My Thank You Year
How writing 365 notes of appreciation reconnected me to what’s important in my life
In January 2018, I was commuting from Brooklyn to New Jersey. I have two little kids and a busy consulting business, so a quiet train ride felt like a mini-vacation. Yet I found myself spending that precious time slack-jawed, scrolling through my social media feeds. One day, I put down my phone and and started writing thank-you notes to people who had contributed to a fund-raiser I had organized.
When I got off the train that day, I was in a noticeably better mood. The next day, I wrote more thank yous—and felt the same afterglow. When I finished writing the notes, I counted them up. There were 31—one for every day of the year so far. Something clicked. What if I kept it up?
I decided to write one thank-you note for every day of that year. I had no shortage of people I was grateful for. So I picked out a different theme for each month to keep on task. January was charity—and, thankfully, I had already completed that goal.
February would be dedicated to neighbours, I decided, and I thought of a dozen names right away. I re membered when the owners of our local bookstore let me and my five-year-old son, Henry, in before the store opened and offered to play his favourite soundtrack (Mary Poppins). I recalled when our 14-year-old babysitter dropped off a bag of old board games for our kids to play.
Writing the notes wasn’t all that time-consuming: Each was two or three sentences long, taking just a few minutes to compose. I focused on the person I was writing to and what I wanted to say, and the words came fairly easily. I quickly learnt I couldn’t do it while listening to a podcast or toggling between articles. That focus felt refreshing. It was good for my brain, which had been trained to wander, alighting on this feed or that email, darting from app to app. It felt meditative to look at a blank white space with a pen in my hand, thinking about a person and the way he or she had helped me.
While writing the notes, I eventually realized why this task was the perfect antidote to my social feeds. What was I actually doing when I scrolled through Facebook? Too often, I was spiralling into rage. Writing thank-you notes was time spent on something purely positive. What was I doing when I scrolled through Insta gram? More often than not, I was admiring other people’s lives—their beach vacations, their chubby babies, their organized kitchens. Writing thank-you notes was an act of noticing and honouring my own life.
After handing the first batch of notes to my neighbours, I spent a few days trying to remember times when other neighbours did something nice for me. And funnily enough, I started noticing kindnesses that were happening in real time. There was the driver who waited for me as I bolted down the street to catch his shuttle bus. There was the cashier at Trader Joe’s who chased me with a bag of groceries I’d left behind.
On the day I delivered that card to Trader Joe’s, my mother-in-law, Louise, dropped off a week’s worth of dinners. OK, I thought, Louise is not technically a neighbour. But if I was going to thank grocer Pete for three minutes of his time, I needed to acknowledge Louise for hours of hers.
It was important for these months to be flexible, I decided. I would use each month’s theme as a starting point, but I’d also watch for anyone going above and beyond, regardless of whether he or she fit into the monthly theme.
So in the ensuing months, as I wrote to friends, doctors, career mentors, and parenting role models, I also dashed off missives to my husband, Jake, as well as my siblings, in-laws and parents. And I found that doing so changed the fundamental dynamics of these relationships in small but impactful ways. I was smoothing out any prickly bumps and buffing them to a new shine. It is a powerful thing, I learnt, to fully appreciate and feel fully appreciated by the people closest to you.
By the time I got to July, my ‘food’ month, I had become fairly adept at retrieving memories and identifying people to thank. Among that month’s recipients was a chef, Julie, who had cooked at my favourite but now defunct restaurant. Here’s what I wrote to her:
Dear Julie, I’ve been finding myself missing Little Giant lately, as if it were a person. Thank you for creating such a warm and special place, and for hosting me and cooking beautiful and thoughtful food. The Little Giant menu has informed my cooking—I am always trying to recreate some of that magic. Jake and I will never forget when you sent out biscuits shaped into the Roman numeral VI for our sixth anniversary. We talk about it every year. Thank you. We miss Little Giant and you.
I was delighted to receive a note back from her. Julie replied, “I don’t think I’ve ever received such a touching letter before. Out of the blue and incredibly thoughtful. And so needed at a time when I’m struggling professionally. Your letter was a fabulous reminder that looking back is a good motivator for moving forward.”
It was one of many responses throughout the year that said some-thing along the lines of, “I’m going through a tough time right now, and this helped.” It turns out a lot of people are going through something a lot of the time. And I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t reached out.
Part of the magic of what I am calling my ‘Thank-You Year’ was reconnecting with people like Julie—people on the periphery of my life who nevertheless made a lasting impact. And here’s an-other huge bonus: I was reminded to acknowledge people in the moment, too—to smile or say hello, or thanks, or “Here, let me help you with that.”
I admit, I fell behind more than once during the year. But I completed my goal with hours to spare—writing my last card (to Jake) on 31 December. That night, we hosted a big New Year’s Eve dinner, and I looked around at my guests. There was Alonso from Berlin, whom I’d written to in my ‘travel’ month. There were Nick and Ro, in from Minneapolis, who’d received cards in my ‘friends’ and ‘career mentors’ months. There was Mollie, who racked up notes as a mentor, friend and neighbour. There was Jake, of course. Henry had fallen asleep on the couch; his brother, Charlie, was upstairs in bed. I snapped a picture of the scene so I could remember the feeling welling up inside me. Gratitude.