A psychology professor at the University of Michigan, Peterson regularly gave his students an unusual homework assignment. He asked them to write a “gratitude letter,” a kind of belated thank-you note to someone in their lives. Studies show such letters provide long-lasting mood boosts to the writers. Indeed, after the exercise, Peterson says his students feel happier “100 percent of the time.”
…The biggest bonuses come from experiencing gratitude habitually, but natural ingrates needn’t despair. Simple exercises can give even skeptics a short-term mood boost, and “once you get started, you find more and more things to be grateful for,” says Robert Emmons, a leading gratitude researcher at the University of California at Davis.
In gratitude letters like those penned by Peterson and his students, writers detail the kindnesses of someone they’ve never properly thanked. Read this letter aloud to the person you’re thanking, Peterson says, and you’ll see measurable improvements in your mood. Studies show that for a full month after a “gratitude visit” (in which a person makes an appointment to read the letter to the recipient), happiness levels tend to go up, while boredom and other negative feelings go down. In fact, the gratitude visit is more effective than any other exercise in positive psychology.
…Traumatic memories fade into the background for people who regularly feel grateful, Watkins’s experiments show. Troublesome thoughts pop up less frequently and with less intensity, which suggests that gratitude may enhance emotional healing.
My first sponsor had me make gratitude lists daily for more than a year (until I moved away). I had been suffering from crippling depression and I believed that the suggestion of a gratitude list was dismissive of my suffering and indicated a failure to comprehend the complexity, seriousness and persistence of the problem. Was I wrong. Over time it was one of the most effective tools I’ve acquired in combating that episode and staving off potential episodes since then.