• Natalie Kohlhaas

How a thank you letter can boost your day...


Often we veiw helping others as giving of our time and/or money. Yet there are other ways we can give. Researchers found that participants who wrote gratitude letters subsequently reported that their lives were more meaningful than did other participants. Importantly, this study addresses the issue of causality; since participants were randomly assigned to write about gratitude or express their thoughts in a thank you letter, it appears this expression actually increased their sense of purpose.

Psychologists have distinguished between two types of well-being: hedonic well-being (a sense of happiness) and eudaimonic well-being (a sense of meaning and purpose). Although happiness and meaning overlap significantly, researchers suspected that helping others is especially crucial to developing a sense of meaning.

A recent study by Roy Baumeister at Florida State University sought to investigate this and other differences between happiness and meaning. In a survey of over 300 participants, the researchers found that having strong social connections was important for both happiness and meaningfulness. However, helping others in need and identifying oneself as a “giver” in relationships were related to meaning alone.


How to increase your sense of meaning

The research described above suggests that giving helps us feel more connected to others, which imbues our lives with a sense of meaning. Do you want to live a more meaningful life? The suggestions below can help you take the first steps.

  • Start small. You don’t need to begin with grand gestures; even small, everyday behaviors can have an impact on others and on your own sense of well-being. For example, in a study published in Science, spending just five dollars on someone else led to boosts in happiness. The Eliciting Altruism practice includes strategies for starting a habit of kindness and generosity, such as reminding yourself of your connections to others and identifying with individuals who may need your help.

  • Make your helping count. It turns out that not all types of giving have the same effects on us. In particular, helping others can be especially effective when you can see the specific impact that your actions have.

  • Take time to thank others. As the research presented here has shown, expressing gratitude towards others can be a prosocial act, too. When others take time to do something nice for you, making them feel appreciated can help build your relationship with them and make your life more meaningful.

Recent research has provided evidence to support the idea that helping others goes hand in hand with meaningfulness. It’s not just that people who have already found their purpose in life enjoy giving back. Instead, helping others can actually create the sense of meaning we’re seeking. Rather than ruminating on what makes our life worthwhile as we work toward burnout, we can find the answer outside ourselves, in human connection.


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Natalie Kohlhaas MA LPC NCC CPCS  IMHCounseling