Gratitude, Kindness and Other Not So Random Acts
In 2017, I conducted a personal research project based on Martin Seligman’s work on gratitude visits. Seligman’s research has shown that writing and delivering a letter of gratitude to someone who impacted your life can boost mood, enrich relationship connections, and increase meaning in life for up to a month after the visit (Seligman, 2011). After several months of research and planning, I personally delivered and read letters of gratitude every month for a year to family and friends across the United States. As an evaluative tool, I tracked my emotional state and experience through journal entries along the way.
In the following, I provide a broad overview of the literature related to positive interventions and gratitude, focusing on the gratitude visit. Research on the benefits of gratitude, the why and how of gratitude, and the limits of gratitude will be addressed. I also provide examples of gratitude letters I wrote over the year to demonstrate the process and practice of gratitude as a positive intervention as well as recorded audio conversations with many of the recipients.
Positive Psychology Interventions
I discovered positive psychology several years ago, but during an emotional low in 2015 and 2016, I conducted additional research into managing depression. As a therapist and person who has experienced bouts of melancholy and seasonal affective disorder, I managed my own depression and helped clients through a variety of approaches. These included cognitive behavioral techniques, focus on interpersonal connections, outdoor activity paired with regular exercise, and the use of sunlamps during the winter. While I experimented with these practices for myself throughout my life, I felt a need for greater insight; so I turned to research in the field of positive psychology, focusing on Martin Seligman’s work with positive interventions.
Seligman et al. (2005) outline their research around the five following interventions in their article “Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions”:
Three good things (write and reflect on three things that went well during the day)
You at your best (write and reflect on a time when you are at your best)
Identifying signature strengths (identify and use your top five character strengths more often)
Using signature strengths in a new way
The Gratitude Visit
Based on this preliminary research, I crafted a gratitude project called The Visit: Gratitude, Purpose, and Other Not So Random Acts. This initial draft included a broader range of Seligman’s interventions in which I planned to focus on well-being for the year by conducting 12 gratitude visits (one per month); interviewing 52 friends, family, and colleagues about what they find most meaningful in their lives (one per week); and practicing daily purposeful positive psychology interventions for the year. But the heart of my project was gratitude, inspired by a scriptural reference from Philippians, which states the following:
“Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.” (Philippians 4:8, The Message).
What is Gratitude?
The concept and practice of gratitude has a long history, both in religious and philosophical circles, but more recently, psychologists and researchers have provided definitions to facilitate scientific experimentation. Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough (2003), for example, frame gratitude as a two-step process: 1) “recognizing that one has obtained a positive outcome” and 2) “recognizing that there is an external source for this positive outcome” (p. 378).
Based partially on Emmons’ definition, Watkins (2018) clarifies his own understanding of gratitude: “An individual experiences the emotion of gratitude when they affirm that something good has happened to them, and they recognize that someone else is largely responsible for this benefit” (p. 8).
A framework to understand different dimensions of gratitude is also helpful:
Some psychologists further categorize three types of gratitude: gratitude as an “affective trait” (one’s overall tendency to have a grateful disposition), a mood (daily fluctuations in overall gratitude), and an emotion (a more temporary feeling of gratitude that one may feel after receiving a gift or a favor from someone) (Allen, 2018, p. 2).
In research, these definitions and distinctions can make a significant difference in understanding the impact, effectiveness, and benefits of various gratitude interventions on overall well-being, meaning, and happiness. For the purposes of my gratitude project, I was interested in exploring the daily fluctuation of my moods, but – more importantly – I wanted to focus on developing a more grateful disposition, which would potentially have longer lasting- benefits.
Before implementing my project in January of 2017, I began sharing the outline of my year and what I wanted to accomplish with colleagues and friends. As I mentioned earlier, my original plan involved a year of well-being, which included daily positive psychology interventions, weekly discussions with others about meaning and purpose, and monthly gratitude visits. I received encouraging feedback about my plans, but some expressed concern that I may be taking on too much to complete in a single year. As I continued my research and preparation, I began refining my initial goals and what I wanted to accomplish most out of my meaning, gratitude, and positive emotion project.
Benefits of Gratitude
Gratitude has risen in popularity and impact as one of the most effective psychological and spiritual practices for enhancing overall well-being.
Emmons (2013) affirms that gratitude has one of the strongest connections to well-being and life satisfaction even when compared to other positive virtues, such as optimism or compassion. Allen (2018) suggests that gratitude is “’the mother of all virtues’ by encouraging the development of other virtues such as patience, humility, and wisdom” (p. 8).
The benefits of gratitude seem endless. According to Emmons (2013), numerous research studies with diverse participant groups have revealed that the practice of gratitude leads to:
Increased feelings of energy, alertness, and vigor
Success in achieving personal goals
Better coping with stress
Greater sense of purpose and resilience
Solidified and secure social relationships
Bolstered feelings of self-worth and self-confidence
Generosity and helpfulness (p. 10).
Phillip Watkins (2018) reports, “According to correlational studies, grateful people tend to be happier, healthier, more likeable, better in dealing with stress, more humble, less narcissistic, more giving, and more spiritual” (p. 5).
He provides caveats to this research: It’s important to note that most of these studies are investigating the relationship of well-being variables with trait gratitude. So, we’re not just looking at the good of an occasional feeling of gratitude…these are really relationships with a lifestyle of gratitude, a life orientation toward gratitude (p. 26).
But the gold standard of predicting causation, according to Watkins, is true experimental studies conducted as randomized controlled trials. Watkins (2018) states that “over 40 true experimental studies have shown that gratitude exercises produce increased well-being” (p. 28).
As mentioned above, what drove me to conceptualize and implement my project was not only the research that addressed overall increased well-being by developing a lifestyle of gratitude (trait gratitude), but also studies attesting that practicing gratitude predicted decreased depression and increased joy.
Despite my colleagues’ caution about taking on too much for my project, come January 2017, I started off the year with the daily positive psychology practice of writing about three things that had gone right each day:
January, 2017, What went well and why?
Today, I had a good time on the ropes course with Paul, Mike and Tony. It was good to be outside of our normal routine and take a few physical risks.
I started learning more about the cross country Amtrak ride and the US Rail Pass. I spoke with John about it and we firmed up some plans to possibly be gone for two weeks, travel from Chicago to San Francisco to Portland and back to Chicago.
I also realized that I could stop in Grand Junction to see Stephen. The train goes through there on the way to San Francisco. The plan seems to be coming together.
I also recorded my first weekly conversation via Skype with a close friend about what brought meaning to his life. Having discussions about meaning would not only help develop a more complex understanding of how people find deeper meaning in life, it would also facilitate conversation and connection with friends and family I wanted to stay in touch with, contributing to an overall greater sense of well-being.
I also composed my first gratitude letter to my mom. A good letter takes me several iterations over a few weeks. I jot down initial thoughts, bulleting items and themes that I want to include. Then I begin to outline the letter to see the flow and how and where to incorporate my ideas. I write a first rough draft next without overthinking the wording or grammar. Lastly, I refine the letter into its final draft. It has been important for me to let contents simmer over time, weeks and months sometimes, rather than trying to write everything in one sitting. I let the unconscious do its work while I go about my day, and even during sleep, as I dream about all this person has meant to you.
After many versions over a few weeks, this is the final draft of my gratitude letter to my mom.
I wanted to take some time to write a letter expressing my gratitude to you for all that you’ve done for me and all that you’ve meant to me.
It is hard enough to put into words what any person’s life means. It is especially difficult expressing what your mother or father means to you. You literally gave me life; there isn’t anything more significant than that. It is humbling to think that I would not be here without you.
