From Our NYT Files: You Should Actually Send That Thank You Note You’ve Been Meaning to Write

From Our NYT Files: You Should Actually Send That Thank You Note You’ve Been Meaning to Write

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By Heather Murphy
The New York Times

From Our NYT Files: You Should Actually Send That Thank You Note You’ve Been Meaning to Write


New research showed the recipients of an emailed expression of gratitude felt much more “ecstatic” than writers expected.

Dear reader,

We want to let you know that we are grateful that you are taking the time to click on this headline. Because without you reading the story, what’s the point? We are now going to use your precious time to share a surprising new finding: People like getting thank you notes. O.K., it’s not that surprising. But what did surprise two psychologists as they attempted to get to bottom of why so few people actually send thank yous is that many people totally “miscalibrate” the effect of an appreciative email. They underestimate the positive feelings it will bring. “They think it’s not going to be that big a deal,” said Amit Kumar, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies well-being. They also overestimate how insincere the note may appear and how uncomfortable it will make the recipient feel, their study found. But after receiving thank-you notes and filling out questionnaires about how it felt to get them, many said they were “ecstatic,” scoring the happiness rating at 4 of 5. The senders typically guessed they’d evoke a 3.

To be clear — the notes in question were not your typical “thanks for the Amazon gift card.” Rather, the 100 or so participants in each of the four experiments were asked to write a short “gratitude letter” to a person who had affected them in some way. Sample letters included missives of appreciation to fellow students and friends who offered guidance through the college admissions process, job searches and tough times. In lab experiments, Dr. Kumar observed that it took most subjects less than five minutes to write the letters. The study, published last month in the journal Psychological Science, is an effort to fill a hole in the growing field of gratitude research. Numerous studies had documented a range of benefits to individuals who express gratitude, so then the question researchers turned to was — what’s holding people back? Along with underestimating the value of sending a note to another person, many seemed to be concerned with how much their writing would be scrutinized.

As it turned out, most recipients didn’t care how the notes were phrased, they cared about warmth, Dr. Kumar and his co-author Nicholas Epley, a professor at the University of Chicago, found. Participants were also judged to be more competent at writing than they expected. This finding was “a gem” that is “worthy of future research” said Sara Algoe, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who also researches gratitude, in an email. “I like that their work reinforces the value of just saying something,” she wrote. Researchers also encouraged the writers of the thank-you messages to mention that a study had spurred their letters, something that doesn’t usually happen in real life. How often do we get to tell someone, “a scientist asked me to do this” before making ourselves vulnerable? The study found that many subjects were concerned that recipients would feel awkward upon receiving the compliment-filled letters. (Recipients rarely did.) Wouldn’t those concerns intensify without a good excuse for sending it? Perhaps, said Dr. Kumar. But that should not undermine what he sees as the broader finding: People tend to undervalue the positive effect they can have on others for a tiny investment of time.

Most people don’t read this far so thanks for that,

The New York Times Health and Science Desk