What I Learned From Writing 66 Notes of Gratitude
I wrote to the dying mother of a boy in my daughter’s first grade class; I felt astounded and unmoored by her graceful letting go. I wrote to my college roommate celebrating her loud, generous laugh. I wrote to Guy Raz and Hanna Rosin, thanking them for captivating me with podcasts on WeWork’s founding and the #MeToo movement. I wrote to Ken Hahn, Founder of Global Routes; his vision landed me as a teacher in a refugee camp at 15 where the unvarnished meanings of responsibility, opportunity, and privilege came into sharp relief.
I wrote to thank past managers, current mentors, old friends, new neighbors, our mailman, and my sisters. And, to Andy Puddicombe, of Headspace fame, for revealing that observing the tornado vs. being in its eye is a far healthier way to engage in life’s emotional push and pulls. Turns out there’s not much worth getting so worked up about and that’s liberating to me.
I intended to write 52 handwritten notes on Sunday evenings in 2017; I ended up writing 66. Some weeks I wrote one, some I wrote three. I missed a few Sundays and no self-flagellation ensued. I did this because, while I know I live a life of remarkable abundance, I too frequently walk through the world like it’s a daily grind: pack school lunches, clean out inbox, reconcile finances, go for a run, empty dishwasher, follow up on client prospect. My brain’s been meticulously wired over the past 40 years to notice what needs to be solved, taken care of, or completed.
This means I get a lot of shit done.
It also means that in my frenzy ‘to do’ I likely take for granted the power of people in my life. I miss the chance to let someone’s comment or action expand my compassion, awaken my consciousness, deepen my connection, or bolster my courage. And I miss the chance to let someone know they’ve changed me. I wanted to discover how generously expressing gratitude for others could impact me and them (and discover for myself if there's truth to the research).
At the risk of sounding trite, my learning from the experience felt profound.
Learning #1: The Awkwardness Subsides.
I wrote to my sister’s neighbor across the country thanking her for promoting, without prompting, anything I write on-line. Her act disarms me in the best way. I wrote to a former co-worker who I still channel, over 15 years since we’ve shared office space, when I want to exercise an unabashed sense of possibility.
Writing and sending these felt awkward; I have no current relationship of meaning with either of them. “What will they think?” I wondered.
We tend to express ourselves in this open and unsolicited way when we trust there’s nothing to lose; mortality is upon us or we’ve been overserved. Under either circumstance, we can justify (or even apologize) for over-exposing our devotion: “Clearly had one too many, sorry about my inappropriate gushing last night!” We have that escape hatch when the vulnerability or pending embarrassment feels too raw.
Healthy and sober though, I wrote to these people out of love, admiration, and gratitude – heart and ego unshielded. I chose to trust they’d resist an interpretation of ‘random’ (but who’s to say) and instead embrace that they’d positively influenced a slice of humanity and should keep doing it. With that in mind, I found that my ‘awkward’ feeling shifted to ‘relief and pride’ as I sealed and stamped my notes and dissolved any mystery of their mark on me.
Learning #2: The Tetris Effect is Real.
In Shawn Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage, he outlines a Harvard School of Psychiatry experiment where participants played Tetris for many hours over three days. After the experiment, one participant wrote, “Walking through the aisles at the local Acme, trying to decide between Honey Nut or the new Frosted Cheerios, I notice how perfectly one set of cereal boxes would fit in with the gap on the row below it.” Over-exposed to a game focused on fitting different shapes together, the participants suddenly saw cereal boxes, bricks walls, and buildings along a skyline as things to be maneuvered and re-positioned. Their brain became stuck in a new way of viewing the world.
The same thing happened to me.
Our local museum, every Friday night, hosts an incredible community convening. There are a dozen food trucks, salsa lessons, crafts for kids, and hundreds of people. This past July, in the midst of my note writing experiment, I noticed my shift from enjoying the experience to appreciating its magnitude and the organizer behind it. “Can you believe they make this magic happen every week?” I ruminated to my husband with delight. Preston Justice got a note.
