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I Sent a Letter of Appreciation to Someone Every Day For A Year. Here’s What It Taught Me About the Power of Kindness

I Sent a Letter of Appreciation to Someone Every Day For A Year. Here’s What It Taught Me About the Power of Kindness

By Tracey Willis Gates
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I was cooking breakfast with my fiancé of four weeks back in 1987 when the phone rang. Tom went to answer it and I yelled, “Don’t answer that! It may be my mother and you’re not supposed to be here this early in the morning!” I picked up the phone and heard Mom say three words that changed my life forever: “Honey, Daddy died.”

I fell to my knees and started screaming. I thrust the phone to Tom and entered a dark tunnel of shock, disbelief, adrenaline, and despair. My dad had a massive heart attack while playing tennis in his regular Saturday game. He was sixty-seven years old, and I was twenty-four.

The type of love I felt for and received from my dad was like that all-consuming, nonjudgmental, unconditional love you feel from your exuberant, tail-wagging dog. Dad and I were just connected. It was an effortless, joyful relationship that was like a sandwich: love in the middle with hysterical laughing attacks on one side and bear hugs on the other.

Dad did have one very annoying habit that drove the family insane. Whenever he was asked what he wanted for his birthday or Christmas he always said the same thing: “A few kind words.” That frustrated us so much because we didn’t know how to buy a few kind words and wrap them in a box. So instead, I bought him a tie, golf tees, or neon-colored cigarette lighters. Now, devastatingly, Dad would never get to walk me down the aisle and I would never get to give him all he ever wanted—a few kind words.

It's been 36 years since that phone call. I am a life and wellness coach now and I fully embrace what dad was brave enough to ask for all those years ago—appreciation, affirmation, love, and respect. For reasons that elude me, society seems to share judgmental thoughts far more freely than kind and loving thoughts. In 2019, as the world seemed to be in a negativity spiral, I began craving kindness. I hoped it might be a way to deflect the things that were depleting me and to invite in more of what replenished me.

I decided to conduct an experiment, challenging myself to write a handwritten, unexpected letter of appreciation to a different person every day for one year. I wanted to see if I could feel more connected and joyful if I adopted an intentional kindness practice. As a legacy of love to my father, I called my journey A Few Kind Words—and those 365 letters transformed my life in the most beautiful and meaningful ways.

Here are nine truths I learned about the power of sharing a few kind words:

We all crave being noticed.

It turns out we really are more alike than we are different. We all just want to know we matter. And when we share our thoughts about how others in our lives are meaningful to us, beautiful energy is released.

Countless times throughout my year of letter-writing, I heard some version of “no one has ever said that to me before,” or “I was in a really bad place when I got your letter.” Rarely do we really know what is going on in a person’s life. Your kind thought is a gift that has the potential to fill a void in someone’s life. Never assume that someone knows how you feel; write it down so that your recipient can be reminded over and over what makes him or her special. Just imagine what the “pay it forward” possibilities could be when we help someone feel good about themselves.

Sharing a few kind words is impactful for both the writer and the lucky recipient.

I went to a new coffee shop in town to try out their chai latte. When I placed my order, the barista’s response took me by surprise. “I’m going to make you the best chai latte ever,” she said. I laughed and replied, “That’s a ballsy statement! Game on.” We bantered back and forth while she poured a little of this and stirred a little of that. She then pushed the cup towards me inviting me to give it a try. It was indeed the best chai latte I had ever tasted. I left the shop feeling better than when I arrived—not just because of my steaming cup of deliciousness, but because I felt a connection to Cynthia.

I went home and shared my kind thoughts in a letter of appreciation. I dropped it off the next day, but Cynthia wasn’t working. When I went back the next week, Cynthia asked over her shoulder, “What’ll you have?” When I said, the best chai latte ever,” she turned around, her eyes welled up, and she said in all the decades she’s been working no one has ever done that for her before. She’s keeping my letter on her dresser and reading it every day before coming to work. She said, “You made not only my day, but my week, my month and my year.” Cynthia then proceeded to give me the most memorable hug.

When was the last time you went to your mailbox and among the bills you found a handwritten, unexpected letter of appreciation and it wasn’t your birthday or a holiday? My journey reinforced for me over and over that people rarely take time to put into writing what they appreciate about someone. When they do, the surprise factor and sheer delight of the recipient coupled with the lingering feel-good feelings the writer has after sealing their gratitude into the letter makes this practice deeply impactful.

It’s easier (and not as time-consuming) than you might think.

Don’t overthink this process! You’ve already had the kind thought. Now, simply share it in writing. It can be on monogrammed stationery, a post-it-note, company letterhead, or a napkin.

