratitude letters: I participated in this exercise one time.
Before you participated on this research team, did you think writing and sharing a gratitude letter would have an
impact on meaning, well-being and persistence for graduate students? I know the power and freedom of writing
out the thoughts and feelings we have trouble expressing verbally, and transferring those words to
paper. However, I was unsure the positive effect of delivering and speaking these letters out in person would
overcome the potential anxiety, fear, and doubt that may also be involved, and what the overall outcome of the
experience would be.
Research Team Member
Female, Caucasian, age 37, married, Christian, M.A. Psychology
Previous experience with gratitude letters: I have written and delivered a few gratitude letters over the past couple
of years.
Before you participated on this research team, did you think writing and sharing a gratitude letter would have an
impact on meaning, well-being and persistence for graduate students? I knew that gratitude practices in general
can have a positive effect on well-being and I believed that writing gratitude letters would likely be a meaningful
experience for both the giver and the receiver. I was not sure if there would be an impact on persistence.
Research Team Member
Female, Caucasian, age 29, raised Catholic, graduate student in Instructional Design
Previous experience with gratitude letters: I do not have any experience with writing or receiving gratitude
letters.
Before you participated on this research team, did you think writing and sharing a gratitude letter would have an
impact on meaning, well-being and persistence for graduate students? Before participating in this study, I
assumed that gratitude letters would have little impact on meaning and well-being other than a brief emotional
feeling.
Appendix B Master List of Qualitative Themes and Categories (# of Participant Responses)
Theme (1): Impact on Relationship
Relational Impact
1. Enhanced Relationship with recipient 17
2. Interaction changed me 4
Experience of Closeness/Bonding
3. Person was incredibly supportive 7
4. Did not expect to bond 4
Relationship Revival
5. Renewed friendship/relationship 10
6. Recommitted to friendship/relationship 7
Change in Existing Relationship
7. Enhanced or strengthened family relationship 4
8. Enhanced marriage or romantic relationship 2
9. Healed family relationship 1
Theme (2): Positive Emotions Experienced
Stefan et al.
16
Happiness
10. Giver experienced happiness 21
11. Receiver experienced happiness 19
Surprise
12. Receiver experienced surprise 5
13. Giver experienced surprise 4
Joy 14. Cried tears of joy 16
15. Giver experienced joy 8
16. Receiver experienced joy 4
Theme (3): Reciprocal Expression of Gratitude
Meaning
17. Receiver acknowledged pride in the giver 8
18. Receiver gave giver credit for life success & meaning 6
Emotional Impact of Receiving Reciprocal Message
19. Reciprocated expression of gratitude elicited gratefulness 9
20. Reciprocated expression of gratitude elicited thankfulness 8
21. Reciprocated expression of gratitude elicited humility 5
22. Reciprocated expression of gratitude elicited surprise 3
23. Reciprocated expression of gratitude was unexpected 2
Pay it Forward-Expressed Desire to do Future Letters
24. Expressed desire to repeat this exercise in the future 8
25. Receiver Expressed desire to repeat this exercise in the future 2
Theme (4): Overcoming Uncomfortable Emotions
Discomfort in Preparing
26. Nervous 16
27. Uncomfortable/Out of Comfort Zone 5
28. Awkward 4
29. Vulnerable 4
30. Scared 1
31. Embarrassed 1
32. Anxious 1
Hesitation/Doubt
33. Found experience to be hard 3
Theme (5): Relief, Release, or Liberation after Sharing
Liberating Effect
34. Experienced Relief 10
35. Experienced peace 6
36. Experienced validation 5
37. Experienced release 5
38. Felt rewarding 3
39. Experienced empowerment 1
Expressed things they may have not been able to express before
40. Provided opportunity to express things they always wanted to say but hadn’t 4
41. Got something off my chest/a weight off my shoulders 3
42. Wrote letter to deceased individual 3
Theme (6): Impact on Spiritual Growth
Effect on Spirituality
43. Strengthened connection to God 4
44. Allowed participant to reflect on God 3
Theme (7): Unexpected Responses
Difficult Emotions
17
45. Shock 4
46. Tears 4
Unable to Receive Gratitude
47. Unable to Receive the Letter 4
48. No response 2
Theme (8): Reflection on Meaning in Life, Changed Perspective
Reflection on Meaning in Life
49. Reflected on overcoming past hardships 14
50. Expressed thankfulness for how life has turned out (blessed) 12
Changed Perspective
51. Reflection on how the relationship had been life-changing 9
52. Had been feeling depressed and this exercise changed my perspective 4
... This can involve expressing gratitude to other people, as seen in studies of 'Gratitude Letters', where participants write their thanks to another person [23]. This exercise promotes increased positive effects, life satisfaction, meaning in life, and decreased negative emotions [24,25]. Other gratitude interventions are more self-reflective tasks, such as gratitude journaling, which leads to benefits such as improved physical health [26], meaning [27], engagement [27], life satisfaction, and positive affect [28]. ...
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