The Surprisingly Profound Power of Thank-You Notes

Looking back on the year, I make a mental list of everyone who supported me—and remember that no achievement is the result of my efforts alone.

A drawing of a man writing on a red envelope with a cat on his back and red envelopes swirling around him
Debora Szpilman

Certainly I’m not the first person to suggest, as New Year’s approaches, that a little reflection might be in order. Plenty of us take the opportunity to think about the year that has passed—what we’re proud of, what we could have done differently, how we changed—and set resolutions for the year ahead. As helpful as this contemplation can be, though, it tends to be somewhat self-involved: We focus on our own accomplishments, but not always on the people in our lives who made them possible. In recent years, I’ve tried something different.

Near the end of December, I open my email or pick up a pen, and I begin composing thank-you notes. The messages are usually just a few sentences long: I recap my interactions with the recipient that year, put my finger on what I appreciated, and say I’m grateful. But when I consider whom to thank, I realize the list could go on and on. I try to think of everyone who made my year better: the established journalist who referred me to a radio program, the HR staff who processed my paperwork, the friend who dropped off groceries when I was recovering from COVID. Almost always, I get a note back expressing similar gratitude.

Typically, we’re told to write thank-you notes at specific junctures—after finishing a job interview, receiving a gift, hosting a wedding or another significant function. These notes can be lovely, but they also run the risk of being rote and transactional. We send them because we’re expected to. End-of-year thank-you notes, though, aren’t written out of obligation. Those who get them are reminded unexpectedly that someone is thinking of them—and that their actions haven’t gone unnoticed.

That knowledge can mean a lot, however brief or clumsily worded a thank-you might be. In one study, conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago, subjects instructed to send “gratitude letters” worried that their recipients would feel awkward or that their writing would be scrutinized. But actually, the people receiving the notes—which took most subjects less than five minutes to write—were genuinely touched. Many reported feeling “ecstatic.” And they found the notes to be warmer and more competently written than the senders had predicted they would.

I’d argue that end-of-year thank-you notes are good for the sender too. Looking back on the year, I don’t stop reflecting after thinking about what I’ve accomplished. When I make a mental list of everyone who supported me, I remember that no achievement is the result of my efforts alone. That realization is humbling; it grounds me in gratitude for all I was able to do rather than resentment for what I didn’t or couldn’t do.

It also makes me feel less alone. In 2022, after a big move—not to mention nearly three years of a pandemic—I’ve felt particularly isolated. And plenty of sociologists and public-health researchers worry that too many Americans are experiencing the same—that we don’t rely on our communities like we used to. But sending thank-you notes reminds me of the rich tapestry of connections that make up my life. It draws me just a bit closer to the people around me, even those I don’t know well: my mail carrier, my neighbors, a co-worker who helped me even when it wasn’t required.

I’ll still write resolutions for the coming year, but I won’t just be mulling career milestones or side projects I want to complete. I’ll also be thinking of the people who were there for me—and how I plan to show up for them too.