Perhaps it’s not surprising that the Monitor’s Thanksgiving cover story is about letters of gratitude.
Giving thanks this time of year is part of our national heritage in the United States, a heritage that includes the rituals of meals surrounded by family and dear friends. Many of these gatherings might feature heated discussions about the meaning of our country’s complicated history and competing visions of our common life together.
Why We Wrote This
In the bustle and tumult of daily life, giving thanks can come as an afterthought. For these regular practitioners of gratitude, however, Thanksgiving comes every day.
As a writer who covers politics and culture, I share stories about the lives we live and the values that animate us as part of my job. This includes the kinds of discussions we have, say, during holiday rituals with those we love, even when they challenge our patience, if not our points of view.
When we decided to write a cover story on gratitude, we asked readers to send in personal stories about sending and receiving thank-you notes. So many Monitor readers and others graciously shared their experiences with me, showing me letters that carry deep personal meaning and allowing me to share them with you.
So I decided to write this story as my own personal letter of gratitude to you, dear reader.
Right now, as I tap these words on the screen in front of me, I feel not just a sense of gratitude, but even a bit of awe that you decided to take the time to read the work I do for the Monitor.
During the past few years of pandemic quarantines and the stormy, sometimes violent state of American politics, gratitude has seldom informed my day to day.
But as I listened to your experiences, talked to scientists who study expressions of gratitude as a human phenomenon, and interviewed authors who embarked on personal journeys to find important people in their lives and write to them, my own experience reporting this story has been both personal and perhaps even transformative.
The letters I’m sharing with you sprang from moments of joy and sorrow, tragedy and celebration, hope and despair. Some arrived with the force of the unexpected, followed by a spontaneous and lingering glow of human connection.
There’s a special note of gratitude I’d like to send out to Nancy Bourcier in Surprise, Arizona. She was among the first to respond to a query about this project, and she wanted to share a thank-you note from her new granddaughter-in-law, Ecko Soulé, after her bridal shower in June.
In our first exchange, Mrs. Bourcier told me, “As a side note, I’ve been reading the Monitor for over 75 years, and when I was very young, my mother read special articles to me.”
After her husband died and her children and grandchildren scattered throughout the West, she started a “gratitude vase,” keeping a clear glass vase next to her chair with a stack of multicolored 3×5 notepads for about five years.
“Every night I wrote one note with something I was particularly grateful for that day,” Mrs. Bourcier says. “I saw that vase filling with colorful notes of gratitude throughout the year. Each New Year’s Day I poured them all out and read each one. They were not dated, and were in random order. I felt gratitude all over again with each note I read.”
She cannot contain her joy about her new granddaughter-in-law. “Ecko is a very loving, fun, and creative gal, and we are thrilled and grateful to have her in our family! After the wedding, she decided to call me ‘Grandma.’”
The kindness and warmth of our communications helped set the tone for this experience. The generosity of these longtime Monitor readers began to impress on me the wider contexts of my work. In a different way, I started to see it as a part of something larger, while at the same time feel it in a much more personal way.
I talked to Nancy Davis Kho, who embarked on a project to write 50 letters of gratitude, one almost every week during the year she would turn 50.
“It was a project just to make this year different from other birthdays, since it felt a little monumental,” says Ms. Davis Kho, author of “The Thank-You Project: Cultivating Happiness One Letter of Gratitude at a Time.”
“I thought, every week I’m going to pick one person who has helped shape or inspire me. And I just kept coming back to those same three words: helped, shaped, inspired. And I’m going to thank them for the way that they did that for me, because I am the person I am because of the people I have known.”
She wrote her first two letters to her parents the first two weeks of January. “My dad was so cute. He called up, he said, ‘Oh, Nance, I love the letter.’ And he framed it and hung it over his desk. Six months later, out of nowhere, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and he died six weeks after that. So all of a sudden.”
I shared with her my own story. Just before I turned 50, my father, too, was diagnosed with terminal cancer on Thanksgiving weekend, and he died six weeks later, on New Year’s Eve. So all of a sudden.
Her project took on a very different meaning, giving it a greater sense of urgency.
“One of the things that was very comforting to me was this knowledge that my dad had sat there with this letter, where, spelled out on a page, was what, specifically, he meant to me, what he taught me, and why I was grateful,” she says. “And that was a great comfort to me. And then that loss also triggered, I think, a more profound understanding of gratitude and connection through writing these letters.”
She was disappointed at first when her book came out just before the pandemic started. She wasn’t able to tour and connect with readers.
“But having heard from readers since then, I think it came out at exactly the right time, because people connected with this idea of when there’s a difficult time, there are still things to be grateful for,” Ms. Davis Kho says. “That was my takeaway in writing the letters – it permanently changed the way I view the world, because I know that even hidden in the darkest of times, there are still things to be grateful for, and they give you a sense of hope.”
