Perhaps one of the most prolific writers of thank you notes that I have known is the late Marjorie Stern. She was a master of expressing gratitude through letters. Born in 1915, Marjorie was a do-gooder, a lover of fine books and Asian art, and most importantly, an activist. The great granddaughter of San Francisco’s first reform rabbi, Marjorie knew how to get things done.
One of her most cherished, long-held dreams was to build a modern, new Main Library in San Francisco. This dream came to fruition 20 years ago, but in order to make that happen, she spent over 30 years employing the gentle and not so gentle art of persuasion. She attended meetings, lobbied politicians, and negotiated deals, in her capacity as a private citizen, a trustee, and a donor, with the movers and shakers of the city. There were many people to cajole along the way, and she was known to express her thanks to each and every one in writing.
Marjorie was a stylish woman. Her signature, classic 40’s style coif has now come back into fashion. She was at her most memorable when wearing a red raincoat and red rubber rain boots that protected a red St. John suit from the elements, with nail polish and lipstick to match. Another distinctive characteristic was her old-fashioned but clearly legible handwriting. During the construction and capital campaign for the Main Library, it is said that she developed severe writer’s cramp from all of the personal notes she wrote by hand to thank the many people involved.
Recent studies have shown that having positive emotions, such as feeling grateful in life, go hand-in-hand with good health. Perhaps all of those thank you notes contributed to Marjorie’s beautiful, long life.
The science of happiness shows that young people tend to feel happier and more optimistic than those in middle age. As we grow older, however, people in their sixties and seventies who are in good health “tend to be as happy as young people,” according to the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, Wellness Letter.
The Greater Good Science Center, another department at the University of California, Berkeley, explores and issues reports on the science of a meaningful life, including such themes as gratitude, altruism, compassion and happiness, among others. One topic explored is gratitude letters.
“Call to mind someone who did something for you for which you are extremely grateful but to whom you never expressed your deep gratitude. This could be a relative, friend, teacher, or colleague. Try to pick someone who is still alive and could meet you face-to-face in the next week. It may be most helpful to select a person or act that you haven’t thought about for a while—something that isn’t always on your mind,” the site advises.
As with the Berkeley School of Public Health, the Greater Good Science Center research indicates that “feeling gratitude can improve health and happiness; expressing gratitude also strengthens relationships.” Hand-delivering the letter to the recipient, if possible, serves to strengthen that sense of wellbeing.
Most of us have good intentions to write thank you notes or letters as appropriate, but it is often a task that is deferred, and the more time that passes, the more difficult the writing becomes. We know it is the right thing to do, but often it just doesn’t happen.
But now we know that expressing our thoughts of gratitude in writing may benefit the writer in unanticipated ways. So, let’s get busy and write those overdue notes and letters of gratitude.
Greater Good Science Center, Berkeley, CA
Wellness Letter, UC Berkeley Department of Public Health
San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library