My dad is a stoic man, hardened by a blue collar upbringing. Thirty-plus years of working construction made his hands and his personality calloused and sinewy. He’s prone to show joy after a few drinks and anger after minor annoyances.
I’ve seen him cry twice.
The first time, he took a baseball straight to the eye. I was too young to know if he was crying or if his eyes were just leaking Bud Light. He went back to playing.
I don’t remember seeing him cry when his step-father — his dad — passed away.
I don’t remember seeing him cry when his biological father passed either.
I do, though, remember him crying a few Christmases ago. He cried because I had written him a letter, as part of one of the most influential research-based happiness practices:
The Gratitude Visit
Simple in theory: A person writes a letter of gratitude to someone, then meets with him or her to share it. Normally, the writer reads the letter aloud. I skipped that part because my father and I don’t exchange emotions much — and I didn’t want it to get weird before it got authentic.
I gave my letter to my dad as a gift. A few lines into reading it, he left the room. Minutes later, I looked in the other room to see tears flowing down his scarred cheeks.
We talked. We embraced. We said words neither of us had said to each other. That letter improved our relationship more than any other thing I’ve tried. It helped me realize how important my dad is. It allowed him to actually see and hear my feelings. And it prompted us both to drop the reticence that makes father-son love invisible.
It’s no wonder that research has found boosts to well-being can last up to a month after the visit, compared to control groups. Gratitude letters and visits are powerful because:
- We spend time thinking about how fortunate we are;
- We focus our gratitude on someone or something else, recognizing the interconnectedness of our lives;
- We savor positive emotions as we revisit past memories;
- We build empathy;
- We build social connectedness.
If there were one, simple practice I recommend every person try, it’s the gratitude visit.
Step 1: Pick a person
Easy enough, right? We’ve been influenced by thousands of people (even if we don’t notice it right away). The only recommendation is to choose a person who is still alive today, so that you can share your letter with him or her.
Step 2: Visualize your most important memories
With my students, I walk them through a visual. They imagine they are seated at a movie theater, alone. The screen kicks on showing highlights of major moments they had with this person. They allow themselves to feel the emotions, hear the words, see the actions.
Then, I have them imagine that the screen goes blank, they turn to their right, and seated next to them is the person. They imagine they have one last chance to tell this person how they feel, how they’re grateful, before the person walks away.
Spend a few minutes pondering the visualization (and cue all the feels).
Step 3: Write, unfiltered
On a sheet of paper, start simply: “Dear_________” Then, write everything that comes to mind. Consider these sentence stems if you get stuck:
- I remember when . . .
- I want to thank you for . . .
- You might not realize how . . .
- I will never forget . . .
- You have helped me . . .
- Because of you, I . . .
Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, or any sort of editing at this point. You can always go back to adjust things (though you probably won’t need to). Give yourself permission to write your feelings without restriction.
Step 4: Share it in the most authentic way you can.
Basic level of participation is to send the letter to the person. It’s better than nothing, of course, but for true depth of gratitude and connection, find a way to share it in person (or read it over the phone). If you need further inspiration, check out one of my all-time favorites from Soul Pancake:
So what now? Are you going to tuck this idea into the back of your head as another one of those “I should try that sometime…”? Or, are you going to pause your website perusing, grab some paper, and sit down to write the thing? Choose the latter. Because moments are finite. We can’t guarantee endless opportunities. Write the letter. Share it. Connect.
For more research-based, teacher-tested happiness and purpose strategies, be sure to check out my book, The Burnout Cure: Learning to Love Teaching Again