Cultivate Happiness One Gratitude Letter at a Time

If watching the nightly news leaves you feeling like the world is coming to an end, you may be suffering from “negative recall bias.” This cognitive reaction is the tendency to amplify the bad, scary, and threatening things around you. It’s a protective response that keeps you safe but stuck in only being able to see the negative around you.








In 2016, author Nancy Davis Kho accidentally discovered a way to shift from a negativity bias to a “positive recall bias.” Her fiftieth birthday was approaching and she felt blessed for all the good in her life — happily married for 30 years, two healthy kids, parents she loved, and lots of friends.

“It seemed right to acknowledge all the people who helped me reach that point,” she said.

Commemorating a Milestone Birthday

To commemorate this milestone birthday, she decided to write one thank you letter a week for that entire year to someone who had helped, shaped, or inspired her. After writing just a few letters, she realized her “thank you project” was having a profoundly positive effect on her. Each week after she’d written a letter to someone, she experienced a physical reaction in her body. Her shoulders softened, her jaw unclenched and she felt infused with a sense of warmth, optimism, and connectedness.

She wanted to learn more about the science behind these positive physical sensations and discovered the concept of “positive recall bias.” By noticing and dwelling on the good things in her life, she was actually rewiring her brain and strengthening her “gratitude muscle.” Without realizing it, she had found an effective way to build her gratitude practice.

The Letter Writing Process

She explained her letter-writing process as follows, on Monday she would decide who she’d write a letter to. Then all week long, she would think about the person and decide what to put in the letter. She sifted through her “mental file cabinet” of memories they’d shared and it made her feel good just doing that. On Friday, even before she put pen to paper, her brain was thinking about what was good about each experience. She was training her brain to be efficient at identifying the positive and changing the way she looked at the world. Then when she actually wrote the letter, she had a sense of reset and relief.

Writing a letter to a person is a win-win. It not only makes you feel good, it also makes the recipient feel good. She emphasized that she did not write the letters with the expectation of receiving a response. The reward was in the process of writing and finishing the letter. She also suggested that her way of doing the project on a weekly cadence is not the only way – you can do it however you want. “Everyone gets to be the boss of their own project – there are no ‘thank you letter’ police!”

When she was done writing, she printed out copies of all 50 letters and put them in a binder. She has re-read them and relived her thoughts, reinforcing the feelings of love she obtained from these people and events.

The Book Project

Two years after finishing her letter-writing project, she wrote a book based on her findings, The Thank-You Project: Cultivating Happiness One Letter of Gratitude at a Time. The book offers guidelines on how to start your own letter-writing project, the science behind gratitude, and interviews with people who have done similar letter-writing projects.

Start Your Own Letter Writing Project

If the idea of writing fifty letters feels daunting, here’s a simple way to get started.

  • Choose your recipient. Think of someone who has changed your life for the better: consider relatives, friends, teachers, mentors, medical professionals, the barista who gets your coffee right every morning. You may want to write down all those names that pop up. Just looking at a list of the people on your “home team” can start boosting your mood.
  • Brainstorm specifics. How exactly has the path of your life changed for the better because it happened to cross theirs? What important lessons have they taught you? If you had a problem and one phone-a-friend, what kind of problem would this person help you solve? Take your time on this step — revisiting your positive memories and stories is rewiring your brain to more easily seek positive perceptions of the people around you, even before you put pen to paper.
  • Start writing. There are no Thank-You Note Police, so you can write whatever feels right to you. But here’s a format to experiment with:
    • First paragraph: Why you’re writing this letter; give context for why they’re holding it in their hands.
    • Second paragraph: How you met. With 7.8 billion people on the planet, why did the two of you connect?
    • Body paragraphs: The specifics of how your recipient helped, shaped or inspired you. Use sentences like, “I remember once you did … and here’s why that was so meaningful to me,” or “You helped me when you …” or “You may not realize it, but you inspire me by …”
  • Keep a copy. Make sure to make a copy of your finished letter before you mail it. On days you feel low, your gratitude letters can be a powerful reminder that others have helped you overcome dark days in the past.

As you’re thinking about who you might want to write to, remember this is also a valuable skill to teach your grandkids. It helps them realize they have a whole team of people who want to see them succeed and who care about them.

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