But you have not only given me life, you have nurtured and supported me throughout my life. There may have been a time once or twice that you raised your voice or were unhappy with me in some way, but I can’t recall a single incident. I only remember tenderness and grace, patience and love.
I’ve always appreciated your encouragement of my various interests, phases,
and directions in life. Through both good and difficult experiences, you have
been there, open to listen and offer the right amount of concern and counsel.
You have always made it easy for me to pursue all kinds of athletic and
academic pursuits early, laying the foundation for a life full of adventure and
exploration. You’ve spent countless hours cheering me onto success in soccer
through college. You attended most of my extracurricular events and showed
great pride in my academic achievements. You and Dad got behind me when
I decided to pursue medicine in college, and even though you may not have
wanted me to change majors, you supported my decision to alter vocational
directions in favor of ministry. When I planned to resign from my position in
New Jersey and spend time traveling, you allowed me to call your home my home base again. When I told you I wanted to write a book about my adventures, you could have doubted or questioned my ability, but instead, you got behind me.
I’ve taken many different paths in life as I’ve followed the road less travelled; but I’ve had the courage and fortitude to follow my dreams because of the support you and dad provided me. I’ve had a rich life in all respects, and I attribute that to the love, creativity, and acceptance that you gave me throughout my life.
You have been and continue to be a shining example of how to live with poise and perspective through celebratory times, debilitating illness, family highs, personal loss, complicated grief and all of God’s other unexpected curve balls and blessings.
I love you and will be forever grateful that you not only gave me life but gave me the favor and freedom to live my life.
When it came time to deliver the letter, I had second thoughts. I wrote this in my journal:
I just wrote my first gratitude letter to my mom. I am anxious and nervous to deliver and read it to her. It is so out of the ordinary for what our family does or what most of my friends would think of doing… it feels like a huge risk, for some reason.
Maybe this is how life should be lived, and perhaps it is lived this way by many people. But I haven’t met a lot of folks who do this on a regular basis; it feels like swimming upstream, against life’s current.
So, I’m debating about doing this; I think it would be easier to not go through with it and just put it off until next week, or next month, or not at all.
There are numerous ways to cultivate gratitude. For the purposes of this paper, I will review some of the more common ways, including Grateful Recounting, Grateful Reappraisal, and Grateful Expression (Watkins, 2018).
Grateful Recounting involves remembering and reflecting on blessings or good things in your life.
Emmons and McCullough’s (2003) study of their “counting blessings” intervention reported that people who wrote about their blessings at least once a week for 10 weeks felt more optimistic about the week to come, and they felt better about their overall lives than did fellow research participants who wrote about daily annoyances or everyday events.
Other studies have found that variations of the “counting blessings” intervention (e.g. journaling and listing three good things) improved people’s life satisfaction and self-esteem (Rash, Matsuba, & Prkachin, 2011); alleviated symptoms of depression and boosted positive affect, though only in participants who had high depressive symptoms to begin with (Harbaugh & Vasey, 2014); increased optimism and happiness (Jackowska et al., 2016) (Allen, 2018).
Watkins (2018) concludes that “grateful recounting interventions don’t work simply because people are activating positive memories. There’s something important about grateful processing. People keep getting happier well after the treatment has concluded” (p. 31). In other words, Grateful Recounting may work because it trains us to notice the good in our lives and also to appreciate the good in our lives (Watkins, 2018).
Reframing Open Memories or Grateful Processing of Unpleasant Memories
Grateful Reappraisal is an exercise that asks participants to recall a negative or difficult experience and reflect on it in a new light. They are asked to think about the benefits of this difficult circumstance, the positives that came from it, or how the event prepared them for situations in the future. By reflecting on these questions, participants reframe a challenging ‘open’ memory.
An open memory is a troubling memory from your past that you feel is not yet behind you and is poorly understood. It’s an emotional memory that may intrude into your consciousness at unwelcome times, and you feel you have some “unfinished business” associated with this memory. In other words, in many ways this emotional memory is still an “open book” for you (Watkins, 2018).
Watkins suggests that Grateful Processing of unpleasant open memories works because it brings more closure to those memories, decreases the unpleasant emotional impact of recalling those memories, and decreases the intrusiveness of the memories (Watkins, 2018).
My focus for The Visit, my gratitude project, was to experiment with a variety of positive psychology interventions, including the gratitude exercises outlined above. But my efforts, at first, revolved around journaling about The Three Blessings, which quickly moved from a daily goal to a weekly occurrence:
February 21, 2017 What went well today and why?
I was able to take a walk outside today as the sun was setting. It was good to be away from the office and technology for a while.
I started my day off with Starbucks. It was a nice change of pace to start a busy day.
I made initial reservations for my two week cross-country train ride and the route and plan all seem to be coming together.
I discovered later that the most effective frequency for recording blessings was also supported by research conducted by Lyubomirsky et al. (2005), which found that participants who counted blessings once a week reported increased well-being more than those who counted blessings three days a week. In fact, the students who counted blessings three times a week actually experienced a decrease in their well-being (as did those in the no-intervention control group). This was a single study, but it may suggest that counting blessings less frequently may make the activity more meaningful and sustainable over the long-term—perhaps because, as the researchers speculate, one becomes numb to the novelty and benefits of counting one’s blessings if it’s performed more frequently.
Writing and Delivering Letters of Gratitude or the Gratitude Visit
One month into my gratitude project, I determined that the time investment to complete each daily positive emotion intervention on top of preparing for the weekly meaningful conversations and writing the gratitude letters was indeed too much. I quickly narrowed my project to just focusing on completing the 12 Gratitude Visits, which was also inspired and supported by additional research.
Emmons (2013) suggests the following:
One of the most effective ways to deepen your own gratefulness is to write a letter of gratitude to an important person in your life whom you’ve never properly taken the time to thank and then visit that person to present him or her with the letter… Studies published in the most rigorous scientific publications show that the gratitude visit can increase happiness and decrease depression in the letter writer for as long as three months after the visit.
A number of studies have attempted to identify the impact of writing and reading gratitude letters on overall well-being. In one study, participants were asked to write a gratitude letter once a week for three weeks; after completing the exercise, they were happier, less depressed, and more satisfied with their lives (Toepfer et al., 2012). In another study, participants who were assigned to write a gratitude letter that they were told would be sent to the person they were thanking reported increased positive affect and decreased negative affect (Allen, 2018).
Research from Martin Seligman’s positive psychology laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania has shown that gratitude visits can help improve well-being. Seligman et al. (2005) report in their article “Positive Psychology Interventions”: “gratitude visits, caused large positive changes for one month” (p. 416).
These were the instructions that Seligman (2002) and his assistants gave participants:
Select one important person from your past who has made a major positive difference in your life and to whom you have never fully expressed your thanks. Choose someone who is still alive. Write a testimonial just long enough to cover one laminated page. Take your time composing this – several weeks if required. Invite that person to your home or travel to that person’s home. It is important that you do this face to face, not just in writing or on the phone. Do not tell the person the purpose of the visit in advance.
Bring a laminated version of your testimonial with you as a gift. Read your testimonial aloud slowly, with expression and eye contact. Then let the other person react unhurriedly. Reminisce together about the concrete events that make this person so important to you (p. 74).
After initial debate about whether or not to follow through with my first letter to my mother, I decided it was worth the risk. I invited her to breakfast at IHOP. After ordering, I surprised her and told her I wanted to read her something. I pulled out the letter, which I framed for her to keep, and I began reading. She seemed a surprised at first but listened attentively. I expected my mom to start crying in places, but I found that I was much more emotional than she was. I took my time working me way through the letter, something Seligman instructed his participants to do; I paused at points to enjoy remembering and reminiscing and to ask questions.
