The Importance of Being Grateful: A Q&A with author Gina Hamadey

The Importance of Being Grateful: A Q&A with author Gina Hamadey

Gina Hamadey spent an entire year writing gratitude letters to everyone who’d made a difference in her life — big or small. The result? An incredible boost in happiness, and a book: “I Want to Thank You: How a Year of Gratitude Can Bring Joy and Meaning in a Disconnected World”, where she chronicles the experience. We were honored to be given the opportunity to ask her a few questions — and very inspired by her answers. Read on for her thoughts on writer’s block, the perfect stationery, and how to integrate gratitude into daily life. 

Dear Annabelle: How did you come upon gratitude as a subject? What led you to write this book?

Gina Hamadey: It all started on the New Jersey Transit! In January of 2018 I had a stack of thank you notes to write to donors of a fundraiser I’d organized for City Harvest. It was a task that I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to, so I was surprised to find that writing those cards felt unmistakably good. I felt a calm, meditative focus come over me that carried into my day. And on January 31, when the task was done, I was oddly sad. I looked at my list and realized I had written 31 notes—one for every day of the year so far. I decided to keep it up, and planned out the year—separating it out into monthly groups of recipients, including friends, neighbors, mentors and authors. 

When what I called my Thank You Year was done, I had so much to say that I knew it could be a book. 

 DA: What are three easy ways to practice gratitude on a daily basis? 

GH: What this process taught me was to catch onto a grateful thought, hold onto it for an extra moment or two, and (ideally) share it with the person responsible. That could be in a card or in a text or verbally. So that would be number one: sharing grateful thoughts more readily. 

Two: I recently interviewed a neurologist and USC professor who teaches gratitude to his business school students and is a big believer in its powers. He starts every morning by looking around his bedroom, selecting something he’s grateful for, thinking about why he’s grateful for it and how he would feel if it were gone.  

Three: I talk to my kids a lot about gratitude. The big mental connection they have to make is that there are people who are behind the stuff they love. So we talk about it: You love that restaurant’s mac and cheese? Someone cooked it. Someone invented the recipe. Someone raises the cows and makes the cheese. 

DA: You’ve found that gratitude works on a scientific level to make us happier. Can you break this down for us? 

GH: Oh my goodness. There are hundreds, maybe more, of studies completed over the last 20 years that do a thorough job of outlining all the ways gratitude is good for your mental health. Robert A. Emmons and Michael McCullough are two of the premier pop psychologists in the field. They’ve found, for starters, that 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. 

Gratitude letters in particular have been proven to have a huge positive impact. Martin Seligman conducted a well-known study in which participants wrote and delivered a gratitude letter to someone. One week later, participants experienced a significant boost in happiness and a drop in depressive symptoms, benefits that were maintained even a month later. 

DA: What is a “gratitude letter”? How is it different from a thank you letter? 

GH: I use those terms interchangeably, but they both differ from a traditional thank you note in that you generally are thanking someone for something they did or said, not for a present they gave you. 

DA: You specifically speak to writing these gratitude letters as a form of self care — as well as caring for others, of course. What is it about writing handwritten notes that “works”? Why is this such a powerful tool when working toward happiness? 

GH: Gratitude is strong medicine. That much has been proven over and over, generally by studying the benefits of gratitude journaling. Gratitude letters have those same benefits—the meditative ones I felt while writing those original notes in January 2018—with the added bonus of spreading joy to other people, and strengthening bonds in the process. 

DA: What if writing an expressive letter feels awkward or doesn’t come naturally? What tips do you have for those with letter-writer’s block? 

GH: Oh my gosh, how much space do I have? Ha. I write about this at length in the book. Everyone feels awkward when writing something heartfelt and sentimental to someone they maybe haven’t seen in awhile, or to someone they generally don’t open up to in this way. It’s much easier to NOT write this kind of note. I had to battle a lot of inner voices during this thank you year: What if they don’t remember this? What if they don’t remember you? What if this makes things awkward? I spoke to a social scientist named Amit Kumar out of the University of Texas at Austin who has studied the feelings people have when writing gratitude letters, as well as the feelings recipients have when they receive those letters. His findings, in a nutshell: People overestimate the awkwardness of a heartfelt gratitude letter, and they underestimate its impact. 

As far as practical tips for writer’s block, here are a few things to remember:

  1. Spend a few moments thinking about the person: what they did for you at what cost to them, and how it made you feel. 

  2. Start writing, including the details of the memory you were thinking about. 

  3. Don’t overthink. Try to write as you talk. If you go on a tangent, meander back to the point. 

DA: What do your thank you notes look like? What stationery do you use? Do you always keep a stash on hand? Do you write long letters or quick notes? 

GH: I keep a few cards handy in a pretty leather envelope from Poketo, along with a pen and a list of people to thank. I would say mostly I wrote short notes of thanks—two to four meaningful sentences. But some months required longer letters. I had a lot to say to my career mentors, for example. 

I have a great love for fine stationery that was born on my semester abroad in Florence: I love the classic Florentine print, and I bought about 30 of those that I used in one of my Thank You Year months (the month I wrote my husband one note every day). I am obsessed with your gratitude notecards. I also have a stationery store in my Brooklyn neighborhood called Measure Twice that stocks lovely things.  

DA: What are you most grateful for every day? 

GH: My family, my wonderful friends, my neighborhood and my work.