Nancy Davis Kho wrote fifty thank-you letters and discovered gratitude is a mindset that takes practice.
Tell us about your book, The Thank-You Project.
In 2016, I was approaching my fiftieth birthday and decided to mark the half-century milestone by writing a weekly thank-you letter, for fifty weeks, to someone who helped, shaped or inspired me.
What inspired you to write the letters?
The idea came about because I had the feeling that things were going really well. My girls were doing fine, I’d been married to my husband for a long time, my parents were well, and when you get to the age of fifty, you start realising it shouldn’t be taken for granted when everything is good. Writing thank-you letters felt like an appropriate way to acknowledge all the people who helped in my life.
How long did it actually take you to write the letters?
In the end, it took me sixteen months. The year started off being so positive, but it turned out to be one of the hardest of my life.
My dad died very suddenly. We didn’t know he was sick, and then he was gone six weeks later. He was a caregiver for my mum, who has dementia, so all of a sudden we became her caregiver. I couldn’t write anything for three or four months. I was just flat.
Despite the terrible year, once I started writing letters again, I felt like I knew this magic trick. Because no matter how lousy I felt, I could sit down and write a thank-you note, and, by the time I had written down all the ways this person had helped me, I felt so much better. Over time, I found myself feeling more calm and positive and less anxious.
Why not just send an email or text message?
We live in a digital age, where many of our deepest thoughts are expressed through emojis or self-destructing Snapchats. There’s no permanence. But when you write something down on a piece of paper—and just to be clear, I typed mine, but it was still a physical piece of paper that I sent in the mail. Giving something tangible people can hold, look back on, and keep is important and unusual. Especially for younger people, who often haven’t received loving words on paper, they can reflect on later.
Throughout the book, I try to encourage people to do this project in any way they want. They can write as much as they like, and they can write at whatever regularity they prefer. I don’t want to give people a guilt-trip over gratitude exercises. But there is one area where I will not bend: it has to be a physical letter, and you must keep a copy. Because at the end of your project, you have a stack of letters that has some physical heft to it. The stack shows you how many people care about you. I think there’s something profound about being able to pick up a book that has all your people in it, re-read it, and be reminded of all the challenges you’ve faced and the people who got you through them.
How did you choose who to write to?
I wrote a list of family and close friends totalling about twenty people, and when I saw that number, I stopped worrying. I knew when I got to the end of that list, someone else would come to mind. And that was true, because as our mind practises reflecting on positive things, we build what’s called ‘positive recall bias’, meaning we develop a tendency to look for positive instead of negative experiences. And the more you do it, the more efficient your brain becomes at it. Your brain literally rewires to seek out happiness, which is so cool. So, by the time I wrote the twentieth letter, I was much better at identifying people who helped, shaped or inspired me, and
I realised I could also write to places or concepts. So, I wrote to cities, hobbies, authors … I even wrote to the live music industry! At the end of the project, I deeply understood how powerful it is to stop and express your deliberate gratitude as a tool to offset hard times.
Who was the first person you wrote to?
I wrote to my mum. Because she has dementia, I already felt like I was too late writing to her. She loses some cognition every day, and she’s doing fine, but I think she would have appreciated the letter more, ten years earlier.
The second letter was to my dad, which I later realised was the most important letter. I sent it to him six months before he got sick and he framed it and hung it over his desk. When he was dying, I didn’t have to think: what have I not told Dad? I had told him everything. I had told him exactly what he meant to me. And that was a great comfort after he died.
Who was the last person you wrote to?
I wrote to myself. And that is another thing I insist on in the book. Because after forty-nine letters I could look back and see this whole mosaic of people and places and hobbies that helped me become the person I am. And what I say to readers is: you deserve credit for pulling together your team. Not for being perfect, because you’ve just documented all the different ways you’ve fallen short or made a mistake or needed more help, but that’s the human journey. None of us is perfect. But you figured out who to go to for help, support and friendship. And that’s a huge accomplishment. Writing to yourself as the last letter is a powerful practice.
What was the most challenging part about getting started?
I am both a writer and a blabbermouth, so I am very happy expressing myself. But I have heard from readers that they feel intimidated in one of two ways. The first is that they’re going to write a heartfelt letter to somebody who changed their life, and the person will read it and say: who the heck is this? You have to bring vulnerability because you are letting them know you really appreciated them. What’s interesting is that research shows people consistently underestimate how happy a recipient will be to get a gratitude letter like this, and they consistently overestimate how awkward they will feel sending it. So it might feel like it’s uncomfortable to get started, but once you get the letters out there, it’s wonderful.
The other concern I’ve heard from people is that the writing won’t be good enough. And what I say in reply is: tell me the last time someone wrote you a heartfelt thank-you letter, full of praise for all the ways you’ve made their life better, and they misspelt a word so you crumpled it up and threw it in the bin? You didn’t do that. Nobody would do that. So the writing does not need to be prize-winning; it just needs to be authentic to your voice.
How specific were the letters?
I tried to make them very specific. I had a week between each letter to think deeply about how someone helped change my life, including what they did and how exactly they did it. For the people I was closest to, like my brother or sister, I had tonnes of material to use, so I kept bringing it back to: what is it about me that exists because of them? What wouldn’t I know or do if it weren’t for them? And I think that’s a useful way to think of it.
Did you ever write to people who treated you poorly in the past?
I did, but I didn’t send those letters.