It has become clear over the past few decades that even small expressions of sincere gratitude can allow our bodies to rejuvenate after periods of stress and moments of perceived danger.
“I study happiness, and gratitude is something that’s really known to facilitate happiness and improve well-being – it’s now been about 20 years that we’ve known that,” says Amit Kumar, an assistant professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
“But it occurred to me and my collaborator that it seems like people don’t walk around in their everyday lives giving thanks to people all that often,” he says. “Sure, Thanksgiving comes along once a year, but there are lots of opportunities to express our appreciation to other people, but we don’t always take advantage of those opportunities. And so that’s what made us curious as to why people might not, even though they would likely be better off if they did.”
Kristi Nelson, executive director of A Network for Grateful Living, takes a more spiritual approach to the practice of gratitude.
“I talk about gratitude as a fleeting emotion,” she says. “Basically, it’s a response to something good that happens, right? … But that makes it highly conditional and also elusive, because life does not always unfold the way that we want it to,” continues Ms. Nelson, author of “Wake Up Grateful: The Transformative Practice of Taking Nothing for Granted.”
“We’re used to feeling gratitude when everything goes our way,” she says. “But life doesn’t allow things to go our way all the time, so how do we bring those benefits of gratitude alive in our lives more consistently and more reliably and more deeply?”
Nicki Sutherland shared an email from a police officer who was one of the many first responders who sprang to action after the July Fourth shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, which killed seven people and injured 48 others. Ms. Sutherland is the executive director of Gratitude Generation, a nonprofit that, as she puts it, “aims to get even the youngest of volunteers involved in learning gratitude and giving back to others.” After the shooting, she helped groups of young volunteers prepare hundreds of large, reusable water cups, filling them with snacks and granola bars for first responders.
“Every volunteer who was there created probably, like, 10 thank you cards each, one to go in each of the water bottles,” she says. “The thank you cards kind of blew their minds, and we didn’t realize it would blow their minds.”
I am a police officer in the Northwest suburbs, and when I arrived to work the midnight shift the other day I was surprised to find a water bottle filled with treats. … Unfortunately, as a long-time police officer, whenever something is dropped off for us I tend to question who dropped it off and what was their motive for doing so.
To be perfectly honest with you, if homemade food items are dropped off, they rarely get eaten for fear that something was put in the food to do us harm. That being said, I really appreciated the water bottle and store-bought treats. The bottle was a good reminder that I do need to drink more water, and the snacks are often needed when I have a busy shift and need a quick bite to eat.
But what really touched me the most was the handwritten note inside the bottle. It came on a day when I was lacking motivation and questioning my chosen profession. The note revitalized me and reminded me that we really are appreciated in the community. This note now sits on my desk as a daily reminder of that.
“The way forward, and the way to spread more love and kindness and gratitude, is to just keep doing things like this,” Ms. Sutherland says. “You never know what little thing will touch someone so deeply, and you never know what the repercussions of that are going to be.”
Penny Sansevieri organizes expressions of gratitude to members of the U.S. armed forces overseas during the holidays. For the past decade her marketing firm has coordinated groups of volunteers, including school-age children, to prepare Christmas stockings with gifts and snacks and letters of gratitude for service members.
“I just think it’s so often forgotten, and not a lot of people are inspired to do this anymore,” she told me. “I’m sure the Christmas stocking that we send them isn’t just going to make up for being separated from their families, but at least they know that they’re appreciated.”
But the gestures of appreciation from service members in Afghanistan touched her deeply, Ms. Sansevieri says. She keeps a voicemail one soldier left for her years ago:
I’m calling from Afghanistan, and we just received all the care packages. … So I just personally wanted to call back and tell you, God bless you and thank you for thinking about our soldiers. There’s not too many who do that nowadays. You’re a true patriot, and God bless you and all the people who made this possible. It put a smile on everybody’s face. … I definitely did not want to pass up the opportunity to call and thank you personally. God bless you and have a great Christmas.
The soldier did more to express his unit’s gratitude. Ms. Sansevieri chokes up as she describes a framed U.S. flag they sent her. The flag was flown during combat, and included an official certificate as an expression of their gratitude.
“That flag that they flew in combat – it was extremely unexpected,” Ms. Sansevieri says. “And on the back – you can’t see it – they all signed the certificate, and it was tremendous. I can’t even,” she says in tears.
As part of their research, Dr. Kumar of UT Austin and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago designed a study that enlisted participants to write letters of gratitude to people who impacted them. Afterward, the researchers asked them to predict how their recipients would feel after receiving the letter.
“We subsequently followed up with those recipients to measure how they actually felt,” Dr. Kumar says.
There was a measurable disjunction: Senders significantly underestimated how positive they would make their recipients feel, while at the same time significantly overestimating how awkward and uncomfortable they would feel.
