Cultivating Gratitude

What did Gina Hamadey get out of writing 365 thank-you notes in one year? A rewired brain, for one thing.


Giving thanks can be a meditative practice. Photo by Jeremy Bishop

By Gina Hamadey

There’s no doubt that the year I spent writing 365 gratitude letters and notes spread kindness and joy—to neighbors, strangers, friends and family members. But the reason I embarked on the project was selfish: Writing those notes felt good.

In January 2018, I had a big stack of thank-you notes to write to people who donated to a fundraiser for City Harvest, an organization that fights food insecurity. I hadn’t been exactly looking forward to the task, so I was surprised when I noticed the way my body reacted: I felt my shoulders relax and my heart rate slow, and a feeling of peace come over me. It felt meditative, so much so that I thought up the whole yearlong project.

Every month, I wrote to a new group of recipients: career mentors, health care workers, parenting helpers, favorite authors. I didn’t always write a note a day: Generally I wrote them in batches of 10 or 15. But that feeling never went away. My mind would transition from frayed and frazzled to calm and focused, an almost meditative state. And that feeling carried into my day. Was writing thank-you notes providing me with real mental health benefits akin to meditation?

I asked Cory Allen, a meditation expert and the author of Now Is the Way: An Unconventional Approach to Modern Mindfulness. “I would say that what you’re feeling is presence,” Allen said. “You set aside the distractions and mental fragmentations that come from living in the modern world. When you have the TV on while you’re swiping through your phone while you’re trying to eat dinner, that leaves the mind fragmented and unfocused, and ultimately it leaves you unrooted in your conscious experience. Your awareness begins to dim because of this pull in many different directions. One of the great benefits of meditation is creating and cultivating an amount of internal space. It gives you a sense of being aware of the arising thoughts and feelings that are coming into your mind and body.”

Bret Stetka, the author of A History of the Human Brain, explained that I was literally rewiring my brain: “Sitting with any feeling, whether positive, neutral or negative, has the potential to rewire our neural connections due to our neuroplastic brains. Expressing gratitude and sitting with your positive feelings toward others would bolster these networks, making it easier for the brain to access that warmth.”

If you’re looking to start a gratitude practice of your own, begin by choosing a goal number of notes to write. If 365 sounds intimidating—and honestly, I feel you—choose a target that feels doable. Perhaps five letters per month for the next six months?

When you start writing, don’t worry about saying everything or saying the exact perfect thing. You don’t have to detail all this person has done for you—it’s OK to pick just one favor or piece of advice and describe it using specific language, and adding the way it made you feel. Don’t get caught up trying to write beautifully or poetically—it’s more impactful to write from the heart. That will make for a more meaningful letter, and it just might open up your heart in the process.

Gina Hamadey is the author of I Want to Thank You: How a Year of Gratitude Can Bring Joy and Meaning in a Disconnected World.