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The Power of Writing: Kent State Professor Studies Benefits of Writing Letters of Gratitude

Posted June 20, 2011
Steve Toepfer
Steve Toepfer, associate professor in
Human Development and Family Studies
at Kent State University at Salem

Steve Toepfer, associate professor in Human Development and Family Studies at Kent State University at Salem, says he has always been interested in the power of writing. In 2007, he created an assignment in his Building Family Strength class intended to show his students that being kind to others has psychological benefits. He decided to measure these benefits in a pilot study where participants wrote letters of gratitude to determine if there are benefits in terms of well-being for the authors of the letters.

“We are always exploring methods which can improve health, but no one ever looked at a series of letters to see if it benefits the author’s well-being,” Toepfer says. “We know people who receive letters of gratitude benefit, but what about the authors? Will you feel better by writing letters of gratitude? Are multiple letters better than a single composition? That’s what we examined here.”

Toepfer’s latest research builds upon his previous study with a much broader sample, and those research findings are available online and will appear in the next issue of the Journal of Happiness Studies, an interdisciplinary journal devoted to the scientific understanding of subjective well-being. Toepfer co-authored the paper titled “Letters of Gratitude: Further Evidence for Author Benefits” with Kelly Cichy, assistant professor in Human Development and Family Studies at the university’s Kent campus, and Patti Peters, lead data analyst in the Research and Evaluation Bureau at Kent State.

The study examined the effects of writing letters of gratitude on three primary qualities of well-being: happiness (positive affect), life satisfaction (cognitive evaluation) and depression (negative affect). Gratitude also was assessed. A sample of 219 undergraduate students who were relatively happy was recruited by the university’s Kent, Salem and Stark campuses to participate in the study. Study participants, who ranged in age from 18 to 65 with a mean age of 25.7, filled out a battery of questionnaires about their well-being, and then they returned to the research lab three more times about a week apart. The experimental group wrote a letter of gratitude each time while the control group did not. Both groups filled out questionnaires at each visit.

“The letter writers were instructed to write a letter of gratitude to anyone they wanted, however, the letter couldn’t be trivial and it couldn’t be a ‘thank you’ note for a gift or ‘thanks for saying hello to me this morning,’” Toepfer explains. “The participants had to write about something that was important to them."

“As they wrote, up to three letters, results showed increasing benefits,” Toepfer continues. “The more letter writing people did, the more they improved significantly on happiness and life satisfaction. The new and potentially important finding is that depressive symptoms decreased. By writing these letters – 15 to 20 minutes each, once a week for three weeks to different people – well-being increased significantly.”

For the group that did not write letters but filled out the questionnaires, their well-being did not change.

“What we come away from this study is that if you are looking to increase your well-being through intentional activities, take 15 minutes three times over three weeks and write letters of gratitude to someone,” Toepfer says. “You’ll feel better on those three variables. There is a cumulative effect, too. If you write over time, you’ll feel happier, you’ll feel more satisfied, and if you’re suffering from depressive symptoms, your symptoms will decrease.”

Toepfer said people have a store of gratitude that they carry with them all the time, and by simply using it, they can improve their well-being in significant ways.

“We have this powerful resource we’re carrying with us, but we need to tap into it in order to let it work for us,” he says.

Data analysis continues as the project also examined the influence of writing letters of gratitude on family characteristics. Preliminary results indicate that writing such letters improves perceived family bonds and decreases perceived criticism from the family in the author.

To read the online article from the Journal of Happiness Studies, visit http://www.springerlink.com/content/f6t3225211776323/fulltext.html.

For more information on Kent State’s Human Development and Family Studies, visit www.kent.edu/ehhs/hdfs.