I wrote to ex-boyfriends, and I had a friend who I was close with in college, but that friendship broke down badly. One of my big takeaways, after we parted ways, was that she never seemed to want to spend time with me. That friendship forced me to realise that I don’t have enough time to spend with the people who like me, so why would I waste time with people who don’t like me in the first place? And thanks to her, I learnt that lesson at twenty-two.
How important were the letters you didn’t send?
Just as important as the ones I did send. They helped me draw the full picture of myself. I guess I felt a little proud for writing those letters because you have to be a little bit enlightened to look back and think, Well, he wasn’t a total jerk. That job wasn’t all bad. You can tell yourself all day long that things are terrible, but if you can dig deep and forgive yourself or someone else, that’s important.
Is there an act of forgiveness involved in gratitude?
It’s fascinating how these letters tie to forgiveness. I had a very close friend through school, and after we went to college, he stopped talking to me. And I never understood why. I spent thirty years resenting him because I couldn’t understand why he would still speak to all our mutual friends except me. What had I done wrong? Why wouldn’t he even call me to tell me? And if you told me early on in the project that I was going to write him a thank-you letter, I would have laughed in your face. But as the positive recall bias got stronger, I realised he did help, shape or inspire me during high school. He always gave me good advice—I rarely took it, but he was there anyway. So I decided to write to him but not send it, and in the process of writing the letter I realised: it’s not weird that he stopped being friends with me. What’s weird is that he stayed friends with me for so long. I was horrible. He was so much nicer to me than I was to him. When you can look back like that, and see the situation for what it was, we have to forgive ourselves too.
What’s strange is that a couple of weeks after writing his letter, he reached out to me because he heard of my dad’s passing. If I had not gone through the exercise of writing the letter, I might have hung up on him, but instead I was so happy. I was free to be grateful for who he was and not resentful of those years in between. And we’re good friends again now. Forgiveness was one of the little miracles that came out of this project for me.
How did people react to receiving one of your letters?
I told myself from the start I was not allowed to expect a response because nobody asked me to write them a thank-you letter. But I did get responses. Some people just hugged me when they saw me or sent me a text, but every single person to whom I wrote a letter acknowledged it in a positive way that showed they appreciated it and made me glad I had written it.
Would you have considered yourself to be a grateful person before you started the project?
I’d say I had an average level of gratitude, but these days I’m much more efficient at being grateful. When I’m freaking out, I know I
need to stop for a second and recall three things to be grateful for right now. If I do that, I instantly feel better and stop spiralling out. And the research I did when writing the book proves it. Taking the time to stop and move your mind away from negative recall bias works. Gratitude can also improve physical health by helping people control their asthma, improve sleep or lower blood pressure. So I stick with this practice because it works.
What were some of the unexpected benefits you experienced?
I think forgiveness was one of the big ones, and I’m also amazed at how long those letters have retained their power. Four years later I can still flip through my bound copy of them and be reminded of all that I have and have had. It’s very reassuring to look at that collection of letters and know I’ve faced hard things before, and I’m not alone.
What surprised you the most about the project?
When I received a thank-you letter myself, I was amazed at how good it felt. I was like, wow, this is what I’m doing for other people? That’s so cool!
One of my favourite examples is that when I was in college, there was a year where I didn’t have a roommate. And these three girls I barely knew said I could move in with them. It turned out to be a great year because they were friends with people I didn’t know. So I met a bunch of new people. I always felt grateful to them for making space for me, and one of those girls wrote me a thank-you letter about how she felt like they were so lucky that I moved in with them. I was like, wait a minute—I thought I was the taker! That whole year, it didn’t occur to me once that I had brought anything to the table. It was the kindest thing to have that situation reframed and know I was good for them too.
What did you learn about happiness?
I think the pursuit of happiness is tough, and if you’re looking for happiness as a constant state or an ending in itself, I don’t think that works. But I discovered you can create conditions for more happiness. And it turns out that doing things that bring joy to other people will also make you happier.
I also learnt you might need to pass through some darker terrain to achieve more happiness.
When writing the book, I wanted to ensure my experience of writing these letters wasn’t unique to me, or only applicable to people with a particular personality, so I researched and spoke to experts. I asked one doctor: “Is there a kind of person for whom writing a gratitude letter won’t work? It won’t make them feel happier?” And she said that that’s not the situation; however, some people are so scared of feeling emotions, especially negative ones, they numb everything. They take out their phone and start refreshing Facebook or doing anything to distract themselves from feeling bad. The problem is that if you do that, you also can’t feel good. You can’t selectively numb which emotions you feel. You’re either all in or all out. And sometimes when you’re writing these letters, you can dig around in some negative emotions. But it’s not a permanent state. You’ll think about it, consider it and move on to express gratitude, and then you can feel the gratitude too. You might shed a few tears writing these letters that are designed to make you happier, but I don’t think you can get to the good stuff if you don’t move the bad out of the way first.
How has your life changed since writing the letters?
I’m much better at seeing the positive, and also at identifying when I’m feeling pessimistic and fixing it. So, when I feel bad, I might write another thank-you letter. I don’t do it as often, but I still write them.
What did you learn about yourself by writing the letters?
I learnt that I’ve been good at finding helpful and nice people. Maybe everyone feels that way after writing these letters, but knowing who your friends are is still a good outcome for anybody. It was also interesting because there were some people I thought I would write to, but when it came down to it, I realised they were nice but not life-changing friends. I think it makes me value my life-changing friends even more.