I wrote this in my journal:
Our conversation revolved around the letter for a little while, but then we talked about other memories, my birth, adoption of my brother, and other family matters.
I asked her about the circumstances of my birth, about miscarriages before and after. She said that they weren’t able to have children at first. That they adopted my brother because of their infertility. And then she found out later, after the adoption, that she was pregnant and had a miscarriage. She then had my two sisters, me and then had another miscarriage.
After reading the letter, I almost instantly felt peace and contentment. I experienced a deeper sense of grounding and connection to my mother but also to something greater. I felt confidence and joy, or maybe well-being. Whatever anxiety or fear I had before almost completely disappeared and was replaced by satisfaction.
I wondered how long my positive emotional state following the reading of my letter last. The research suggests that results last anywhere from one to six months after the reading of the letter.
I found that the initial impact, however, lasted about a day.
On day three, I had returned to baseline: somewhat melancholy and reflective due to the winter months. I had to decide whether or not I wanted to go through with the experiment. I had already narrowed down my project significantly from the original version. Now, I was considering abandoning the entire thing; I felt as if I may have fallen prey to the placebo effect, or a victim of unrealistic wishful thinking.
Although Seligman’s initial research showed greater happiness and decreased symptoms of depression one month later, Allen (2018) reports a potential bias:
It’s important to note that the subjects in this study were recruited from Seligman’s website for his book Authentic Happiness and were told that they were participating in a study intended to increase participants’ well-being. This process for recruiting participants may have led to self-selection effects, which could help explain why the results reported in this study were stronger than those from other studies (p. 34).
Watkins (2018) reports that the initial impact of the gratitude visit is much greater than other interventions like using your signature strengths, and counting blessings (three good things); the research has shown, however, there are no long-term benefits after six months. (Seligman et al., 2005).
I had experienced a greater increase in my emotional state for a couple of days, but with a return to baseline in such a short amount of time, I wondered about the reliability of the research on gratitude and the efficacy of my gratitude project to improve well-being.
The Limits of Gratitude Interventions
I started to find evidence indicating that the research on positive psychology interventions was not as promising as some might suggest. Davis et al. (2016), in their article, Thankful for the Little Things: A Meta-Analysis of Gratitude Interventions, report: “Our results provide weak evidence for the efficacy of gratitude interventions” (p. 25).
Davis et al. (2016) suggest that their research calls into question the value of additional exploration of gratitude interventions:
In fact, a cautious interpretation of our findings is that gratitude interventions may operate primarily through placebo effects…. Consistent with this idea, in a review of self-directed interventions to promote psychological well-being, Lyubomirsky and Layous (2013) concluded that engaging in any regular activities involving self-discipline seems to promote psychological well-being” (p. 26).
Berger et al. (2019), in their article on the efficacy of interpersonal versus noninterpersonal gratitude interventions, state, “Gratitude interventions have generally been shown to enhance psychological well-being (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Toepfer et al., 2012), but not trait gratitude (Watkins et al., 2003)” (p. 27).
Watkins (2018) suggests there are caveats to gratitude interventions and that one reason gratitude research may not be as effective or why it is more impactful for some is that initial studies have discovered that it might be more beneficial to those who need it the most:
Depressed people gain more from grateful recounting than those not depressed. Several studies have found that ungrateful people gain most from a gratitude intervention. Although women enjoy grateful recounting more than men, men gain more from gratitude interventions.
Those who enjoyed grateful recounting the least, benefitted most from this treatment, over the long run (p. 105).
According to Allen (2018), a growing number of studies have evaluated the impact of various gratitude practices, which have helped to verify many of the benefits of gratitude. Results from these studies also conclude, as Watkins does, that some people are more drawn to – and benefit from – certain gratitude interventions.
Though my initial positive results from reading my letter to my mother were not as long-lasting as I had hoped, I nonetheless decided to press on with a broader view of the research and more realistic expectations. The key, according to research, would be to sustain the activity, at least every six weeks, to see a longer-lasting impact on well-being. While there is evidence that gratitude visits have the greatest positive impact on well-being when compared to other gratitude and positive psychology practices, it is also clear that any boosts in happiness return to baseline within a few months without continued practice. By conducting my visits once a month, I would potentially be able to sustain the benefits of gratitude over time.
I found the act of writing, however, to be much more challenging than I had initially expected. While Seligman suggested writing the letter over several weeks if necessary, I didn’t anticipate the amount of emotional and intellectual energy it would take to draft, craft, and revise the letters each month. It was a beneficial exercise, in and of itself, to reflect on the good that came into my life through the people with whom I came in contact, many of whom had life-changing roles to play. Research has also shown that there is benefit to the act of writing letters of gratitude without delivering them for this very reason; it serves the same purpose as the Three Good Things exercise, of Grateful Recounting.
For my second letter, I decided to write to a friend and colleague. After a couple of drafts, I invited him to lunch at my house, not mentioning anything about the letter.
March 24, 2017
I would like to express my gratitude to you for all that you’ve done for me in these past few years.
Life is amazing sometimes. No doubt that it is heart-wrenching, butt-kicking, and even a little debilitating, okay a lot debilitating. But life also surprises you occasionally with good people, kindness of strange folks, and sometimes even glimpses of grace. You are one of those bright spots, an unexpected godsend to show me the way through a very dark tunnel.
As you may remember, I first met you at a monthly dinner gathering. I had just moved back to Cincinnati, knowing very few folks. I then sat next to you at the next dinner gathering in a Middle Eastern restaurant. It was an odd setting, watching a middle-aged belly dancer parade up and down the alley in between the tables. But the evening was ordained by God, I believe, as it gave me additional opportunities to talk with you.
The friendship continued after that night as I pursued you for advice, contacts, and employment opportunities. You could have easily dismissed me and my requests for information and support, but you offered help and access to your life.
You have a tremendous ability to welcome people in by disarming and even empowering others with your humor, which is one of many qualities that I admire and envy about you. I also appreciate your deep sense of self; you know and are comfortable with who you are. This allows for a self-deprecation that also helps others relax and forget about themselves for a while.
One of the greatest gifts you gave me is support for my professional
aspirations. I’ve greatly appreciated your willingness to commit free
time to help me make career connections, meet colleagues, and
especially partner on our UC Forward grant project. It was a
challenge but always a pleasure to collaborate and create alongside
you on behalf of students, the university and Aywa.
But most of all, Dan, I am truly grateful for your willingness to take a
younger man under your wings; you were instrumental in nurturing
my broken spirit to life during one of those debilitating times.
While there are many differences about us, our personalities, appearance, personal history and the like, there are many more experiences that bond us. The most apparent that comes to mind is also shared by Robert Frost in his poem “A Lesson for Today”:
I hold your doctrine of Memento Mori.
And were an epitaph to be my story
I’d have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone:
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.
Thank you, Dan, for not only sharing your life with me, but for letting me walk beside you for a bit and share my ‘lover’s quarrel’ journey with you.
Seligman’s (2002) instructions to his research participants suggest to “let the other person react unhurriedly. Reminisce together about the concrete events that make this person so important to you” (p. 74). The first thing I noticed after completing my reading was an initial positive mood change in Dan. He and I took time to recall situations and dwell on the memories. He also told me that this letter was timely. He had recently started going to therapy because of increased anxiety. His therapist suggested that Dan find sources of support and comfort, like pillows, that he could hold onto during moments of stress. Dan said that this letter and the experience of listening to me read it to him would be a pillow for him for months to come.
In Seligman’s initial research on gratitude visits, he reported that the emotional states of both parties (the deliverer and the recipient) are improved for up to a month after the letter is read. Though I didn’t experience those longer-term emotional benefits after my two initial visits, my mood was boosted for a day or two after my meeting with Dan, much as it had been with my meeting with my mom.