After that, I went through my days on high alert, not looking for how to re-configure cereal boxes, but for who to add to my list of Sunday night notes: school Principal who works relentlessly, nanny who effortlessly develops empathy and kindness in our daughter, niece who exudes contagious joy. My 66 notes are a fraction of the people I now more vividly see as contributing to my meaningful life.
Learning #3: Being Handwritten Mattered.
My inbox, actually inboxes – I have four of them all told – generally incite a negative physical response when I open them; less blinking, more shallow breaths, increased heart rate as I urgently attempt to delete, delegate, defer, or do. In the deluge of digital communication, there might be an email that is heartfelt as opposed to demanding, but it still gets treated as something to ‘take care of’ and rebounds too quickly off my emotional center.
I handwrote notes to trigger a separation from the deluge. Writing in my vaguely legible version of cursive, I attempted to create more intimacy than the familiar Arial or Times New Roman. By digging up mailing addresses and recording mine in the top left envelope corner, I prolonged the process of experiencing this person’s influence on me. By sending on brightly colored stationary, I tried to capture my recipient’s attention as they discovered an orange envelope amid a sea of white bills and beige catalogs. I believe my handwritten notes allowed my intention to linger longer within me and them in a world that moves so quickly to delete or do.
Learning #4: Those Closest to me Were Nonplussed.
My sister off-handedly thanked me for the note I sent, and my college roommate never mentioned getting anything in the mail. An old high school friend texted something like, “Loved getting your note – classic Chantal.”
It’s safe to say that since birth I’ve never lingered long on the surface of life’s emotional waters. I bore of small talk, get dismayed by posturing, and am perennially curious about the demons we reckon with and the meaning we’re in search of. I’ve had to learn the art of self-management so I don’t turn a get-to-know you happy hour of other Kindergarten moms into a deep exploration of pivotal life moments and socially ostracize myself. Among close friends, though, excavating defining life moments is a casual pastime.
Unprompted notes to those who know me well, celebrating their professional risk tolerance or bias towards fun as a mother, went vaguely unnoticed. I believe it’s because, in honestly exploring emotional waters together over the years, I’ve expressed to these gems in myriad ways that I see, love and appreciate them; the note’s just a reminder of what they already know. Their nonplussed reaction felt affirming. I’d have done my relationships a disservice, I believe, if surprise were the prevailing emotion.
Learning #5: We all Need it. Everyday.
I wrote to the mother of a childhood friend I haven’t spoken to in over two decades. When we were nine, she’d French braid my friend’s hair and tie the end with a maroon ribbon to match our school uniform. She crafted elaborate Halloween costumes; their family of eight represented the full cast of the Wizard of Oz. My raggedy pony-tail and gypsy costume paled in comparison. I held awe and envy close together in those years. I let her know in my note that I recall her as a tremendous mother. She responded with a postcard which read “Very soon is my 70th birthday and I will re-read your note ‘til I wear it out! It was a great gift to me.”
I heard from others who said that my note came on ‘just the right day’ or served as the ‘much needed boost’ after an exhausting week. Perhaps my timing is uncanny. More likely, we all crave the reminder that we aren’t anonymous, forgotten entities moving through the world. We want to know that an out-of-touch friend misses our embellished story-telling or that an employee made a brave decision buoyed by our belief in them. It reminds us that what we do and say matters and endures beyond what we can know.
I’m not quitting my day job to proselytize on the value of writing Sunday night gratitude notes (though I’m clearly an advocate for the practice). I am, however, committed to being more attentive to who I most want to be. I want to be the person and leader who lives in a more connected, expansive, and loving way. I want to prioritize open-heartedness over fear of embarrassment or rejection, to look for who to thank instead of who to blame, and to slow down, notice, and treasure what most matters. Should I die tomorrow, I want total reassurance that those closest to me know they moved me. And, I want to trust that while we all posture as capable and put-together, we are uplifted by unprompted reminders that we’re loved and worthy. In the daily grind of life, though, this state of being escapes me and all of us if we don't tend to it regularly. So, I intend to stick with my day job to support others to know and practice how they most want to be in an effort to positively change their slice of the world.
- Chantal Laurie Below