I Wrote 70 Gratitude Emails. I Was Amazed by the Response
Science shows gratitude improves your life. I expressed it and found out for myself. You can too.
You might want to try it.
Gratitude exercises come in many forms — writing down three things or people to be grateful for before sleeping is the most common one I know. The one I did came from a friend’s class.
My friend, Jeffrey Madoff (no relation to the other Madoff), teaches a wonderful class, Creativity: Making a Living With Your Ideas, with tremendous guests. I sat in on one with a marketing and relationship genius named Joe Polish, who told how he went from down-and-out carpet cleaner to working with Richard Branson, Arianna Huffington, and their peers.
Joe also talked about gratitude and challenged the class that if anyone wrote 10 gratitude emails a day for a week, he’d give them free access to his marketing course.
He didn’t have to tell me twice. I’d meant to try out this gratitude stuff for years. Plus, I like working with successful people. I set my mind to it.
It happened I was giving a talk in London, followed by a trip to Paris, plus deadlines loomed on my book, and so on. So began lesson one in gratitude: You have to make it a priority.
No one will do it for you, and you can always put it off. Like many important, non-urgent things that usually are your life’s most valuable things, if you want to do it, you have to not do other things for a while.
Next, I had to start planning: whom I would write, what I would say, and so on. Here are some observations from before even starting to write:
- After the first few, obvious names, the next take more thought, but I realized how many people have helped and how much.
- I had let languish a lot of relationships I cared about.
- Many people I felt gratitude toward I also felt mixed about, which made writing a gratitude email challenging.
- This exercise was hard!
Well, it started easy, with the obvious people you’re close with. Then you hit less obvious people, but you realize their affect on you.
It took a while, but I made a list of nearly 100 people. I didn’t have email addresses for all. Anyway, I started writing and learned more new things:
- It’s hard to write a genuine note of gratitude. It’s easier to make small talk or update about yourself.
- Writing about gratitude makes you vulnerable. You have to put the other person first.
- Each message takes a long time. I had to put everything in the moment out of my mind, think back to our relationship, and figure out what meant what.
- Many gratitude emails become intimate.
- Beyond what we did, I had to think of the meaning behind it and the results after.
- The structure of each email standardized quickly. I felt mildly guilty about copying the overall message from one to the next, but that feeling passed when I personalized each one.
- Expressing gratitude to some people made me feel uncomfortable. Many of the people who helped me grow the most also annoyed me the most.
- I set a rule I would only write gratitude, no matter how mixed I felt about someone. I wouldn’t “balance” gratitude with anything else.
All the writing took well over a week. The first few took hours each before I hit a groove. The middle 40 or 50 went faster, but none went fast.
I had to think about each person, what his or her relationship meant to me, what happened in the interactions I felt gratitude for, what they meant to me, why I chose to write him or her, and so on.
So the exercise was rewarding before I started writing the first email. It also took a long time because people started writing me back sooner than I expected.
Here’s a typical email, to a guy I worked with to build my online courses. The details only he understands, but I think you’ll get the overall idea for a gratitude email.
In coaching there’s an exercise I’ve heard about for years but haven’t done. I finally decided to do it because tons of research says it’s effective. The exercise is to think of people you feel gratitude to and write them to tell them something you feel gratitude for.
I hope it doesn’t come out too hokey.
I’m grateful to have so quickly formed a friendship that’s been so equally fun and productive, all the more for having started from a creative interaction in [where we met] that, had we not paid attention to some amount of clicking, might not have started, or even gotten to practicing storytelling in a Japanese bookstore.
I’m grateful to have found someone who cares about his work like I do, particularly after I got burned on my apartment renovations and was hesitant to start, despite my passion for my goals. I’m grateful with you and [his wife and business partner] that I don’t have to worry about your dedication, passion, and attention to detail. And I’m grateful to feel appreciated for my hopes and dreams, and supported in making them happen.
I could go on, but those feel top of mind.
The first and second paragraph were the same for most emails, as was the start of the next. Then I personalized.
Everyone wrote back. I didn’t track, so it’s possible a few didn’t, but I was overwhelmed with the responses.
The most common response was to show appreciation for my writing and to catch up. I’d say a little more than half did that.
Here is a representative “standard” response:
Thanks so much for this Josh!
I really appreciate you taking the time to write this and am really glad that [mutual friend] connected us. I think that there is a lot of amazing things to come for you as well and I’m grateful to know someone as thoughtful as you.
To more great things,
Some wrote long, deeply heartfelt responses. They probably felt a mix of desire to reciprocate and an opening to share what they felt but hadn’t expressed.
The more personal and long ones I can’t quote here, but here’s an example of one that’s more personal:
I didn’t expect to read this. Thanks. I enjoyed reading it.
It would take a while to write everything I’m grateful for since there are many details.
I’m grateful that you’ve been a great friend for several years too. Your leadership, genuine self, experience, patience, dedication, passion, discipline, and integrity inspire me. I appreciate your openness that lead to feeling vulnerable. Thank you for helping me explore, discover, and revisit parts of my life. I’m grateful you’ve been a part of my growth and discovery.
My life transformed after my senior year. Meeting you is up there and life looks different and new every time like a prism.
I’d love to know how the exercise goes.
If you want to hear such things from people close to you, do this exercise!
It feels good to thank people. Their responses seemed to show that I made them feel good and gave them the chance to write back, which felt good.
Some emails back were significantly longer than the ones I sent, all overwhelmingly positive and open. I didn’t ask for these responses. The recipients spontaneously wrote them.
- People felt more gratitude for me than I expected.
- People feel inhibited to show gratitude.
- People like expressing that gratitude if you give them the chance.
- It feels great to read their thanks.
- The exercise reverberated, meaning I kept getting responses for months and some conversations continued beyond.
Total cost: $0.00. Plus, it passed a lot of time on planes and in the Chunnel. There was a mild downside of spending time in my Airbnb room in Paris when I could have seen sights, but choosing to stay and write shows the relationships meant more to me.
In the end, that felt like the greatest result of the exercise: It gave me a way to spend time on my most important relationships for mutual benefit.
Plus, I got Joe’s marketing course.