Writing thank-you notes helps a man form a new, positive attitude.
Apr 26, 2011
Some people wake up happy. I’m not one of them. But even for me, New Year’s Day 2008 was an all-time low. I was on my second divorce. The law firm I’d started was hemorrhaging money. I was working so hard I hardly ever talked to, let alone saw, my two grown sons.
I lived in an apartment so small I was embarrassed to have my seven-year-old daughter stay over. And my girlfriend had just broken up with me.
I’d planned to go hiking that morning with her, but now I headed out on the Echo Mountain trail above Pasadena alone. It was a beautiful southern California day. Other hikers had their binoculars out, trying to catch glimpses of the Tournament of Roses Parade winding through the streets below.
I walked deeper into the brush, relieved to lose the sounds of the marching bands.
Then I took a wrong turn and lost the trail itself. Great. As if I needed a reminder that I’d lost my way in life. How had I gone from being an idealistic college kid with dreams of becoming a writer to a broken-down 52-year-old lawyer who hated his job?
Well, it was New Year’s. Time to make a resolution. If I wanted to find meaning in my life again, maybe I needed to revisit those old dreams. I’d written a lot back in college. Then I became a lawyer and soon had a family to support.
I packed my manuscripts in a box. I’d carried that box from house to house to ever shabbier apartments. This year I should write something, I thought. And actually finish it. But I knew it was futile. I had no time, no energy.
I stumbled in the rough, feeling more of a loser than ever. Then I heard a voice, a loud, clear voice, saying, “Until you learn to be grateful for the things you have, you will not receive the things you want.”
Who was talking to me? There was no one around.
For some reason, I thought of my grandfather. He was a successful businessman and investor. By the time he was my age, he’d already retired. He would wake up and check stock prices, then spend his day playing golf.
I remembered the present he gave me when I was five. A shiny silver dollar. It seemed an impossibly large sum. It came with a lesson. “I will give you another,” my grandfather said, “if you send me a letter thanking me for this one.”
Sounded like a good deal. I sent him a note and received a second silver dollar, but the notes–and silver dollars–stopped there.
Maybe I can pick up where I left off, I thought. My office manager had ordered some elegant stationery and matching envelopes. We were going to lose our lease soon, and the return address on the envelopes would make the stationery useless for work. But I could do something with it.
What if I wrote a thank-you note to someone each and every day of this New Year? If my grandfather was right, I would end up with a lot more of what I was thankful for. And if that mysterious voice was right, I would begin to get the things I wanted.
I found the trail again and made my way down the mountain and home with a new determination. This was one resolution I was going to keep.
The logical place to begin was with thank-yous for my Christmas presents. My older son had given me a fancy single-cup coffeemaker–perfect for a caffeine freak like me. So I wrote him a note.
Then I went to address the envelope and realized I didn’t even know his address...because I’d never been to his apartment. I felt ashamed. He deserved better. I called to get his address.
“Glad you called,” he said. “I wanted to stop by tomorrow. Maybe we can go to lunch.” That was unusual. Even more so was our lunch the next day.
We didn’t go anyplace special–just a burger joint where I used to take him when he was a kid–but we ended up having an amazing conversation, maybe the first real conversation we’d had in years. To think this started with a simple thank-you!
Inspired, I wrote a note to the Starbucks barista who always remembered my name and order. My building manager got a thank-you for sending plumbers to fix my toilet.
I thanked clients for the work. I wrote lawyers who’d referred cases to me and court clerks and real-estate agents and loan brokers. I thanked my hard-working paralegal and colleagues.
Then I looked back and thanked people who’d made a difference to me years earlier–a college friend who’d watched out for me, a surgeon who had performed a minor miracle on my esophagus that meant I didn’t have to sleep sitting up anymore.
Imagine my surprise when he wrote me back a week later, thanking me!
“I do not often get long-term feedback from patients, particularly when they are doing well.”
That struck me. When things go wrong, people are quick to complain and assign blame (I saw this a lot in my work as a lawyer). When things are going well, we don’t say anything or give credit–or thanks.
Was it possible I’d been viewing everything from a completely skewed perspective? That I’d overlooked the blessings in my life?
Certainly the more thank-yous I wrote, the more I found to be grateful for. I reconnected with my sons.
I took a cue from my daughter, who proclaimed my apartment “the best,” and tried to see the place through her eyes. Small, yes, but there was room behind the couch for her “fort” and space on the walls to put up her artwork.
There was a balcony where we grew basil, which we used for the pasta we made together. The place didn’t change, but my attitude toward it did. Same thing happened with my ex-wife. I wrote her to thank her for the fantastic eighth birthday party she put on for our daughter.
Whether it made a difference in how she felt, I can’t say but I definitely felt much better, and soon things were worked out with respect to our divorce.
I wrote my ex-girlfriend, “Thank you for taking the risk of loving me...your love is a treasure I did not expect to find, and often feel I don’t deserve.”
That convinced her of the depth of my feelings and we got back together. We took to writing each other thank-yous. Though no longer together, we’re still friends.
I moved to a lovely cottage with an attic that’s my daughter’s new fort. My job has changed too: I was appointed a judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court, and gave my practice to a partner.
I haven’t stopped with the thank-you notes. I’ve written more than 700–I keep a list–and it feels both natural and necessary. I’m still not one to wake up happy. But if I find myself slipping into negative thinking, I just look at my list.
A life filled with more than 700 good things? That’s a life of abundance, of blessings, and I know there’s someone I need to thank for that, Someone whose voice I just might have heard that New Year’s Day three years ago.