In my third month, my gratitude visit was with Steve, a former college student of mine with whom I’d remained in contact with over the ten years since he’d graduated. He was visiting from the east coast, and I surprised him with the letter. As in my visit with my mom, I found that reading each letter came with a feeling of vulnerability and risk. I wrestled with thoughts of whether or not my words would be received well; I worried about how my friends would respond. That seems counterintuitive to me because who wouldn’t want to hear how you have impacted their lives for the good. But the reality was that I felt anxious the days, hours and moments before each visit. In each case, however, I managed to push through the initial thoughts and feelings of apprehension. This is my letter to Steve.
Saturday, April 15, 2017
I would like to express my gratitude to you for all that you’ve meant to me these past several years.
I remember one of the first times I spoke with you was in my office at Somerset. I believe the meeting was motivated by concern that Jim M. had about you; we had been talking about some of our observations and interactions with you. It was clear to us that you were going through a difficult time. I remember feeling so much compassion for you as you sat across from me at my desk. But I also had great hope because of the incredible potential I saw in you. I’ve had countless exchanges with friends, colleagues, employees, clients and family who were struggling; many of those times, I couldn’t see a way out of their difficulties for them. But I could see promise for you.
One of my hopes early on in our interactions was for you to feel a sense of belonging and connection, to someone you could trust, but also to a larger community of faith and strength. Around this same time, we got our small group going with Jeff, Nick and Corey. Jeff and Nick started crashing at my place a couple nights a week and you would stop by after classes. We talked, prayed and laughed throughout the evening, sometimes overnight. The dynamic between us was inviting and inspiring, the epitome of community. It still stands out to me as a period of great meaning and fulfillment.
Our conversations and visits expanded to include Jen, Star, Melanie, and Shanon. We went from my apartment to the gym and up onto the fields of Zarephath. I can’t remember a time when I laughed as hard as I did while playing volleyball that morphed into some kind of dodgeball or taking in the grandeur of the cosmos while discussing the deeper meaning of dingleberries.
At some point in our journey together within this larger community, the compassion I felt for you and our crazy, beautiful Christian clan returned to me, as a mutual kinship developed; I started relating to you more as a friend than as a teacher to a student. Even though I felt a need to keep it professional, the student began drawing the teacher out.
Our journey took our core group on an adventure to Colorado where we battled for each other’s hearts and contemplated what it meant to restore the world and rescue beauties. These central Eldredge Wild at Heart themes, along with Somerset’s paradigm of God’s larger story, inward journey and outward call, framed our world and infused our lives with purpose.
I think the storyline that echoes our first dialogue from twelve years ago and continues to sustain our friendship is hope for one another’s well-being and potential. This theme still runs deep as we’ve sat across from one another in conversations throughout the years; I believe the best for you and imagine fresh opportunities as you realize great possibility.
But one of the strongest themes that I see and feel alive in you, despite or perhaps because of tragedy and desperation in your story, is love. When visiting you in Jersey after moving back to Ohio, I shared with you my challenges to grow in an authentic faith while searching for deeper meaning and a sense of calling and vocation. I was concerned you wouldn’t understand or that any respect I had from you as your former professor might change. To my great surprise, you reached out to me in love and compassion. You shared your own stories and struggles with relationships, divorce, addiction and recovery; it was clear that the central themes of your life were love and redemption, which helped restore and deepen my faith, to make sense of my world, to carry on.
There is a scene from the movie The Village that captures what I think about when I think about you. Ivy, the main heroine, is blind. She lives in modern times but secluded from civilization with her family in a primitive village. She has never been outside the surrounding barriers of the insular community; but her betrothed, Lucius, has been stabbed and will die without proper medicine. Her father, Edward Walker, the founder and leader of the village, decides to go against the elders’ agreement to not let anyone venture outside the walls circling their town. This is where the scene picks up:
Mrs. Clack: [Edward Walker tells the group he has sent Ivy to the towns to fetch medicines] What have you done?
Edward Walker: He is the victim of a crime.
Mrs. Clack: We have agreed never to go back. Never.
Edward Walker: What was the purpose of our leaving? Don't forget, it was out of hope of something good and right.
Robert Percy: You should not have made decisions without us!
Edward Walker: I'm guilty, Robert! I made a decision of the heart, I cannot look into another's eyes and see the same look I see in August's without justification! It is too painful, I cannot bear it!
Mrs. Clack: You have jeopardized everything we have made.
Edward Walker: Who do you think will continue this place, this life? Do you plan to live forever? It is in them that our future lies. It is in Ivy and Lucius that this way of life will continue. Yes, I have risked! I hope I am always able to risk everything for the just and right cause. If we did not make this decision, we could never again call ourselves innocent, and that in the end is what we have protected here: innocence! That, I'm not ready to give up.
August Nicholson: Let her go. If it ends, it ends. We can move towards hope, that's what's beautiful about this place. We cannot run from heartache. My brother was slain in the towns, the rest of my family died here. Heartache is a part of life, we know that now. Ivy is running toward hope, let her run. If this place is worthy, she'll be successful in her quest.
Mrs. Clack: How could you have sent her? She is blind.
Edward Walker: She is more capable than most in this village. And she is led by love. The world moves for love. It kneels before it in awe.
Thank you for your role in my story, Steve. You have been a source of significant inspiration, hope and most of all, love.
Following my visit with Steve, I wrote about the experience in my journal:
As far as how this experience impacted me, I feel good having taken the time to write and read the letter. I can’t say I feel as grounded as I did with my mom when I read her the letter. But as I’ve told friends who have asked me how it is going, I started this journey primarily as an experiment in well-being, to see how doing various interventions will boost my emotional and overall well-being. But it has shifted a little bit. I’m still intrigued how the gratitude letters will help me, but I’m doing this more for others as well. And from what I’ve learned about gratitude and its benefits is that it is about focusing more outside of yourself, to move from a self-centered paradigm to more of an others-centered experience. To give rather than receive. It seems if I can continue to capture that, regardless of how it makes me feel, I will end up feeling better anyways as a byproduct of my self-sacrifice; I imagine this is the heart of volunteering and gift- giving and child rearing and love making and almost anything else in life worth living for.
After my first three visits in Cincinnati, my home base, I planned trips all over the United States, traveling to the Northeast, across Middle America by train, drove north to Buffalo, New York, and south to Wilmore, Kentucky, and flew to the Northwest to deliver letters of gratitude to friends and family who made lasting impacts on my life. As the months continued on, however, my travel plans and letter writing took most of my free time. I often wrote several drafts of each letter, which took me two to three weeks. I stopped journaling and reflecting on how the letters were impacting my emotional state and got caught up in the experience of the visits; my initial project design and goals of increased well-being and a better mood faded into background.
My next act of gratitude took me to Colorado. I had been planning a cross-country train ride for my birthday, which provided me the opportunity to stop in Grand Junction, CO to visit with a few close friends. The first was Stephen.
I had known Stephen for almost twenty years. We had become friends through one of the college courses I taught and then eventually worked together in New Jersey. Our adventures had also taken us on a cross country bike trip one summer, covering 3700 miles from San Francisco to New Jersey. When Stephen decided he needed a change of scenery and life direction, he made his move from the east coast to Denver, CO for graduate school and then eventually to Grand Junction to launch his counseling practice.
I invited Stephen to meet me with in a local coffee shop, again, without telling him that I was about to ambush him with gratitude.
Saturday, May 9, 2017
I would like to express my gratitude to you for the impact you have had on my life.
