Let’s start with a true story
His routine seldom varied. Up punctually each morning at 5:30, showered, shaved, and dressed by 6:00, and out the door for a morning cup of coffee at a local café by 6:15. Even on the weekends, the only change was that he’d make the coffee at home. So when he got up that Sunday morning, nothing seemed different. Different day, but same routine.
Before your eyes
Looking at his wedding ring, he noticed that the skin of his hand looked different in the light that filtered through the kitchen window. Stepping into the breaking daylight on the back porch to confirm his initial suspicions, he noticed that what he thought he had seen was worse than initially thought. His skin had turned a jaundiced dull yellow, and it was everywhere he looked.
On the drive into the local hospital with his wife of nearly three decades, his mind began to scan for signs of what might be wrong. Sure he’d been a little more tired lately, but that was due to the hours he was working in establishing a new sales territory, right?
Everything was the same, except it wasn’t.
Once at the hospital, hope turned to horror as the doctors worked. “Your blood’s poisoned; had you come in here a day later, you’d have been gone for sure.” Test after test quickly followed, all pointing to the same result.
“You need to know that you’re going to die,” the surgeon told him. “At best, you’ve got a year with treatment, but it might be as quick as six months.” At that benediction, the cold chill that had been creeping over him gave way to a flash of anger and determination to fight and prove the surgeon wrong.
And wrong he was. Instead of six months, the rare cancer did its job in just under three, leaving me to bury my father before my 20th birthday.
The important ones
Growing up in my career as a professional, I often wished for his advice and counsel, and found myself wanting to tell him just how much the formative lessons that he had taught me still stick with me today. As a child, you’re typically not inured to the thought that your parents might become ill or die one day, and that you’ll be unable to adequately show your appreciation for their advice and counsel over the years.
We’ve all had similar experiences. Whether they’re a family member, a boss who gave our first big break, or a trusted colleague and mentor, we’ve all lost people important to us professionally or personally who are either no longer with us or with whom we’ve lost touch over the years.
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We’ve all got perfectly acceptable reasons for not letting those conversations of gratitude happen, on the surface at least. However, with a little probing into them, they crumble readily, proving to be more excuse than reason.
The power of gratitude
In the day-to-day routine of our lives, we’re often not told “thank you” for more than cursory exchanges. Holding the door open for someone might earn you a quick “thank you”, but a heartfelt expression of gratitude from a colleague or supervisor is rare in the workplace. This is despite research that solidifies the value of both receiving the thanks, as well as giving it.
In Janice Kaplan’s book The Gratitude Diaries, she identified that 70 percent of individuals in a research study responded that they would feel better about themselves and their efforts at work if their supervisor thanked them more regularly. We clearly want to be noticed and acknowledged for the things that we do; even if not in a public, self-serving way, a quiet expression of gratitude for what we’ve done for others is meaningful.
The interesting part is that despite an overwhelming majority of us enjoying that validation, we’re remarkably loathe to provide it; Kaplan notes that in the same study, only 10 percent of those surveyed said that they regularly showed gratitude to their co-workers or supervisors.
A boost of happiness
This is despite evidence that doing so, and doing so in writing pays amazing dividends to our own well-being. As noted in a Harvard University Medical School mental health bulletin, research by Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, identified that the action of writing and delivering a letter of gratitude personally to someone who the writer felt had never been adequately thanked for their kindness, delivered impactful increases in happiness scores, more than any other activity tried in the research.
Not only did writing to someone to properly express gratitude provide a meaningful boost in happiness, but it also did so for an extended time, with benefits reported as long as a month after doing so.
Praise you like I should
For some of us, doing something so raw as writing a letter of heartfelt gratitude feels like a tad too much vulnerability. “Most people believe vulnerability is weakness, “said Dr. Brene Brown in her TED talk on the power of vulnerability.
“But really, vulnerability is courage. We must ask ourselves…are we willing to show up and be seen?”
It takes courage for us to open ourselves to write about what the contributions of someone else has meant to us—especially if there’s a chance that that person might be unaware of what a small act of kindness on their part actually meant to you.
A gift twice given
However, it’s the opportunity to step outside of those insecurities that gives us the power to not only reap the benefits of being grateful, but also provides the recipient with the incredible gift to know that they were impactful in some way, especially if the event had happened in the past at some point.
A personal example of this happened over the holidays; out shopping with family, I was stopped by a person who looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t quite recognize. She went on to effusively thank me for helping her when she came to my office, telling me that it meant so much to her and she was so grateful to me for assisting her. I thanked her for telling me this, and assured her that it had been my pleasure.
As we walked away, my wife asked me what it was that I had done for her; I had to truthfully say that I didn’t really remember, but whatever it was didn’t stand out in my mind as being extraordinary in nature.
And there it was: a gift twice given.
I had, apparently, in the past given her assistance when she felt she needed it the most and was now able to tell me what that had meant to her. She had given me the gift of knowing that my work had, at least for her, meaning and value.
Making gratitude a part of your life
So how do we incorporate these types of events into our daily lives more often? Professionally, I did them by design. Once a year or so, my staff and I took the voluntary opportunity to anonymously let others know of the way that we appreciated one another. I took our staff roster and distributed it to everyone, with the instructions that it was totally voluntary, and that they could write as much or as little as they wanted. The goal was to identify the people on staff that they were grateful for, and, in a few lines, express exactly what they were thankful for about them.
The response was staggering every time, with close to 100% participation. Every single person on staff had at least one expression of gratitude given to them by a colleague, and many had several, often multiple sentences long. These were typed for anonymity and given to the staff in sealed envelopes so that they could read and experience them however they chose. Over time, it led to staff members being more willing to share their expressions of gratitude with their colleagues face-to-face and with increasing frequency.
So, when you sit down to write such a letter, what do you write and to whom do you send it?
Be comfortable with your level of vulnerability in thanking the person for something that meant much to you, and consider sharing with the person the reasons that it did. While not recommending that you overshare—sometimes the toothpaste can’t be shoved back into the tube, and some things might be a bit too personal — I would encourage you to be as honest as you can be as to why their action was meaningful. That allows the recipient to have context for why their actions or words were so meaningful to you.
And as far as the audience?
You can feel free to express your appreciation to anyone, for acts large or small.
The only caution I might suggest is that you make certain that you’re heartfelt in your desire to thank them, and that the acts were truly meaningful. Even if you’re sincere in your appreciation, a hastily worded letter that seems trite or overly saccharine about a commonplace nicety can come across as being insincere, causing more harm than the good that you intended.
Reflect, write, read, and send.
What happens next?
Gods do not answer letters
Or so John Updike wrote about famed Boston Red Sox left fielder Ted Williams, who famously hit a home run in his last at-bat and did not return from the dugout once he’d rounded the bases, never acknowledging the adoring crowd chanting his name. You may never receive an acknowledgement from your reader once you’ve sent it.
That may sting. After all, you took the time to tell this person how much they mean(t) to you and how grateful you are for what they’ve done, and nothing?
And you’ve got to be okay with that. The purpose of this specific exercise wasn’t to establish a dialogue, but rather to tell someone that you appreciated them and their actions towards you. You’ve now done that, and you’ve got to provide room for your audience to experience their letter in their own way and own expression of it. The important thing is that you’ve done it.
So, this week, in a quiet moment, I’d challenge you to take a moment to reflect on the individuals in your life who’ve meant the world to you, or whom you appreciate, but they perhaps just don’t know it. Follow that reflection with action; after all, there’s no time like the present to erase that lack of knowing how special they truly are.