“[Recipients are] focused on the fact that you’re conveying warmth and sincerity and you did something nice for them and you’re showing your appreciation for them,” Dr. Kumar says. “They’re thinking about that, as opposed to the specific words that you use to express your gratitude.”
“So I think a better understanding of our daily lives, the day-to-day interactions that we have, can speak to how our lives might be improved and the things that perhaps we should be doing more often,” he continues. “We’re a social species, and we know that positive relationships are essential for our happiness.”
That brings me to Kent Syler, a professor of political science and public policy at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. He sent along a letter sent to him by a former student, Mitchell Casto, who now teaches U.S. government at a high school in Silver Spring, Maryland. Dr. Syler says that he always feels hopeful for our country’s future when he receives messages like this from current and former students.
Good Morning Professor Syler,
I hope you are well, sir. I am in my first year of teaching and it has gone very well. I teach AP US Government, and it has been extremely easy because of all I learned from you. I want to thank you for all of the knowledge that you instilled in me. I learned more from you than any other class in college. My students have actually been conducting their own campaigns, modeled after your course, as an end of the year project. They really like it and are having fun so on behalf of them and myself, Thank you. Also, living in MD just outside of D.C., I am still fighting the good fight. I am volunteering for a man running for state delegate, canvassing and calling. I also attended the National March For Our Lives rally in D.C. this weekend. Again with a “Veterans for Gun Reform” sign. … I just wanted to thank you for giving me the tools to help become the best member of society I can be. I am able to be so politically active and successful because of you. Thank you for everything and all that you do, sir. I hope you and your family are doing well.
Mitchell Alan Casto
When I talked to Mr. Casto, he spoke, in very emotional terms, about what his former professor meant to him.
“I just wanted to reach out to him and tell him thank you, because last year was my first year teaching, and after studying under him for so long I just thought he deserves to know what an impact he had on myself, and what an impact it’s having on my kids,” he says. “Not only does he teach classrooms of students; his teaching, his dedication, his craft are still being passed on to a whole new generation of children in a different state.”
As an adjunct professor of religion at Hunter College, where I’ve taught evening classes for over 20 years, I felt myself thinking of the hundreds of students who’ve passed through my classrooms. Another personal experience, another conversation that widened my own contexts, another sense of gratitude for Dr. Syler’s and Mr. Casto’s generosity in sharing this letter.
I sometimes work with Daniel DeVries, the senior director of communications and media relations at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. This time, his response left me a bit stunned, and a bit without words.
“I was adopted at three days old, and I never knew my biological parents,” he told me. “Had a great life, but then both of my parents died in 2020. My dad died from COVID in a nursing home, and my mom passed away three weeks later.”
In the midst of this loss, Mr. DeVries wanted to finally find his birth mother. After some determined research, he found her: Pamela Calzadilla, CEO of Meals on Wheels in West Palm Beach, Florida. He wrote to her:
I realize this message is out of the blue, but given the state of the world I wanted to reach out and make contact. I’m about 99% sure you are my birth mother. …
I just wanted to thank you for putting me up for adoption. I have had a spectacular life. … I have a great job as the Media Relations Director at Colgate University, an amazing wife who also works at Colgate, and you have two smart-as-a-whip grandchildren named Lucy (11) and Nora (6). Feel free to take a look through my Facebook feed to see what they look like!
Anyway, I always said I wouldn’t try to find my biological parents until my parents were gone, and sadly they have now both passed. My mom died May 19 night in her sleep after many years of heart problems, and my dad died from COVID in a nursing home in Warwick on May 1.
I completely understand if this comes as a shock, and I also completely understand if that’s a time in your life that you don’t want to revisit. I don’t know the circumstances around my adoption and I don’t want you to think there’s any pressure to talk with me or anything, but I wanted to put the option out there, and I wanted you to know I turned out OK and that your decision resulted in not only a wonderful childhood for me, but also this new chapter with my girls.
I found you after getting a copy of my original birth certificate a few months back after NYS opened up adoptee records. If you want to hear what I sound like, I host a podcast for Colgate University.
I hope we have a chance to talk! If not, then please just take this note as a very warm thank you.
Ms. Calzadilla also shared her experiences with me, describing her reactions after receiving her son’s letter.
“I never had children after Daniel, and once I hit my late 50s, I felt that void in my life,” she says. “Hard to explain. I never get depressed. But then, all of a sudden, I realized that I missed the child I gave away.”
“Then, suddenly, he reached out, and it made me feel like my prayers were answered,” Ms. Calzadilla continues. “I had always wondered about him, and if I made the right decision at such a young age. …
“I cried and was so overjoyed by his beautiful email letting me know about his life and that I had two grandchildren,” she says. “It was such a blessing to know he had become such a wonderful man and was raised by loving parents. It’s what every woman hopes for when giving a child up for adoption.
“I’m so grateful to be part of my son’s life,” she says, “and happy that he has filled a void in my life that no one could fill but him.”