The paper is meaningless. The message is everything. It can be three sentences or three pages. Just keep it simple, sincere, and specific. Telling people why, specifically, you appreciate them is what will make them save your letter, read it a second time, and maybe ever share your letter. Don’t let poor penmanship be an excuse, either! It's the warmth of the gesture that makes these letters so precious—not your handwriting. Add it to your to-do list and know you did something meaningful today.

We’re so much more powerful than we think.

We all have the power to make someone’s day when we make the proactive choice to share our kind thoughts. When we help another shine their light, our light shines even brighter.

I heard over 150 times from letter recipients those exact words: “You made my day.” It’s an incredible feeling to know something you did positively impacted another. The magic of this is that my day was made before making their day. I liked who I was when I took the time to connect, listen, learn, and care about those in my life. I felt empowered, energized, and uplifted by this intentional kindness practice.

There are people to appreciate everywhere you look.

For nearly 23 years I watched our neighbors, Mary and Joe, who are now in their 80s, walk around our neighborhood holding hands. Every time I’d see this lovely partnership, I’d pause and admire them from afar. While we’d wave getting the mail, we’d never officially met. I decided it was time for them to know I’d been admiring them for decades. With a letter of appreciation in one hand and a bouquet of sunflowers in the other, I crossed the street and rang the doorbell. I introduced myself to Mary and told her what a joy it was watching them walk hand in hand. With tears in her eyes and a hug, she thanked me for my kind words. A couple of days later, I received a few kind words in my mailbox. Now, we have a sweet friendship.

I encourage you to stop scrolling and start strolling. Get out of your chair and look up from your phone. Slow down and engage with the people around you. Ask questions and actually listen for the answer. Everyone has gifts and a story to share. You’ll be surprised how much there is to appreciate once you begin to be mindfully present and pay attention. It takes courage and the willingness to get a little vulnerable, but when you share in writing what you appreciate about someone, your relationship will deepen.

Sharing a few kind words is like a dose of medicine in an envelope.

My daily kindness ritual improved my physical wellbeing and was a soothing elixir for my soul. Every time I sat down to write and filled my mind with the positive attributes of my recipient, I could feel myself slowing down and feeling calmer. I felt mindfully focused. It wasn’t long after beginning this practice that I began to notice I felt less stress, started sleeping better, and felt happier. Many of my letter recipients told me that after reading my letter, they got an instant energy boost that lingered. Kindness is a medicine, available to everyone, that can help ease the burdens of this world.

It’s never too late to write to people who have passed away.

Letter number 365 was to my father. I was finally giving him a few kind words 33 years after he passed away. While I had spent months thinking about what it would be like to write the letter, I had never given a thought to receiving a reply. I read my letter out loud at a lake on a perfectly still bluebird morning. The moment I finished reading, a swirling wind came out of nowhere and wrapped around and around me, causing me to almost lose my balance. And then it stopped and the stillness returned. There’s no question in my mind that windy embrace was a bear hug from my dad.

Sharing a few kind words with those who have passed before us is a powerful way to remain connected to those we love.

Handwritten notes will never get lost in the cloud.

In our fast-paced world, finding a handwritten note in your mailbox or on your pillow is like a jolt of joy. Someone took time to find paper and pen and focus completely on you. It’s a more thoughtful and deliberate form of communication. There’s something deeply nostalgic about recognizing someone’s handwriting. I bet you can conjure up the handwriting of your parents, siblings, spouse, children, and best friend. The Times New Roman font your loved one used in their email just doesn’t evoke the same emotion.

The handwritten letter is a tangible expression of kindness that touches both parties. Knowing my letter recipient is going to physically hold in their hands something I held in my hands makes the connection more meaningful. It becomes a keepsake that is saved and cherished. One of my favorite comments from a letter recipient speaks to the longevity of the handwritten letter: “I will save your note forever in my special journal. I want my ancestors to find it and read how fabulous I am. It made me cry and I read it over and over.”

It’s empowering to be part of the greater good—one handwritten letter at a time.

There’s something deeply gratifying about releasing a letter into the world that’s filled with positivity. Knowing this letter will for just a moment—or maybe much longer—make a fellow human being feel unexpectedly appreciated is exhilarating.

People respond to kindness. When we lift another up, we lift ourselves up. Writing unexpected letters of appreciation is an immediately accessible way for every one of us to be part of the change that moves humanity forward in the best possible way.

Who's filling your heart now? Go ahead and make someone’s day, beginning with your own.

Tracey is a kindness ambassador, life and wellness coach, and speaker. She’s presented her workshop, “A Few Kind Words, The Power of Writing Unexpected Letters of Appreciation,” to audiences across the country. Her debut book, The Power of A Few Kind Words – Create A More Meaningful Life One Letter at a Time will be released in November 2023. CLICK HERE to be notified when it's available.

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