But how do I start? How can I possibly capture all that you have meant to me in a one to two-page letter? Even though our journeys have taken us in different directions and into the lives of many others that we never dreamed of these past several years, the memory of your impact on my life will always remain consistent, strong, and hard to contain in a few words.
I think one of the first times we met was in my counseling classroom at Zarephath. Who would have thought that we would become friends, work together, bike across country, and travel the world together. To this day, that particular counseling class was one of the most engaging and rewarding experiences I’ve had as an instructor, and I think that had a lot to do with the authentic spirit and subtle leadership you modeled. I have always been drawn to your vulnerability, Stephen. Even though, or rather especially because, your story has involved a good deal of family challenges and emotional obstacles, your brokenness has allowed you to become a powerful and courageous wounded warrior and healer. I know firsthand because you have served those roles in my life.
Vulnerability, authenticity, and healing are actually the persistent themes, the threads that knit the memories of my friendship with you together. I recall a time at Somerset when you were struggling with what to do with your life. You were working at the college as a chief financial officer, but your gifting and interests did not line up at all with this vocation.
One morning, as I was on my way to my office, I stepped into yours to see how you were doing. You asked me to close the door, and I sat across from you as you unloaded your sense of emptiness and purposelessness. You broke down in tears as I listened and tried to do what I could to console you. We both knew that you were meant to be somewhere and do something else in life, where you could heal and understand your pain and place in the world. I think at around this same time we came across Ransomed Heart ministries.
I remember one of our journeys to Wild at Heart, the people we met, and the conversations we had. This came to be one of the most meaningful and adventurous chapters of my life. One of the more enlightening times at a Colorado retreat was when we were there together. After one session, Eldredge closed with this scene from BraveHeart,
William Wallace: Sons of Scotland! I am William Wallace.
Young Soldier: William Wallace is seven feet tall!
William Wallace: Yes, I've heard. Kills men by the hundreds. And if HE were here, he'd consume the English with fireballs from his eyes, and bolts of lightning from his arse.
William Wallace: I am William Wallace! And I see a whole army of my countrymen, here in defiance of tyranny. You've come to fight as free men... and free men you are. What will you do with that freedom? Will you fight?
Veteran: Fight? Against that? No! We will run. And we will live.
William Wallace: Aye, fight and you may die. Run, and you'll live... at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willin' to trade ALL the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they'll never take... OUR FREEDOM!
Following that session and scene, it was my turn to break down. I wept so long and hard that snot started to flow from my nose. But I remember you, Scott, and our newfound friend, Murph, waited for me as everyone else cleared the room. You fought for my heart, for my freedom, like so many other times before and since then.
I have always felt welcome in your presence Stephen. You have offered the right amount of support and challenge. Your kind and generous spirit was and is accompanied by a fierceness, a loyalty, a love of risk and adventure.
And then came one of the greatest, and most challenging, adventures of our lives – to bike across America. After 7.5 weeks and 3700 miles, there are so many stories to tell. Like the one at the campground, the piss pot, and our subsequent expulsion. I can remember you so vividly marching to the landlady’s office, knocking on the door, and telling her as it cracked open, “I’m disappointed in you.” Even in confrontation and anger, you found a way to show vulnerability, to lead with your sincerity.
You’ve played one of the more significant roles in my life these past couple of decades, Stephen. There was the time that you invited me to your brother’s place on the lake, the trips to Camp of the Woods, and the Thanksgiving gathering at your mom’s home where we led, or tried to lead, your family in song. The small groups, pining away for the right companion, longing for a purposeful vocation – we’ve covered a lot of territory in the years and stories we’ve shared.
I have been so pleased to know you, Stephen. You have been a great friend and a fine example of how to live a life of honor. You are living in your dreams now. You’ve battled and struggled to restore your own life and heart, to walk and honor God. And now look at you. You fought for years to find your place, to make your own way in this life. Now look at you. You longed for a partner to share your love with, to bear your sons. Look at you. It is so remarkable for me to take this time writing this letter and reflect back on where you’ve come from and the life you’ve crafted for yourself under God’s presence.
So, what can I say, Stephen, about what you’ve meant to me and who you are? You are courage, you are compassion, you are Big Dog.
Thank you for your part in my story. I will always be grateful of your pervasive example in my life to live according to Malcolm Wallace’s advice to young William, “Your heart is free. Have the courage to follow it.”
As with most of my gratitude recipients, our post letter reminiscing grounded the content and cemented the memories of our shared experiences. My visit came at a particularly challenging time for Stephen; a husband and the father of two young sons, a growing counseling practice, and little time for personal and relational refreshment made life complicated and wearisome. Our visit created space to reflect on the good in our lives and provide both of us with a release from our worries.
While in Grand Junction, I was also able to visit with a married couple, friends who I had met through Stephen several years prior; Dany and Nadine were peace corps and missionary kids. Dany, the eldest son of Dutch and German parents, grew up in Senegal, where he met Nadine, the daughter of a Peace Corps Director. After living outside of Dakar for several years with their four young daughters, they made the move back to the States and settled in Grand Junction where I met them. In the years following our initial meeting, I had traveled to Senegal on three different occasions with teams of volunteers to assist with their trade school and non-profit, Awya International based in Malika, West Africa.
I had written and planned to read my letter to Dany and Nadine upon my visit, but Dany was called on an emergency back to Senegal, where his mother was still living and ministering. I hadn’t told Nadine of my plans for the letter; after we finished her roasted beef dinner, I pulled out my letter and told her I wanted to read her something. Her four teen daughters and Nadine listened attentively as I read.
Saturday May 5, 2017
Dear Nadine and Dany,
I would like to express my gratitude to you both for the impact that our conversations and friendship have had on me these past several years.
The first time I met you, Dany, was in a coffee shop in downtown Grand Junction in 2008. I was on one of my walkabouts across the US and looking for connection and direction in life. Stephen thought the world of you, your experiences, work on the mission field, and overall outlook on life. I was intrigued by your story even before I met you. I only grew in admiration as I got to know you personally; I was particularly impressed with your ability to find light and hope in the midst of darkness in both your own history and in the lives and stories of your African brothers. If you remember, I filmed our first conversation. You introduced me to the stories of the Malika Monkeys, the trade school, biofuel production, and the West African way. I remember you as gracious, worldly-wise, and expansive in your attitude and dreams. You also invited me to come to Senegal to stay for a while and do some filming. Planning for my ’12 months to live” project, I jumped on the opportunity and so began our six year collaboration in documentary film, social entrepreneurship and sustainability. But beyond our projects, there was so much more about life that I observed and learned from being around you.
Now, after almost ten years, my respect for you has only grown as you have remained resolute not only in your passion to help the men and women of Senegal, but also in your pursuit of personal wholeness, creative pursuits, and your commitment to your family. While you could have very easily caved under the stress of family tragedy through the years or given up under the weight of Aywa’s mission, you slugged and slogged your way through to new levels of personal and vocational clarity. No doubt, the love of Nadine and your family and your extensive network of friends have buoyed you through turbulent times. But, for sure, you have made very critical, incremental, risky, life-changing decisions that have impacted not only your own spiritual and emotional health but also raised the level of well-being for countless others around the globe.
As you get ready for the next big chapter of your life, one that will literally take you out to sea, I can’t help but think of this poem that epitomizes much of what I witnessed to be your philosophy of life:
I am tired of sailing my little boat,
Far inside the harbor bar.
I want to go out where the big ships float,
Out on the deep where the great ones are.
And should my frail craft prove too slight,
for waves that sweep those billows o’er,
I’d rather go down in the stirring fight,
than drowse to death by the sheltered shore.”
