The Power of a Thank You Note


The Power of a Thank You Note

Sarah Pachter

I must admit, I’m a bit old-school when it comes to gratitude. I often do the “handwritten-note-thing,” despite how nerdy it seems. Any reader who has received a note from me knows what I’m talking about, that at times it comes across as a bit antiquated. But, despite the fact that technology keeps moving at an ever rapid pace, I continue to handwrite them, and I’d like to tell you why.

When I lived in New York, my sweet husband would shovel the driveway and walkway every morning before I awoke. I never thanked him for it, but inside, I felt tremendous gratitude.

A whole year went by like this, until one night I said to him, “You know what? I never told you how much I appreciate that you shovel the driveway. It means a lot to me.”

My comment was met with a blank expression.

“I don’t shovel the driveway,” my modest husband replied.

“Come on, just admit it!” I laughed.

He just shook his head. “No, it really wasn’t me. I thought it was you!”

What’s going on here? we wondered together. Who’s shoveling for us?

It turns out, it was our 60-something year old neighbor! This kind man was secretly shoveling our driveway every single morning. I used to say hello to him daily, and not once did he mention his actions. He simply performed an unrecognized act of kindness for us.

Once we realized it was him, we wrote a thank you note, bought a gift, and baked challos to give to him. I was simply amazed by his anonymous act of kindness. In my thank you card, I shared that I decided to speak publicly about him, using his act as an example to help define true righteousness.

Years later, I heard through the grapevine that our neighbor keeps my handwritten note with him in his wallet. I was shocked. I had no idea that my card made such an impact – enough for him to keep it with him at all times. It was heartwarming to hear. Obviously, it meant a lot to our neighbor, yet that note, to my surprise, would do much more for me.

When I started my writing career, it was… a little rocky, and I couldn’t understand why. The feedback I got from my speaking engagements was very positive, but my writing wasn’t working. I would write how I speak, but learned quickly what works as a public speaker, does not always work in written text. They are in fact, diametrically opposite skill sets. Speaking requires repetition, enthusiasm, and doing anything you can to keep your audience engaged. Writing requires that you get in and out as quickly as possible without wasting a morsel of the reader’s time.

After experiencing repetitive rejection, the only thing that gave me strength and resolve to continue submitting was knowing that my neighbor kept my handwritten note. If my written word could affect a person to the point of keeping a note in their wallet at all times, then surely my written words could have the power to impact others. Therefore, I kept writing.

In this way, gratitude was something I gave over to my neighbor. But that act of gratitude, in return, helped me much more than I had realized.

It turns out, I am not the only one whose hand-written note transformed their career. Hand-written thank you notes had a major impact on the Campbell Soup Company as well. Doug Conant came to work at Campbell’s Soup in 2001 as the company was struggling. Not only was the company in bad financial straits, the work environment was toxic, as well.

Conant wanted to move away from the standard business model, so he began looking for the positive actions of the company rather than the negative. Conant and a staff member began scouting for positive news within the company, and every time they saw something admirable – boom! – they sent a handwritten thank you note. Conant did not just thank the people at the top of the corporate ladder, he thanked the people at every level. Each was given a handwritten thank you note. Custodians, water boys, and interns were dumbfounded that he even knew their name, much less took the time to write a personal note accentuating a very specific task they had performed well. This gratitude alone was one of the cornerstones of how Conant picked up Campbell’s by the bootstraps and brought them back to extraordinary success.

Conant’s business style is now quoted in Harvard Business School Case studies. His thank you notes not only helped his company succeed, but helped him on a personal level as well. In 2009, Conant was in a near fatal car accident. While recovering at the trauma center, get well cards began flooding in from around the world – many of them mentioning his past thoughtfulness in writing to them, and the personal connection they felt to him because of it. Many said they keep his notes on their bulletin board or refrigerators at home. It seems that what goes around comes around – tenfold.

After reading about this Harvard Case study, and after my experience with our kind neighbor, I wanted to somehow apply this theory to my family, but it was only when I read a piece called  “Awesome Jars” that I tried it out. Each member of our family received a personalized mason jar, and throughout the week we would all write little notes expressing positive actions. Seeing the jars on the counter was a reminder to look out for positive actions – like Conant’s Campbell soup operation. After a full week of collecting notes, my family read them out loud at the Shabbat table. My son even came up with the idea of creating a raffle: whoever’s note gets picked wins a small prize!

Our kids love this little ritual, and it certainly makes our Friday nights more enjoyable. I noticed that writing down our positive actions and expressing gratitude towards one another has helped us become significantly more positive.

According to a survey conducted by The John Templeton Foundation, it turns out that 94 percent of people admit they believe gratitude could make them live happier lives. Yet less than half of people actually express gratitude on a consistent basis. An article in The Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that more than any other trait, gratitude may have the highest impact on mental health and happiness. It also seems to have the greatest impact on a person’s ability to experience happiness and even decrease internal stress. So why don’t we practice it more often?

Perhaps because the concept “be more grateful” is too daunting. A thank you note, however is more manageable. It is easy for us to forget to be grateful on a consistent basis, but we can all take a moment to write a personal note of gratitude. Surely we will find something or someone specific to thank.

Receiving a handwritten note of gratitude can certainly warm the heart of the reader. However, I would argue that this form of expression has an even greater impact on the writer. When we take the time to write a well-thought-out note, it creates an awareness that this didn’t happen by itself. Someone cares for me!

Although there is something special about a handwritten note, even an email can achieve the same effect when we take the time to write it in a personal and sincere way. Whether handwritten, or via email, the effort you put in is what the reader will notice and appreciate. And you never know how writing those words, might impact the writer herself. As the saying goes, ’tis better to give than to receive – a thank you note that is.