A Note on “Thank You”

This may sound just a tad ungrateful, but I hate thank-you notes. It’s not the thank you—I have no problem saying thank you, unlike some people—it’s the notes. I am horrible about writing them and I don’t even really like receiving them. I appreciate the thought (I hear that’s what counts), but then I have to recycle the note.

As a writer, I feel stifled by the format, or else am just too lazy to break through it. Add to that my natural* inclination to procrastination, and the thank-yous I turn out tend to be boring and way overdue. My apologies to anyone who has received a boilerplate thank-you note from me, or (more likely) is owed one. It’s not you, it’s me.

*All procrastinators blame their condition on nature. And yes, I realize now that this thank-you post would have been more appropriate right before Thanksgiving. Oh well, I’m late again…

My problem manifested itself most acutely two years ago before and after our wedding. Until I went through it, I never really realized what the whole “registering” thing is: You make a giant shopping list and then send everyone you know on an errand to pick up whatever they can. So when you write a thank-you note, it’s really just an order-fulfillment notice: “Dear Uncle Aaron and Aunt Norma, thank you so much for your wonderful gift of the fifth, sixth, and seventh place settings on our registry. Every time we host dinner for friends—well, more than four friends but less than eight—we will think of you fondly.”

In the months since our daughter was born this summer, she and we have been the happy beneficiaries of gifts from loving friends and family, and I have had to confront my issue again. My wife, bless her, has done all she can, leaving me responsible for but a fraction of the notes, which I put off for a humiliating long interval. I just couldn’t help myself.

Which is why I was shocked to find myself finding help from the least likely source: a new self-help book. Spontaneous Happiness, by Andrew Weil, M.D., which includes a chapter entitled “An 8-Week Program for Optimum Emotional Well-Being,” is not the kind of book I would ever put much stock in—at least not until it is legitimized by NPR, as Dr. W’s tome was this week. Because while I didn’t mind listening to this, I wouldn’t necessarily listen to someone who looks like this:

So here’s the bit from “Science Friday” that lead me to seek out more:

DR. ANDREW WEIL: …I was very surprised in writing this to discover how much scientific evidence we have for the power of gratitude to improve mood. There’s two aspects to this. It’s feeling grateful and expressing it. And the good thing here, there’s nothing in the way of doing it. All you have to do is remember to do it. […] There’s a simple exercise from positive psychology called keeping a gratitude journal. You get a little notebook, keep it by your bed; during the day, make mental notes of things you have to be grateful for, jot them down when you go to bed. Doing that for one week can cause improvement of mood for up to six months.

IRA FLATOW, HOST: Is there really research on that?

WEIL: There is really research on that.

FLATOW: Wow.

WEIL: Yeah.

FLATOW: Simple stuff.

WEIL: So simple.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

Ha ha ha! So simple. I had the kind of epiphany that one can only get while driving through the suburbs at 2:30 in the afternoon: writing a thank-you note—with all the laborious buying of the notes and writing of the words and addressing of the envelope and stamping of same envelope and posting to the mail—is an act and expression of gratitude. Who knew? I certainly had never thought of it that way.

This gave me an angle at which to approach it as a writer. I got home and finished the notes for the remaining, most recent gifts received (which is not to say they were received all that recently). I wrote with a positive attitude, almost with gusto, incorporating word play and overdramatic apologies for the lateness of the note and reflections on gratitude, even for the personalized gifts on which our daughter’s name is spelled wrong. It might be a strange experience for those lucky enough to read these notes, and it was strangely therapeutic for me.

The same, I suppose, can be said of this particular post.

Thank you for reading.

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