And then came Nadine. At some point in this story, I was invited to a Bode family dinner, where I met you, Nadine, and your amazing daughters. There are few, if any other, families that I’ve been around where I felt such mutual respect shared between parents, their children and random strangers like me. My dad would often say, when he would reflect on the character and accomplishments of his four kids, that it was his wife, my mother, who did the lion’s share of the child rearing. Dany has said very similar things about you. He’s said that he was and is the lucky one to have you in his life, fortunate to have such a brilliant companion who has done an amazing job raising captivating young women. And that’s exactly what I’ve observed, Nadine, in my interactions with you.
I’ve known you almost as long Dany. I felt from our early conversations
that you had an intelligence and wit that could be very intimidating if it
also wasn’t accompanied by an equal amount of humility and humanity.
You’ve seen your share of tragedy, but I think it has shaped you in ways
you couldn’t imagine. In the words of Marianne Williamson, “Something
very beautiful happens to people when their world has fallen apart: a
humility, a nobility, a higher intelligence emerges at just the point when
our knees hit the floor.”
I was actually drawn to what I saw and knew about the brokenness in
your collective family history because it seemed to create a richness
and reverence for life. Your generous spirit, certainly opened doors of
communication early on; I loved the dialogue and collaboration of
working on the documentary and the freedom I felt to explore all the
different places our stories have taken us throughout our lives.
A favorite story of mine that I think epitomizes the romance and adventure I see alive in both your lives, is one that you, Nadine, have told me on a few occasions. This is my paraphrased version. As you were getting to know one another, you found yourselves stuck on the coast, I think, in Senegal in a rain storm. You were stranded without food and shelter. From my recollection, you, Nadine, weren’t quite sure about this religious, wildman, but that was about to change. Dany, the consummate survivalist that he was, fashioned a spear, stripped down to his shorts, and dove into the water. He soon rose out of the sea with a fish in hand. After frying it up for your feast that night, he certainly got your attention then.
You are both true warriors, entrepreneurs, and adventurers. But even more importantly, you are true romantics. You’ve battled for the hearts of your family as you’ve fought for your own lives. You’ve pushed the edges of what seems possible with little regard to your own reputation or success. But the most persistent theme I’ve witnessed in my time with you through the years is your desire to walk in the way of Jesus, who was the pinnacle of what it means to sacrifice, to love. I’ve experienced firsthand how you’ve walked in what I would consider the love of God when I’ve shared the anomalies of my life; I’ve always been met with deep kindness and enduring friendship.
I have such high regard for both of you. I’m grateful for your perspectives on life and relationships and the example of your loyalty to one another, your family, and others you seek to serve. I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to meet you, and I hope our journeys continue to intersect throughout the rest of our lives. But even if they don’t as much as I’d like, I am a much richer man because of the people you are.
Thank you for your part in my story.
I met up with Steve again in the spring of 2021 to revisit my gratitude letter to him.
Steve also surprised me with a gratitude letter for me.
Stephen and I were able to connect again via zoom in 2021. I asked him to join me in my new gratitude project by writing and reading a letter to someone who impacted him. He chose his mother, which this audio clip highlights.
After my two-week train ride out west and back to Ohio, I took a couple of weeks to prepare for my next gratitude victims, another married couple who I had known for 35 years; I had become close friends with Todd and Tina through Todd’s brother, who I met in graduate school in Kentucky. While they lived in New York, I developed a friendship with Todd’s siblings and his future wife after moving to New Jersey for work.
During a particularly difficult time in my life, faced with an extended period of unemployment and depression, they reached out to me with support and encouragement, which became a central theme of my letter and visit with them.
I would often travel to Pennsylvania to stay with Todd and Tina for a few days, so, on one of my scheduled visits, over a dinner out at a street side cafe, I surprised them with my letter.
Tuesday, June 06, 2017
Dear Todd and Tina,
I wrote both of you this letter to express my gratitude for all that you’ve meant to me. I’d like to take the time to read it to you.
It has been more than half my life time that I’ve known you. Wow, that’s more than 25 years. Not possible. Over this time, we have all been through more than a lifetime of challenges and changes. But we’ve somehow managed to stay connected over a few decades of family crises (mostly yours), emotional breakdowns (mostly mine), and spiritual set-backs (yours and mine). A common theme in our friendship and in this letter comes from Proverbs, “A broken spirit saps a person's strength, but a cheerful heart is good medicine.” Let me explain.
Todd, I always felt a kind of kinship with you. Your ability to listen and engage in meaningful conversation made me feel a bond and trust with you early on. Even though we had very limited interactions through the years because of geographical distance, I always enjoyed our time together. You are one of the very few people I feel I can tell almost anything to, and then in the same breath, also joke about with, whatever the subject. Your unconditional, non-judgmental attitude, along with our mutual sardonic humor, has fostered trust enough for me to tell you most of my deepest concerns..
Tina, I remember the first time I met you in New York along with Wendy. Through the years, I have also found it easy to talk to and trust you; you’ve made me feel welcome and at home. I’ve always been impressed with your ability to put people at ease and strike a balance between humor and respect…even if in an irreverent kind of way. Your laughter is a part of who you are; you are generous, forgiving, and gracious. I feel like no matter what I say, you can appreciate where I’m coming from even if you don’t agree with it. I enjoy the exchange of ideas and interests, values and dreams. Whenever I’ve visited you and Todd, no matter how brief, you’ve shown me tremendous hospitality.
If I had to pick the top three most unselfish and touching acts from other people in my life, one of those would be when the two of you offered to pay for my way to visit you about six years ago. You may or may not recall, but it came at a time of unemployment and aloneness for me; it was one of the lowest points in my life when I felt little hope with no opportunities for jobs. It took all the mental and emotional energy I had just to make it through each day.
I started seeing a counselor and got on medication for depression. As I met with the counselor and unfolded my story and how I felt on the brink of self-destruction, one message became clear - I just needed to find a way to survive.
Around this same time, I remember sitting in my car outside the homeless shelter where I was volunteering when I got your call and your offer of an all-expense paid invitation to come to your house for a few days. As I look back on it, I think it was one of those turning points in my life when I knew that I wasn’t alone.
It was like the scene from Last of the Mohicans, when Hawkeye (Daniel Day Lewis) pleaded with Cora (Madeline Stowe) before he jumped off the waterfall, “You stay alive! You're strong! You survive! You stay alive, no matter what occurs! I will find you! No matter how long it takes, no matter how far. I will find you!”
Your friendship, the freedom to be myself around lifelong friends who know me well, and the laughter - these are some of the greatest gifts that I’ve received in life; you’ve both been lifelines and instruments of healing and grace to my broken spirit. You’ve been like Hawkeye, calling out to me through the years, “You stay alive! You’re strong! No matter what occurs, you stay alive!”
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I am so grateful for your friendship. I hope that our journeys continue to intersect in our remaining years.
I started crying half way through my reading, which evoked similar emotions from Tina. This was one of the more emotional visits because of the nature of my letter and the visceral themes of prolonged personal and professional desperation. When I finished reading, I was still in tears.
Todd said, “Are we in a movie? Is this being filmed?”, echoing the impact and meaning of the moment. As I wiped my eyes and nose, I took my time reminding them of the timeliness of their unexpected intervention in my life during a period of personal isolation and darkness.
As I mentioned earlier, I stopped monitoring my emotional state and the impact of my visits by the second or third month. I still wasn’t mindful of whether or not these letters were making a difference half way through my gratitude project; I was still focused on remembering, writing, and planning my visits rather than on monitoring my well-being.
