How Writing 365 Thank You Notes In One Year Improved My Mental Health
While I was expressing gratitude for the people who've have healed my dad, my son, and me, I felt that now-familiar sensation of my mind transitioning from frayed and frazzled to calm and focused, an almost meditative state. And that feeling carried into my day.
Did it have a physiological underpinning? Was writing thank you notes providing me with real mental health benefits akin to meditation? I asked Cory Allen, a meditation expert and the author of Now Is the Way: An Unconventional Approach to Modern Mindfulness.
How writing thank you notes improved my mental health.
"I would say that what you're feeling is presence," Allen told me. "You set aside the distractions and mental fragmentations that come from living in the modern world."
"When you have the TV on while you're swiping through your phone while you're trying to eat dinner, that leaves the mind fragmented and unfocused, and ultimately it leaves you unrooted in your conscious experience," Allen said. "Your awareness begins to dim because of this pull in many different directions. One of the great benefits of meditation is creating and cultivating an amount of internal space. It gives you a sense of being aware of the arising thoughts and feelings that are coming into your mind and body."
"And so, in the process of writing those thank you notes," he continued, "you were tapping into a positive emotion, and you were narrowing down your focus. In addition, you were doing one thing repetitively, and that's sort of like a mantra."
"In meditation, the idea is that a mantra—repeating a phrase or even a sound—acts like a windshield wiper for the brain to keep it from becoming entangled in thoughts and narratives and stories," Allen explained. "It's almost self-hypnotism. By repeating the same act of writing those cards over and over, it's acting like a physical mantra—which are very common in Buddhism. One example is when monks get together and make giant mandalas out of colored straws."
"Like rosaries," I pointed out, thinking of my (aptly named) great-aunt Rosie, who carried a rosary wherever she went. Allen agreed.
By templating my thank you notes to make them easier to write, I had inadvertently created a mantra. This month, the batch to my dad's healers each started with the sentence: It's been nearly 10 years since... According to Allen, that simple windshield wiper of a phrase would clear my mind and allow the memories and more meaningful messages to flow.
Combining gratitude with action is key.
I asked Allen how much of this mind-clearing benefit stemmed from the writing and how much from the gratitude. Would there be a similar effect if I sat with my grateful thoughts or if I wrote a letter having nothing to do with gratitude?
"I would say that to separate these things might not be a wise way to approach it," he said. "They are creating a sum greater than the parts. The writing is useful, and that can be meditative. The gratitude element can awaken the emotional embodiment of that feeling, which is also useful. By putting them together, you connect the emotional feeling and the intellectual feeling, and that creates the third thing."
"Do you know about the heart mind and the monkey mind?" he asked. I didn't, but he had my attention.
"The monkey mind is a Buddhist term for the frantic, uncontrolled, chaotic, wandering mind. Your thoughts are buzzing all over the place, like a little monkey that's in a tree." I nodded furiously, wondering if he had sensed my monkeybuzzing mind by hearing my voice.
"The heart mind means your intuitive, compassionate mind. It's thinking from a place of open-heartedness, warmth, and connection to all living things," he said.
Active gratitude helped me (accidentally) cultivate emotional balance.
"Having those two things working in harmony together is an aspiration through a meditation practice. In writing these notes, you accidentally stumbled into a way to connect the heart and monkey minds," he said. "You're bringing your emotions and your intellect into balance, and then through the repetitious nature of what you're doing, it puts you in that trancelike state of stillness."
"So, with all of that combined, it is completely unsurprising to me that you would end up feeling more aware, less anxious, and more rooted in your gratitude and in your sense of embodiment of your experience," Allen said.
He hit it, giving words to what I'd been feeling from those first train rides.
Gratitude itself improves health. According to studies by Robert A. Emmons and Michael McCullough, two of the world's premier positive psychology and gratitude experts, people who keep gratitude journals exercise more regularly, experience fewer symptoms of illness, and may recover from illnesses they do get more quickly. They also found that a person who experiences gratitude regularly gets more hours of sleep.
By writing these cards and establishing an active gratitude habit—which I was starting to realize I would carry with me beyond this one year—I was connecting my heart and monkey minds in a meditative way and improving my health in the process.
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