Thank You Notes Exist for a Reason: They Make People Feel Good
Everyone remembers those dreaded ‘Thank you’ notes your parents made you write after every birthday. Our kids will also probably remember us making them do the same. And, you know what? They may thank us, one day: According to a new study, a letter of gratitude can improve the well-being of not only the receiver, but also the sender of the letter.
The authors of the study, published in Psychological Science, said people often overestimate the awkwardness of receiving a note, and underestimate the note’s positive effect.
“We looked at what’s correlating with people’s likelihood of expressing gratitude — what drives those choices — and what we found is that predictions or expectations of that awkwardness, that anticipation of how a recipient would feel — those are the things that matter when people are deciding whether to express gratitude or not,” says lead author Amit Kumar, assistant professor of marketing at McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas.
For over a decade, researchers have know that expressing gratitude is great for well-being, yet people don’t often do it, for fear of what the recipient of the appreciation note will think, adds Kumar. It’s not that people think a thank-you note would offend the receiver, but more that it’s not a big deal, he says. Still, people do worry about whether they are expressing their gratitude appropriately.
In the many tests conducted, the team asked hundreds of participants to write or email a small thank you note to someone who had helped them in a significant way. Then, using a scale, the senders were asked to rate how much they thought their note would affect the recipient, answering questions such as: Would the receiver be surprised to get the letter? Would the letter’s content surprise them? Would being complimented leave them feeling awkward? And how would the letter affect the receiver’s overall mood? The receivers were then asked to answer the same questions, in order to compare what was thought, with what was experienced.
“People were not very good at predicting their recipient’s actual experience of reading the letter,” says Kumar.
Kumar’s experiment only used American participants, which could put a cultural color on his findings, but “I don’t think it’s a societal thing,” he says. “It’s more fundamental to how the human mind works and a well-established symmetry about how we evaluate ourselves and other people.”
He concludes that writing a thank-you note goes a long way in building and maintaining healthy social relationships, while only taking a few minutes of your time.
“These connections are a powerful source of well-being,” the authors say. “But people have to choose to engage in them.”
Excuse us, while we go write a thank-you note to our parents for making us write thank-you notes….