Moving into the home stretch of my year-long gratitude project, I knew that I wanted to meet with my favorite graduate school professor and mentor; Dr. Donald Joy was a professor of human development and had a reputation for facilitating raw and sometimes uncomfortable conversations about sex, development, and sexuality. I had a class with Don my first year in graduate school and eventually worked with him as an assistant in his office, classrooms, and men’s lunch discussion groups. After graduate school, I corresponded with Don, inviting him to present at university events I hosted. During my extended unemployment, I traveled often to meet with Don for encouragement and perspective.
Don had moved to a senior living center with his wife in his 80’s where we had most of our final meetings. He was still actively engaging with former students via email throughout the remainder of his life. During what would be our last meeting before his passing, I was able to deliver and read the following letter of gratitude.
Thursday, July 06, 2017
I would like to express my gratitude to you for all that you have meant to me and the impact you have had on my life.
I’m sure you hear this a lot from former students over the years, but I’m hoping it doesn’t get old or at least it is always a nice thing to hear regardless of how often you hear it: you have been like a surrogate father to me over the past three decades. You’ve provided a safe, supportive and challenging environment for me to grow towards my full potential. And you’ve believed in me when I wasn’t able to see what you could.
I think the first time I met you was in a human development class around 1990. You had a reputation amongst the guys in my circle for speaking openly and honestly about issues of relationships and sexuality, subjects that are often kept hidden and in the shadows. You were true to the rumors. It was your ability to speak about difficult and potentially embarrassing topics that I think helped disarm people and draw them to you for encouragement and counsel, which was a theme that has persisted in our relationship these past few decades.
Early on, I felt a kinship with you and knew you were someone I wanted to get to know. My desire and your receptiveness paved the way for me to work with you as a faculty assistant when you invited me to review and make notes on the manuscript for Unfinished Business. This led to a short stint as your student worker, copying tapes and managing minor office tasks. I continued to take classes with you and graduated to participating in and eventually co-facilitating your small men’s groups. And I’ve observed how you’ve spoken into the lives of other men in a number of venues.
In my long tenure at ATS, I watched how you helped other students work through addiction to pornography, catch up on delinquent work by typing their assignments for them, counsel couples in crisis, rescue troubled teens on camping excursions, and uplift depressed and anxious classmates. There have been many topics, conversations and time spent with you in the classroom, your home, over meals, in the great outdoors, and social events that have reinforced your character and heart for others. I completed two masters’ degrees over six years under your tutelage; I was at Asbury so long that you joked that you were going to find a way to give me tenure because I refused to leave. I actually did have a hard time moving on, in large part, because of the nurturing/healing community that you and other members of Asbury helped to create.
As I found my courage to fly the coop and launch out on my own
into ministry, you remained available to me for guidance and
support. I remember key touch points throughout my life when you
showed up in subtle but powerful ways. One prominent example is
when my father passed away; you sent an email to me with a
phrase that to this day I share with others who have lost their
fathers. You wrote, “You are now fatherless.” To me this statement,
which is symbolic of who you are and the impact you have on others,
affirms the reality of loss in life that actually fosters hope.
Your impact on my life became even more prominent a few years
ago during another one of my personal and professional crises.
I had just resigned from my post in New Jersey and found it essential to reconnect with you to share my story and hopefully find solace and perspective. I recall meeting with you for the first time in your front office in your new condo. I caught you up on the reason for my resignation and what my plans were. You listened intently, helping me once again feel more grounded as I unfolded this most recent wrinkle.
We continued to meet sporadically during that time to check in as I was traveling through a season of unemployment and isolation that I couldn’t seem to shake. You helped me make professional connections, you comforted me as I explored new options, and counseled me to hopefully find my way again.
Not too long ago, we conducted an exercise at a small gathering at Indiana Wesleyan University. The topic was influential mentors. There were about 15 faculty and staff, three of which identified you as their role model and mentor, primarily because you offered a safe space for them to share their stories. You are a consummate teacher, practicing and living the hidden curriculum of promoting honest dialogue about sensitive and potentially shameful topics in a safe place.
You leave a legacy of grace and forgiveness, Don, for me and so many others. Thank you for welcoming me into your life and continuing to be available to me through the years.
Don’s health had been failing, so I didn’t know what to expect from our visit. My letter provided an opportunity to recall my years under Don’s guidance, but I was mindful of limiting our time together. As I prepared to leave, I snapped a photo of us together in his bedside chair. His last words to me were, “Well, I’ll see you on the other side of the river.”
While in Kentucky meeting with Don, I had also planned to deliver a second letter for the month to a fellow graduate student friend, Anthony. We met in my first year in school as dorm and classmates. The first couple of years, we were inseparable. A homegrown Texan, Anthony brought a spirit of southern hospitality to all of his encounters. Though our careers had taken us in different directions geographically, we were able to maintain contact through the years. Anthony had also been a significant source of help during difficult transitions in my life, which had become a central theme in his letter.
I invited Anthony out to dinner, where I sprung my letter on him. As with the others, Anthony welcomed my gratitude initiative and seemed to enjoy the memory recall as much as I did.
Sunday, July 09, 2017
I would like to express my gratitude to you for the impact you have had on my life.
It is really amazing to think back on our lives, now in our 50s. I can’t believe how fast it has all gone, and from what I hear, the remaining 20 or so that we may be blessed with, pass by that much quicker.
I don’t recall the first time we met, but I do remember some of our first few encounters. I remember how big your smile was, how warm and welcoming your personality. You epitomized southern hospitality and God’s grace. I remember – mostly because you’ve reminded me of this through the years – offering you peanut butter, honey, and crackers. I remember being inseparable the first couple semesters; everyone also thought we were the best of friends.
I also remember going on group dates, standing in our friends’ weddings, talking late into the nights, forming small groups, and growing with you through both laughter and tears over the six years we were at Asbury. We had our fun, and we had our share of challenges. But we found our way through times of conflict and difference to what I think turned out to be a life-changing experience. While I learned a lot of head knowledge – and even theological wisdom and insight from the courses, readings and academic assignments – I learned much more important heart knowledge, knee-ology, if you will, from my time with you and our small band of brothers.
My seminary experience would not have been the same without you, to say the least, but even more importantly, I would not have experienced the depth of healing and freedom that I did if it wasn’t for you. And a large part of that change was working through very difficult conversations, conflict, anger, and depression with you by my side.
I’m glad we’ve been able to stay connected through the years. You’ve been a force for good and God’s grace throughout my life, Anthony. You were especially instrumental in a significant life change a few years back when I reconnected with you and Don. As always, we picked up where we left off and shared our recent journeys openly and easily.
You’ve been a tremendous source of encouragement, acceptance, honesty, and empathy, Anthony, throughout my life. You are an ambassador of God’s grace. It was and is a pleasure to call you a friend and to see you evolve through the years, to remain steadfast in your faith as the punches just keep on coming your way.
I know I speak for countless others who you have nurtured and challenged along your journey, thank you for the impact you have had on my life.
Anthony and I enjoyed one another’s company, laughed and cried in our nostalgic recollections. Though we also reminded one another of the relational challenges we had with one another during our seminary days, the focus on gratitude for the good outshined everything else.
In August, I wrote a letter to a fellow graduate school friend, former co-worker and pastor. A month prior, I had discovered that he had just lost his job. I texted him and asked if I could meet with him. I didn’t tell him I wanted to read him a letter of gratitude until we sat down across from one another at a diner in New York:
Monday, August 28, 2017
I would like to express my gratitude to you for the meaning, purpose, success and so much more that you have given me and helped me discover in my life.
From my vantage point, you are clearly a product of your father’s humility and your mother’s warm hospitality. And in many ways, you are the embodiment of your father’s life verse – to love mercy, live justly and walk humbly with God. I’ve admired your compassion for others, your desire for God, and your openness to being influenced by others’ ideas and interests. But I think one trait or characteristic that defines you above all else is the word magnanimous, meaning that you are generous in forgiving an insult or injury, free from petty resentfulness or vindication, high-minded, noble.
