It is common knowledge that practicing gratitude is a healthy habit. But when it comes to writing letters of thanks to people who have made a difference in your life, the excuses pile up quickly.
You worry you will sound trite or cliché. It feels socially awkward. You think that the other person already knows that you are grateful and that your letter of thanks won’t really make a difference.
Not so… New research from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business finds that people significantly underestimate the positive impact a letter of gratitude has on its recipient.
“There’s so much talk in the world—both in academic literature and in the popular press—that expressing gratitude is good for you,” says Kumar, a postdoctoral researcher at Booth at the time of the research. “But that doesn’t seem to line up with how often people are actually articulating their appreciation in daily life. So, we wanted to find out why—what are the barriers holding people back?”
In the study, "Undervaluing Gratitude: Expressers Misunderstand the Consequences of Showing Appreciation," Chicago Booth Professor Nicholas Epley and the University of Texas at Austin’s Amit Kumar discover a wide gap between how little senders think their letters of gratitude will affect the recipient and the high level of happiness the recipients feel upon reading the letter.
In a series of four experiments, the researchers asked participants to write a letter to another person who had a touched their life in a meaningful way. The researchers asked the letter writers to predict how surprised, happy and awkward the recipients would feel, then they followed up with those recipients to measure how they actually felt.
The results, published in the journal, Psychological Science, found that participants systematically miscalculated how much people appreciated being thanked.
“Expressers significantly underestimated how surprised recipients would be about why expressers were grateful, overestimated how awkward recipients would feel, and underestimated how positive recipients would feel,” the researchers write.
The researchers also find that the letter writers were unduly concerned about their ability to express their gratitude skillfully. While the writers worried about choosing the right words, the recipients were happy simply by the warmth of the gesture.
“It suggests that thoughts about how competently people can express their gratitude may be a barrier to expressing gratitude more often in everyday life,” says Kumar.