The holiday season encourages us to practice gratitude. One way to look at gratitude is to celebrate the lost art of writing thank you notes. A good thank you is more than a text message saying “Thank you”.
I have learned this from the women in my life who are role models of gracious gratitude. My grandmothers always sent cards and handwritten notes. My mother’s clever cursive gives style to her thanks. My wife writes a lot of thoughtful thank you notes.
We forced our children to take paper after Christmas and birthdays. They seem to have learned the art of saying thank you. As young adults, they write heartfelt expressions of gratitude.
This little ritual is an ethical and spiritual practice. It’s important to take the time and really think about what you’re grateful for.
Gratitude is often lacking in an impatient world. Envy, anger, and other negative emotions can undermine the spirit of gratitude. And sometimes we get cranky, even about needing to write a thank you note.
The good news is that by expressing gratitude, the bad mood dissolves. Positive virtues are often developed by some sort of “pretend until you do” trick. Even if you don’t feel particularly grateful, the emptiness of the blank page forces you to evoke some gratitude.
Giving thanks is an important social ritual. You are supposed to say thank you in certain situations. When the waiter brings the meal, you say thank you. After a job interview, you should write an email thanking yourself. Etc.
Parents ask their children, “What are you saying? In response to grandmother’s gift. The child knows the correct answer is “Thank you, Grandma”. This response consistent with a parent’s prompting is an important start. But it’s not gratitude yet.
Gratitude runs deeper than saying thank you.
This is where a thoughtful thank you note plays a role. A decent thank you note should be at least three sentences long. First of all, you say what you are grateful for. Then you explain why you are grateful. Finally, you express good wishes to the person you are thanking. By the time you have written these three sentences, the spark of gratitude may be ignited.
This is why a handwritten note is better than a “Thank you”. Mechanical expressions of thank you have little to do with gratitude. Pre-printed acknowledgments often arrive in our inboxes, in response to charitable donations, bill payments, etc. Sometimes they even come in response to wedding or graduation gifts.
A mechanical thank you recognizes a gift or payment. The note lets you know that the check was not lost in the mail. But gratitude is not gratitude
Gratitude is an expression of sincere joy. It’s not just a receipt. It is also an appreciation. The word “appreciate” contains the word “precious” hidden within it. True gratitude involves reflecting on what you value.
Philosophers have thought of gratitude for thousands of years. The Stoic philosopher Seneca suggested that true gratitude is not just mechanical or self-serving. Ritual gratitude occurs in religion and in business. It is often a superficial formula without reflection.
Worse still, there are people who pride themselves on gentle words. Gratitude can be used to manipulate and profit. Skillful salespeople express their gratitude while making our pockets. True gratitude is not like that at all. Rather, it is linked to generosity, friendship and love.
Seneca also suggested that a good life should be imbued with a spirit of gratitude. He said, “We wish to leave human life with as much gratitude as possible. ”
A good life would be one in which envy and resentment give way to gratitude. To live well is to be grateful for this moment and this life. We have to live in such a way that when the end comes, we can be thankful.
In the New Year, then, let’s resolve to be less resentful and more grateful. One way to do this is to put a pen on some paper and write an old-fashioned thank you note. It reminds us of the generosity and goodwill of our friends and relationships. He spreads goodwill by letting others know that we appreciate them. And it encourages us to count our blessings, even in the dark of winter.
Andrew Fiala is professor of philosophy and director of the Fresno State Center for Ethics. Contact him: [email protected]