I’ve seen you in a number of settings and situations over the years where I’ve witnessed your character. I remember one incident that a mutual friend told me about more than 20 years ago. During one of our soccer practices at seminary, a local man, who seemed to be emotionally unstable, got frustrated on the field and punched you in the face. But instead of swinging back or even showing any kind of anger towards him, you didn’t retaliate in any way. To me, that shows a great deal of magnanimity.
Also, you could have made hundreds of thousands and potentially millions of dollars working outside your denomination as a physical therapist, but you chose a life of service and impact, of helping others, of changing lives. You have offered your home, your car, your time and resources to me and so many others without any expectation of getting something in return. You cared for your mom and dad, your wife’s mom and dad; you’ve taken in family members and friends, you’ve created and provided housing and opportunities, and you’ve changed the future of probably thousands of people and families through your work and ministry over four decades. That, to me, is noble, magnanimous.
And I’ve been the beneficiary of this generosity first hand. Through your friendship, your concern and listening ear, you were one of a team of people over the years who helped me find success in life and ministry. At each step of my career, you supported me in my endeavors, affirmed my creativity, helped me take risks and pick up pieces when things didn’t go as well as planned.
My time in graduate school with friends like you and professors like Jerry and Don have shaped my outlook more than I realize. One phrase that I picked up during our time together in seminary from Dr. Walls that I have had to come back to often throughout my life is “O Felix Culpa” or “O Happy Fault” or “Divine Tragedy”. This reminds me of Don’s approach to people and yours, that of mining for gold in the midst of the muck of life. And friendships like yours has reinforced these truths and has empowered me to integrate the trauma and tragedies of life.
In so many ways, for so much of what I’ve been able to accomplish in my life both personally and professionally, I owe a debt of gratitude to you. So, I thank you for your impact on my life and role in my story. You are a man of great generosity and nobility, of mercy and magnanimity.
As previously stated, in Seligman’s initial research, he reported that the emotional states of both the deliverer and the recipient are improved for up to a month after the letter is read. Although I hadn’t focused on monitoring my emotional state as much as I did initially, I noticed my mood changed during and after my time with John. I also noticed a significant initial positive mood change in my friend immediately after reading him my letter. His life had been dramatically altered in the days and weeks prior to my visit. Because he had lost his job recently and was not certain where he would end up professionally, he was understandably having a hard time finding solace. He did not expect to be a recipient of gratitude and grace. I did not ask John about how my letter impacted his mood, but he continued to express appreciation to me for weeks and months after I delivered it to him.
Why Gratitude and the Gratitude Visit Worked for Me
As my gratitude visit project came to an end, I read over the letters I had written and reflected on the places I had gone and the relationships that were renewed over the 12 months. Though I had stopped tracking my emotional state after the second month, I realized that my melancholy and seasonal affective issues had changed for the better. Most winters in recent memory were accompanied by sadness and even a low-grade depression. But in the spring of 2018, a few months after my project was complete, I noticed I had not felt depressed over the winter months. But, as I analyzed my experience a little closer, I knew there were a number of factors that contributed to my boost in well-being along with the writing and delivering of the letters. The following concluding section provides an overview of the research around why the practice of gratitude helps support well-being in general and how it helped me in specific.
Minimize Hedonic Adaptation
My project, the Visit, helped me manage hedonic adaptation, or what is referred to as the “hedonic treadmill,” which is the phenomenon of returning to a baseline of happiness regardless of life’s circumstances or positive and/or negative experiences. Even though I quickly returned to my normal seasonal affective state within a couple of days after reading my first gratitude letter to my mother at the beginning of my year, in other words, I got back on the hedonic treadmill rather quickly, the regular practice of focusing on the good in my life through relationships helped me in the long run.
“Gratitude promotes the savoring of positive life experiences and situations so that maximum satisfaction and enjoyment are distilled from one’s circumstances,” suggests psychologists Sonja Lyubomirksy, Kennon Sheldon, and David Schkade (2005) in their paper, Pursuing Happiness. They continue, “This practice may directly counteract the effects of hedonic adaptation by helping people extract as much appreciation from the good things in their lives as possible” (p. 2482).
Reframe Open Memories
In preparation for my yearlong project, I thought about and listed the numerous people who had a lasting impact on my life. Many of those relationships, while largely positive, also included open or negative memories. I had lost contact with some close friends because of misunderstandings and differences that were unresolved. My goal in writing and reading my letters of gratitude to these friends was not to re-establish a relationship with them necessarily, but it was to possibly resolve or at least reframe open memories.
According to a series of studies conducted by Lambert, Fincham and Stillman, there is evidence to suggest that:
Gratitude is negatively associated with symptoms of depression; further analysis attributed this relationship to the fact that when people experience gratitude, they recast negative experiences in a more positive light and experience more positive emotion, both of which reduce the pain of negative emotions. (Allen, 2018, p. 34).
Utilize Signature Strengths
Early on in the research and planning phase of my project, I previously stated that Kaufman’s (2015) study concluded there are strengths and virtues that are more predictive of well-being than others. Based on Seligman and Peterson’s work related to what they refer to as character strengths, (e.g. humility, creativity, prudence, humor, etc…), Kaufman’s (2015) regression analysis discovered that gratitude and love of learning were the greatest predictors of well-being.
Research also suggests that active awareness of one’s character strengths makes it much more likely that you will flourish. After identifying my top five virtues or signature strengths, including love of learning, I designed my gratitude project, which included a process of discovery, of pursuing curiosity, creativity and love of learning. While gratitude was not one of my top strengths, Kaufman’s research coupled with Watkins findings helped me realize the power and impact that practicing gratitude has on well-being, especially for those who are not inherently grateful.
I believe one of the primary reasons my gratitude project ultimately influenced my overall well-being, boosted my mood and alleviated my seasonal affective symptoms was because it gave me a vehicle for connecting with friends and family. Watkins (2018) reports that gratitude promotes social connectedness for several reasons:
People like grateful people,
Gratitude enhances our desire to affiliate with others,
Gratitude enhances our communal orientation toward others,
Gratitude enhances our tendency to include others,
Gratitude encourages prosocial behavior, and
Gratitude enhances our relationships (p. 56).
Frederickson (2004) and her theory of relationships and positive emotions suggests that “gratitude appears to broaden people’s modes of thinking as they creatively consider a wide array of actions that might benefit others.” She writes: “Although grateful individuals most typically act prosocially simply to express their gratitude, over time the actions inspired by gratitude build and strengthen social bonds and friendships” (p. 492).
When I began my research journey that led me to create and implement a personal well-being study and gratitude project, I had hope for at least an improvement in my emotional state. After the initial visit with my mother, and the short-lived reprieve from my depressive symptoms, I was not sure my plans to share my gratitude with family and friends over the remaining eleven months would be worth the effort. But as I continued my research into the nature of gratitude and the limitations and benefits of gratitude, and more importantly, as I practiced this positive psychology intervention on a consistent basis over time, I experienced firsthand the lasting difference of expressing gratitude through writing letters and conducting gratitude visits.
Four years now have past since I started this project, and the winter blues have not returned to the extent that I experienced before my gratitude project, The Visit; and I am grateful.
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In 2021, I reconnected with Rob and invited him onto my podcast;
I surprised him again with the reading of my gratitude letter. This is our conversation.
I invited Anthony to write a letter of gratitude to someone else and then come on my podcast. He didn't know that I was going to re-read my letter to him.
This is our conversation.
I traveled to Pennsylvania to catch up with my friends, Todd and Tina, and surprise them once again with this gratitude letter.