I remember learning to write thank you notes as a child. I thought I was being schooled in manners. But I’ve realized that the greatest benefits of expressing gratitude are not about social etiquette at all.

People who keep regular gratitude journals are physically, healthier, more emotionally connected and balanced, more focused and energetic and have better sleep quality than people who do not keep a gratitude journal, according to a recent study by Dr. Robert Emmons of the University of California. A long-term researcher of gratitude, happiness and emotional health, Dr. Emmons also states that gratitude journal writers are more likely make progress toward their academic, interpersonal and health-based goals.

Even before Oprah, we’ve always suspected the benefits of gratitude. Now they are clearly backed by clinical research. How much does gratitude matter? Dr. Emmons’ statistics show that people are 25% happier if they keep gratitude journals, sleep ½ hour more per evening, and exercise 33% more each week. Journal writers achieve up to a 10% reduction in systolic blood pressure, and decrease their dietary fat intake by up to 20%. Lives marked by frequent positive emotions of joy, love and gratitude are up to seven years longer than lives bereft of these pleasant feelings. The science of gratitude has also revealed some surprising findings, in that students who practice gratitude increase their grade point averages. (Emmons & McCullough, 2003)

Benefits of Gratitude Journaling
* Improved physiological health (heart rhythms and sleep patterns)
* Fewer physical symptoms (colds and headaches)
* More likely to engage in physical activity
* Increased cognitive functioning
* Work performance and productivity
* Higher states of focus, determination and energy
* Increased sense of connectiveness to others (Emmons & McCullough, 2003)

In addition to these benefits, researchers have found that gratitude is actually contagious! In speaking to others using an “attitude of gratitude,” their emotional health improved also. Further, children who practiced grateful thinking had more positive attitudes toward school and their families. (Froh, Sefick, & Emmons, 2008)

So How Do I Write a Gratitude Letter?

Most of us have heard about gratitude journals, gratitude lists, and unsent letters. Why not pen a letter to a friend you’ve never properly thanked? Not via email or text… but a genuine letter on stationery paper. A written gratitude letter has lasting value because it can be read and re-read; a handwritten letter says that you have taken extra, special time to show your appreciation in a meaningful, personal way.

Tips for Writing Your Gratitude Letter:
* Use your nicest stationery, or pick out some special paper at your local stationers. I like to use paper stock that has some texture – the sheer weight of the paper says that this note is important.

* Be specific about the kindness that person provided to you and why it was meaningful to you. Have you grown as a result? Were you able to pay the kindness forward? What kind of impact did your friend’s kindness have indirectly on others? Or, is this letter simply an acknowledgement of all the wonderful acts of kindness your friend has bestowed?
* Include drawings, a special recipe, an article clipping, or perhaps a photo. This “gift-in-kind” helps place a deeper emphasis on your gratitude.
* Take your time and use your best handwriting. Sister Mary Critical didn’t walk around with that ruler for nothing. Handwrite the mailing and return addresses. Use a pretty stamp.

Now that you’ve completed your gratitude letter, take time to incorporate gratitude into your regular journal. Each day, write 3 to 5 things you are grateful for. Continue the practice for a few weeks and you’ll likely see improvements in your physical, mental and emotional health. Continue the gratitude journaling for a month and research shows that your happiness levels will go up, while boredom and other negative feelings will go down. (Ceccanese & Dickinson, 2010 University of Michigan)

We can choose to cultivate a grateful outlook. We can lower our threshold to perceive kindnesses and imbue everyday experiences with an emotional backdrop of gratefulness. In so doing, we allow the life-giving practice of gratitude to broaden our lives by enabling healing of the past, providing contentment in the present, and delivering hope for the future.

Author's Bio: 

Debi Wacker is a Journal Coach and co-owner of Write to Health, a creative writing adventure dedicated to helping people discover the healing benefits of journal writing. Write to Health’s journal circles explore and celebrate health through writing about spirituality, addiction recovery, cancer survivorship, life transition, grief process and life legacy. Write to Health’s online journal writing courses teach a variety of techniques including letter writing, clustering and lists. Inspirational blank journals and guided meditations complement the writing programs and help clients begin a writing practice in the comfort of their own homes. Debi is also co-author and publisher of The Sacred Purse, a collaborative book of women’s poetry and essays, and continues work on her first novel. She is president of LightSource Marketing, a marketing and business development consulting firm with offices in Virginia Beach and Washington D.C. Debi specializes in strategic and market planning, program design and development, and copywriting. Debi recently returned to the college campus as a part-time professor. Reach her at debi@writetohealth.com.