Research

A Reminder to Practice and Savor Gratitude

Keeping a gratitude journal and writing gratitude letters have been shown to elevate mood.* 

That’s why I keep incorporating gratitude in my projects (Give Thanks, 2011; Ways and Means, 2016; the Belonging Project, 2019).

Do It!

Even if people know gratitude can boost subjective wellbeing, they can come up with all sorts of reasons not to write gratitude letters, according to “You Should Actually Send That Thank You Note You’ve Been Meaning to Write” by Heather Murphy (NY Times, July 20, 2018).

They are afraid of being judged for spelling or grammar mistakes. The more I learn about belonging and vulnerability, the more damaging judgment seems to our relationships, our actions, and ourselves. Being judged weakens bonds. Gratitude strengthens bonds. If the fear of weakened bonds through being judged inhibits someone from strengthening their bond through expressing gratitude, it’s like different means to the same end: a lost opportunity to foster connectedness.

People can underestimate how meaningful a gratitude letter will be to recipients (i.e., “She’ll probably just throw it away”). Don’t assume inaction won’t be noticed. A longstanding pillar of the arts community recently told me that a student never said thanks for writing a letter of recommendation for them. He’s too nice to take my advice (“Next time, just tell her she’s dead to you”), but we agreed that administrative skills are the most important skills to have. Along the same lines, if you’re asking someone to coffee to “pick their brain,” show your gratitude by being conscientious. As experts in their fields, an hour of their time is worth a lot more than a coffee and a pastry.

Using Gratitude to Find Balance

Sometimes I feel a little down after finishing a big project. There’s so much work and energy leading up to a project culmination. There’s often an event with a lot of interactions and emotions. Then the high wears off. The days or weeks afterwards can feel sort of empty in comparison. Even if you are lucky enough to receive validation at the event, it can feel fleeting.

In large, participatory projects, I send and receive tons of emails and texts. There are notes of gratitude scattered throughout them. Maybe they gave me a little serotonin hit the day I received them, but I probably soon forgot about them wading through the tide of other messages. I think recovering that feeling of validation, of mattering to someone, is a hunger that social media exploits. But instead of finding it from others through a digital platform, here’s one way to self-organize it in a more lasting, analog medium.

This morning, I combed through my messages and transcribed notes of gratitude by hand into my journal. This reminded me that people want to participate in my project, are happy they did, and are eager to see and share the results. People took the time to tell me how participation and inclusion in a project matters to them. This means a lot to me on a personal level. And it’s helpful for me to understand as an artist in the social realm. (If you shared your gratitude with me, in this project, or at any time, THANK YOU!)

The act of condensing words of gratitude, enthusiasm, validation, and positive emotions into a few pages gave me a huge boost today. And in the future, if I start to question myself or what people think, I can re-read these pages. In moments of anxiety or self-doubt. I’ll have a piggy bank of gratitude to tap into.

* Source: Sonya Lyubomirsky, The How of HappinessA gratitude journal can be as simple as writing down three good things, as described on  The Science of Happiness podcast, produced by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

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